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Complete Dr Phibes Collection, The

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Arrow Video
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Robert Fuest
Vincent Price
Joseph Cotten
Peter Jeffrey
Virginia North
Robert Quarry
Bottom Line: 

When screenwriter & critic David Pirie’s survey of the British horror film, “A Heritage of Horror”, was first published in 1988, one of the more surprising conclusions of a generally highly regarded study of the horror scene as it had developed in Britain since the late-fifties, largely through the innovations and subsequent influence of Hammer Films, was Pirie’s terse, one-line dismissal of Robert Fuest’s “The Abominable Dr Phibes” for being, quote: ‘perhaps the worst horror film made in England since 1945’. In the more recent expanded reprint of the same book from 2008 Pirie goes into slightly more detail on the thinking behind a comment he now admits might have been unfair, this time seeking to contextualise it with the  claim that the film should never have in fact been mentioned in the book in the first place because: ‘it is not really in any sense a horror film at all’ – although this also seems just as curious a conclusion as his original statement, with Pirie’s claim this time being based on the presumption that the Phibes film (and this argument presumably is meant to apply equally to its sequel) was always in reality more of an archly camp comedy based around a few horror tropes rather than a true horror picture, and had in any case been made by people who wouldn’t normally entertain the idea of being involved in a straight horror film in any other context. He then mentions that this might have been the explanation for why the film was so well-received by British critics at the time -- who weren’t renowned for their positive attitude towards the films of Hammer and its ilk when they were in their heyday let alone during their 70s decline.

Pirie’s dislike then, seems to have been founded on the belief that “The Abominable Dr Phibes” was a movie that had been made from a slightly lofty position of superiority to the horror genre it referenced, as a pastiche of that type of material, delivered more in jest rather than as a bona fide example of the genre; one in which its Gothic tropes were merely window dressing to the film’s immaculately coordinated camp comedy formula. Yet, even if this were true, this still doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to deny such a rich, other-worldly fantasy concoction its proper place alongside the other greats of British horror, as an example of an eccentrically stylised, artistically baroque ballet and a truly original exercise in design and visual artistry, in which style really does constitute the substance of the piece. Clearly Arrow Video felt the same way, and have taken the opportunity afforded by their obtaining the licence to release in HD both “The Abominable Dr Phibes” and its sequel “Dr Phibes Rises Again” to create a splendid, extras-packed 2-disc-Blu-ray set that’s as gorgeously constructed and packaged as the films themselves, and includes a 100-page booklet full of new and previously published articles collected alongside each other, as well as splendid new transfers of each film created by MGM.

“The Abominable Dr Phibes” is one of those special one-off affairs in British cinema, in which a number of disparate factors were brought together for the project yet seemed to gel perfectly, resulting in a piece of original work that doesn’t quite belong fully in any one particular category; yet this waywardness hardly seems a good enough reason to deny it its dues alongside other great 1970s British horror offerings of the day. American International Pictures, through the person of the head of its British office at the time Louis M. Heyward, were ultimately responsible for green-lighting this oddity, of course, although Julian Wintle, an associate of visionary director Robert Fuest ever since the latter’s days of directing multiple episodes for the British-made TV series “The Avengers” during its final season, was the un-credited line-producer on the film. The Avengers connection is the one reference point that helps make sense of this  movie’s highly decorative, self-consciously contrived and visually heighted approach to its artifice – a quality which is sometimes referred to as camp, but which is really just this film’s equivalent version of the same self-reflexive attitude pioneered by Wintle and Brian Clemens on “The Avengers” when they took over from John Bryce and developed the previously black-and-white videotaped series for its highly popular film series incarnation, which starred first Diana Rigg and then Linda Thorson in its final season and which was also, like this film, shot at Elstree Studios. Robert Fuest directed numerous episodes of the show, including one called “Game” – which starred Phibes actor Peter Jeffrey in a story about a series of seemingly unrelated murders in which members of a military club are forced to play a deadly game by their vengeful killer.

