THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES
Color, 1971, 94 mins.
Directed by Robert Fuest
Starring Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Virginia North, Terry-Thomas, Sean Bury, Peter Jeffrey, Susan Travers, Hugh Griffith
DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN
Color, 1972, 88 mins.
Directed by Robert Fuest
Starring Vincent Price, Robert Quarry, Fiona Lewis, Valli Kemp, Hugh Griffith, Milton Reid, Peter Cushing, Beryl Reid, Terry-Thomas
Arrow (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Shout! Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES
While Vincent Price was no stranger to mixing horror and camp dating back to the days of William Castle, he found the perfect vehicle to fuse the two together within one character: the unforgettable Dr. Anton Phibes, a renowned organist and all-around genius turned avenging antihero. The Abominable Dr. Phibes,, a slick art deco haunted house propelled by an outlandish presence and its magnetic star, became an unexpected hit for AIP, who quickly rushed out a similar sequel from the same director, The Avengers veteran Robert Fuest.
A prominent London physician has passed away under the most peculiar of circumstances: death by bats. Inspector Trout (Jeffrey) of Scotland Yard is perplexed by the grotesque crime, which reminds his partner of a similar recent murder involving bees. Meanwhile the facially immobile Dr. Phibes and his beautiful mute assistant, Vulnavia (North), occasionally emerge from their elaborate underground hideout to wreak vengeance on a succession of other doctors and nurses with elaborate death schemes drawn from the ten Old Testament plagues visited upon Egypt. The curses of rats, blood, frogs, and hail are just a few of the creative challenges surmounted by the fiendish Phibes, who turns each murder into a work of art designed to confound the authorities. Dr. Vesalius (Cotten) pieces together the mystery when he realizes all of the victims worked together on the operating table attempting to save Phibes' wife Victoria (an uncredited Caroline Munro), who died just as her husband was involved in a fiery car accident while rushing to her side. As the police scramble to protect the surviving medical personnel, Phibes pushes on with his macabre mission destined to culminate in the most fearsome plague of all: darkness.
Price fans have long held this film and its sequel close to their hearts thanks to its deft blend of nasty wit and gimmicky shocks. The potentially sick and morbid subject matter is kept in check by the script's dashes of silly humor, ranging from Trout's hilarious discussions with his superiors to Phibes' bizarre methods of communicating via gramophone and consuming champagne through... well, you'll just have to see for yourself. The same formula was later perfected by Price in the similar but classier Theater of Blood, but in visual terms at least, the first Phibes remains one of Price's most striking films. The clockwork ragtime band, the luminous organ, and the vibrant decors make this a unique chunk of eye candy, while the escalating tension of the plot is aided by the viewer's guilty rooting for Phibes to finish off his adversaries as quickly as possible. Best of all, the climax involving a particularly nasty surgical procedure is masterfully executed and suspenseful with pros Cotten and Price playing off each other marvelously.
Like most sequels, Dr. Phibes Rises Again faced an uphill battle to outdo its already outlandish predecessor. Luckily AIP had the same director and lead actor handy, so they simply decided to provide more of the same, and while this second outing for the murderous doctor falls a bit short of the mark due to some obvious post-production issues and major story cuts, it makes a dandy companion piece to to the original all the same.
Months after the surreal embalming finale of the first film, our faceless protagonist is returned to life in his underground lair when a special position of the moon sets into a motion a series of contraptions fill him back with blood. Summoning his lovely assistant Vulnavia (Kemp) from the netherworld, he plans for a lavish expedition to Egypt in order to revive his wife, Victoria (Munro), in the mystical River of Life. Unfortunately his art deco palace has been vandalized and his precious holy papyrus scrolls stolen by his arch rival, Biederbeck (Count Yorga himself, Robert Quarry), who intends to find the River himself. After creatively dealing with Biederbeck's bodyguard/manservant (exploitation vet Milton Reid), Phibes and Vulnavia are finally off to sea, along with Biederbeck, his seductive lady friend Diana (The Fury's Lewis), and even Peter Cushing in a throwaway bit as the captain. Of course, obtaining the scrolls also necessitates the removal of Biederbeck's assistants, so Phibes returns to his murderous ways thanks to some handy gadgets, the most memorable of which involves a load of scorpions.
