Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Classics Revisited: Dr. Phibes Double Feature

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) Directed by Robert Fuest; Written by James Whiton and William Goldstein; Starring: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotton, Hugh Griffith and Virginia North; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“Nine killed her; nine shall die!” – Dr. Anton Phibes

So far, during Horror Month, I’ve gone from the sublime (Eyes Without a Face) to the ridiculous (Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter), and now the sublimely ridiculous. There’s nothing quite like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, except perhaps its sequel (more on that in a moment).  With its unique art deco look and tongue-in-cheek horror approach, it left an indelible mark on horror film history.  Vincent Price contributed one of his most memorable roles as the vengeful Dr. Anton Phibes.  Robert Fuest (who passed away earlier this year, at the age of 84) capably directed this fresh take on the mad scientist film.

Following the death of his wife Victoria on the operating table, Dr. Phibes (presumed dead after a fiery automobile crash) vows revenge against the team of eight doctors and one nurse who supervised her doomed operation.  His punishments are based on the 10 biblical plagues of Egypt, and are as ingenious as they’re gruesome.  Some highlights include death by a skull-crushing frog mask, a lethal brass unicorn and face-eating locusts.  He’s flanked by his silent assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North), who helps carry out his elaborate schemes, although it’s never established what her stake is in the proceedings, or why she would help Phibes commit multiple murders.

Price seems to be enjoying every minute of his take on Phibes, with his flair for making a grand entrance and maintaining a sense of style.  His character pauses briefly from his killing spree to enjoy the finer things in life (such as dancing with Vulnavia, with musical accompaniment by his clockwork band).  He’s the embodiment of obsessive love, unable to sever his attachment to his dead wife.  An uncredited Caroline Munro (in the most thankless of thankless roles) spends the entire duration of the movie as Dr. Phibes’ deceased wife Victoria, stored in a glass case.  Her ubiquitous image (in picture frames and even on a phone dial) reminds him of what has been lost.  I can’t help but wonder, however, if she would have approved of his single-minded retribution.

One of the film’s unique touches is that the end credits refer to Phibes and his archenemy Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) as “The Protagonists.”  It’s one of the movie’s conceits that either character could serve as the protagonist, depending on your point of view.  We’re reluctant to cast Phibes exclusively in the bad guy role, due to the element of tragedy that contributed to his madness.  We feel strangely sympathetic for Phibes and the loss of his soulmate, alternately fascinated to see his plans come to fruition, yet horrified by the prospect that he will succeed at the expense of others.  The film plays to our sense of vicarious pleasure, watching someone commit morally bankrupt actions from the safety of our armchairs.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes consistently strikes the right dark comic tone.  It never gets too silly, yet we never take the characters too seriously.  The character death sequences have an episodic feel, as if lifted from the panels of a comic book, while the set pieces are purposely stagey.  Genuinely captivating and darkly humorous, it remains one of my all-time favorite Vincent Price films

Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) Directed by Robert Fuest; Written by Robert Fuest and Robert Blees; Starring: Vincent Price, Robert Quarry and Valli Kemp; Available on DVD.

Rating: *** ½

“You cannot threaten the dead with death, my friend. Only with life, eternal life!”
– Dr. Anton Phibes

The Abominable Dr. Phibes was a tough act to follow.  Its successor could never be quite as fresh or surprising, but it’s still an enjoyable romp.  The original’s director, Robert Fuest, returns to the helm.  The opening recaps the events of the last film with a montage of scenes and unnecessary narration (by Gary Owens), before setting the action three years later.  Unlike the revenge-filled plot of the last movie, Dr. Phibes Rises Again focuses on Dr. Anton Phibes’ (once again, played by the inimitable Vincent Price) quest for the Elixir of Life in Egypt.  Of course, anyone unfortunate enough to get in the way of Phibes and his single-minded obsession will meet a series of clever and ghastly ends. 

One of the dubious charms of the Dr. Phibes films is witnessing the innovative and diabolical methods that the title character has devised for dispatching his enemies.  There’s no shortage of new torments that Dr. Phibes has in store for his victims this time around, including being trapped by a giant golden scorpion (while being attacked by real scorpions), a man being crushed in his own cot, while another is skewered by a spike through a telephone receiver.  Phibes’ trusty assistant Vulnavia (this time played by Valli Kemp) accompanies him on his trip to Egypt to revive his dead wife and achieve immortality for himself.  Instead of a mansion in England, Phibes has set up shop inside a mountain, along with his clockwork band, while his deceased wife (Munro again) rests in a glass and chrome Rolls Royce coffin. 

This time, it’s a battle of wits between Phibes and explorer Darrus Biederbeck (Robert Quarry) as they race to possess the secrets of eternal life.  Biederbeck is nearly as ruthless as Phibes in his pursuit, seemingly unaffected when several close associates meet horrible ends.  He’s a worthy adversary; as a closer match to his nemesis’ intellect than the bumbling London policemen who are pursuing Phibes (always one step behind).  It’s a little baffling to see Biederbeck take a turn that seems out of character towards the film’s climax, when he appears genuinely concerned when his girlfriend Diana’s (Fiona Lewis) life is threatened by Phibes. 

Although a third Dr. Phibes film was proposed but never made, the underrated Dr. Phibes Rises Again serves as a fitting capper to the saga.  Both films end on a twisted positive note with renditions of “Over the Rainbow,” suggesting that there’s a better place and time for the antihero.   We’re left with the prospect that the further adventures of Dr. Phibes are yet to be revealed.  While I don’t exactly relish the prospect of a remake, it poses a formidable, intriguing challenge for a suitable director, writer and star.


  1. I love these 2 Price films. I agree with your point about the great comic tone these movies have. I'm going to re-visit them again soon. Thanks and great write up!

  2. Thanks! I think it strikes a nice balance between comedy and terror, and Price is consistently great!

  3. I watched the first one, it was like watching a gory, two hours long Avengers episode, with the same naiveté but more much more violence.

  4. Some would argue that's a good thing!