 Although reliant on the ideas and characters created by writers James Whiton and William Goldstein, Fuest’s screenplay makeover clearly follows the same formula as countless Avengers episodes, with its dry sense of fun and with more than a few supporting players who cropped up during the series being imported by Fuest wholesale. Its colourful interior mise-en-scène of neon-lit, art deco-cum-Art Nouveau Jazz age styling filtered through a 1970s Pop Art sensibility is also certainly extremely indicative of that era’s most eccentric British cult TV properties, such as “The Avengers” or “The Prisoner”. The film, basically, consists of one murder set-piece following another, anticipating the now familiar slasher formula -- but its originality and inventiveness comes in the execution of the material rather than in the story itself. Director Robert Fuest takes a linear body count formula with a rather static structure, and infuses it with character, comedy and atmosphere by way of fluid direction coupled with amazing production design from frequent Nicolas Roeg collaborator Brian Eatwell, and some wonderfully eccentric characters, conceived by writers James Whiton & William Goldstein but brought to life by a multitude of likable British character actors -- some of them relatively unknown, yet all possessing faces you vaguely recollect having seen before such as Aubrey Woods, David Hutcheson or Hugh Griffith. Meanwhile others, such as Terry-Thomas, were extremely well known TV and film personalities. Alongside dry, humorous dialogue spruced-up by Fuest, and some “Saw”-like final act jeopardy material added by Mr Avengers himself Brian Clemens, the actual murder scenes are often rendered in a humorously playful fashion and executed in painterly style, often taking on the look of some weird pop-art-come-surrealist tableau.

Inserted into this bizarrely constructed, candy-coloured world there resides AIP’s main star Vincent Price as the eccentric musician and Biblical scholar Dr Anton Phibes, alongside, in the first film, Hollywood icon Joseph Cotten as his nemesis, head surgeon Dr Vesalius (Price and Cotten had previously worked together as part of Orson Welles’ legendary Mercury Theatre team). From his opulent art deco townhouse abode, Phibes starts killing off, in a variety of imaginative ways based loosely on the ten plagues of Egypt, Vesalius’s surgical team, who Phibes blames for failing to save the life of his beloved cancer-stricken wife Victoria, after his having survived a disfiguring car accident of his own in Switzerland while racing to England to be at her sickbed.  The character is one of the first deliberately written for Price as an extension of his off-screen as well as his horror icon persona, drawing in particular upon his role in “House of Wax” -- although Price is actually very restrained here for someone who had developed a reputation by this time for being a bit of a ham. His character is peculiar and idiosyncratic enough as written … so Price, wisely, plays him relatively straight as an operatic but romantic figure, much prone to reciting Elizabethan love sonnets in memory of his deceased love, who possesses the image of an un-credited Caroline Munro and whose body he keeps on ice in a mirror-lined crypt-like chamber beneath his mansion.

Phibes is a once famous organist (with a degree in theology) who now exists on virtually nothing but the energy supplied by his all-consuming desire for revenge - - his face consisting of nothing more than rubber appliances, an ashen wig and some pasty make-up, his real physiognomy having been burned to a skull-like visage by a fire during the Swiss car crash. His ruined vocal cords have been replaced by an amplifier plugged into a hole in his neck (through which he must also eat and drink) -- forcing him to recite the passionate monologues he habitually delivers to the shrine of his dead wife in a monotonous, electronic voice conveyed through a gramophone’s bell horn speaker. Phibes' devoted assistant Vulnavia is a bit of an enigma herself, and we never learn anything much about her--but the character, played in the first film by the actress and minor Bond girl Virginia North, has developed her own cult fandom since, and is essential in helping to provoke the atmosphere of detached unreality that pervades all of the scenes between the bizarre Dr Phibes and this mysterious but beautiful mute assistant. In between the murder and comedy segments of the movie there are these dreamy scenes between the two set on a gaudily decorated 1920's style dancefloor in Phibes' mansion, where they dance to the music of a mechanical quintet named 'Dr. Phibes' Clockwork Wizards". These vividly colourful vignettes could almost have come straight out of a silent movie and are augmented by library music cues written by eccentric musical experimenter-turned film composer Basil Kirchin; but there are also some beautifully shot exterior scenes, filmed on location in Highgate cemetery and near a lake with overhanging weeping willows, in which Vulnavia, in Russian Cossack’s hat, poses with a greyhound or plays the violin while Phibes co-ordinates his next ingeniously executed murder. Cinematographer Norman Warwick deserves as much credit as Fuest and Eatwell for constructing the dreamlike atmosphere of this film, particularly in its evocative dawn and dusk-shot exteriors; and his absence from the second movie is keenly felt despite Fuest and Eatwell’s continued inventive excellence.