In comparison to the first film, this Phibes outing feels more rambling and hastily put together. The murders are still outrageously nasty fun, but the lack of a coherent pattern like the original's ten plagues removes some of the cheeky suspense. The return of Peter Jeffrey's Inspector Trout is also more than a little contrived, though he does provide the film with a couple of its funniest moments. As for the completely successful elements, the sandy locales are an effective change of pace from the glossy surrealism of the first film, while John Gale provides an excellent score which perhaps surpasses the already wonderful original. The opportunity to watch newer horror blood like Quarry and Lewis act opposite Price (and Kemp, an exceptionally lovely new Vulnavia) is also tremendously appealing, particularly thanks to the nice conceit of having a villain going against Phibes instead of another sympathetic doctor.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes has gone through several different video editions over the years, from a muted full frame Vestron edition on VHS and laserdisc to a more colorful widescreen Orion/Image laserdisc which lost as much on the top and bottom as it gained on the sides. MGM debuted it on DVD as a standalone release (bearing a PG-13 rating, oddly enough), followed by a double feature set with its sequel in 2005 and a five-disc Vincent Price set two years later with both films. The film finally bowed on Blu-ray in 2013 as part of Scream Factory's first Vincent Price Collection set. While the DVDs all containing their respective trailers, the Blu-ray set added a commentary with the late Fuest (moderated by Marcus Hearn and covering lots of anecdotes involving Price), a second worthwhile commentary by film studies author Justin Humphreys (who does a good job skirting through the film's pop culture influences and production design intricacies, among many other aspects), a featurette entitled "Introductory Price: Undertaking the Vincent Price Gothic Horrors," the trailer, and a still gallery. This is one of only a pair of Price titles given their own disc in the set, so the HD transfer fares extremely well with often gloriously eye-popping colors.
Dr. Phibes Rises Again hasn't been treated quite as well, with the early Vestron and Orion versions brutally losing Price's climactic rendition of "Over the Rainbow" from the soundtrack. The initial 2005 DVD from MGM sported a disclaimer that it contained "music edited for home video," but it actually turned out to be the home video premiere of the original version with the song finally intact. This same edition was carried over to the double feature and MGM Price set mentioned above, but it wasn't included in the first Scream Factory set (slated for the second one in October of 2014 instead). Every version contains the original theatrical trailer ("He lives!"), which as usual is a lot of fun.
That brings us to the far more lavish Blu-ray set released in the UK by Arrow, The Complete Dr. Phibes, released in a 3000-unit edition complete with a hefty 100-page booklet including essays about the films, Caroline Munro's memories of the shoots, and comments from Tim Burton (at one time rumored to remake the first film) and record label pioneer Jonny Trunk. The HD transfers are the same MGM sources which have always looked very good, with the more sparkling and sleek appearance of the first film adapted to 1080p the best. There's really nothing to quibble about here at all, and the very high bit rates for both are greatly appreciated. The PCM mono tracks also sound great given the undemanding nature of the sources, with optional English SDH subtitles also thoughtfully included. The first film carries over the trailer and Fuest commentary while adding a nifty second commentary with screenwriter William Goldstein and his son Damon, who have spun the Phibes character out into a series of books. The self-promotion gets a bit overdone at times, but there's a wealth of solid material here about the inspirations and backgrounds of all the major characters, some explanation about the true nature of Vulnavia, discarded concepts and storylines, and plenty more. The 13-minute "Dr. Phibes and the Gentlemen" is a warm recollection of the film's TV omnipresence and genre significance with the four members of the brilliant horror/comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen (Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, and Jeremy Dyson), while Price's articulate daughter Victoria also gets a 13-minute featurette about her father's horror career, his effort (or lack thereof) in some of his roles, and his personality as an aesthete and early "metrosexual."
The second Blu-ray is devoted to the sequel, of course, which features the trailer and a brief 8-minute video piece by David Del Valle about Price's horror icon status. He also touches on an interesting theme running throughout the entire set, the state of Price's professional mind set at the time coming off of his most brutal and powerful screen performance in Witchfinder General, after which these films were palette cleansers by comparison. The most in-depth extra by far is the new audio commentary by Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas, who offers a surprisingly frank dissection of the film's multitude of issues including the famous feud between Price and Quarry, the AIP-imposed structural changes (including a jarring diary addition for one scene), and the age issues of Quarry's character; there's also a quirky little Facebook shout out as well. All told it's a lovingly assembled tribute to an iconic pair of horror films apparently as impervious to death as their vengeful title character.