The lavishness of the film's art direction, and those surreal interludes that tend to derive a flamboyant take on Gothic by mimicking the aesthetics of surrealism and pop art combined, sit surprisingly comfortably alongside scenes of light comedy in the whimsical British light entertainment variety style. This material mainly centres on Peter Jeffrey as the bumbling but sympathetic Inspector Trout, and follows his vain attempts to protect Dr Vesalius and his son and the remaining members of the surgical team under threat from Phibes’ loosely Biblically themed murder set-pieces, which include among their number adult movie collector Terry-Thomas having his blood drained into eight pint jars after being mesmerised by the beauty of the seductive Vulnavia while in the middle of taking advantage of his housekeeper’s night off to screen his own Salome-themed dirty Moviola footage; and another stand-out set-piece which has Susan Travers, who plays the nurse in attendance during Victoria’s unsuccessful operation, get eaten alive in her sleep by locusts!  The Scotland Yard investigatory aspect of the movie owes a lot to the tradition of the Edgar Wallace thriller template, which had become popular in both England and Germany in the ‘60s.  Jeffrey had a long career in both film and TV in the UK, and gives a nice performance here as the working class policeman Trout, always late in his attempts to warn Vesalius’s team of danger and constantly trying to placate his impatient superior, the disdainful Chief Inspector Waverley (played by John Cater – a mainstay of British TV in the 60s).  Together they provide some light-hearted moments, and their investigation also gives us the small amount of information concerning Phibes' objectives necessary to move the plot forward. As the head of the doomed surgical team, Cotten has little to do but provide a big name to sit alongside Price's on the theatrical poster -- although he does get a big suspense scene at the end of the picture when Phibes threatens his son and forces Vesalius to operate on the boy in order to remove an implanted key from his chest that can unlock the chains that are holding him fast beneath a vat of acid that’s about to be drained through a coil of tubing suspended above the lad’s head.

The first two murders -- one featuring a basket of vampire bats lowered into a victim's plush bedroom through his skylight, and the other a tuxedoed house guest who’s strangled and garrotted on a pictorially surreal spiralling staircase during a Masque Ball, by Phibes' specially constructed clockwork toad-shaped mask--are some of the best examples of the highly stylised approach to visuals overseen by Fuest throughout: the latter in particular looks like it could easily have existed inside a Salvador Dali or a René Magritte painting. With its elaborate, almost ritualistic murders which appear impossible for the authorities to thwart no matter how absurd they get (one unfortunate is impaled on the horn of a brass unicorn catapulted across the street right in front of Trout and his team) and its emphasis on the workings of clockwork automata, there is essentially a very strong thematic subtext centred on determinism and fate underpinning the whimsicality of this material: Phibes is blaming the surgeons for not being able to defy nature and save his wife from a terminal disease, and sets out to heap his own form of divine justice on their heads instead, mimicking the idea of retribution coming from above on more than one occasion in the film by literarily lowering the agent of death in question into the world of his potential victim from above their heads. Trout and Waverly never come close to unravelling the machinations of Phibes and his strange menagerie of model-like clockwork villainy, which helps set up the inevitable sequel nicely after the detective team’s attempts to penetrate the underground crypt of Phibes’ stronghold merely sets in motion the embalming process and the mechanism of entombment that will bury Phibes with his preserved wife, ready for revivification at some date in the future. 

“Dr Phibes Rises Again” was a troubled production. After rejecting Whiton and Goldstein’s follow-up script, titled “The Brides of Dr Phibes”, Fuest co-penned his own screenplay with Robert Blees and helmed a film that reunited many of the original’s cast members -- even some who were supposed to have died in the first film but who appear again as different characters! "Dr Phibes Rises Again" continues in the same vein as its predecessor with campy, ironic humour and outrageous death sequences; however, the film suffered from studio interference and much post production re-editing by AIP, carried out after Fuest had delivered his cut and without his knowledge or approval, which diluted much of the picture’s effectiveness – although it does possess a lush, effective score by John Gale. This time most of the action takes place in Egypt, as Phibes goes in search of the lost ‘River of Life’ with the intention of bringing eternal life to himself and his beloved Victoria. Phibes has even gained a rival here, in the form of Robert Quarry as the eccentric millionaire adventurer Darrus Biederbeck.

Beginning with a brief recap of the events of the first film (shoehorned in clumsily with an American voice-over), the story picks up again three years later. Phibes is revived from his suspended animation (apparently you can reverse the embalming process!) by an alignment of stars; but unfortunately, the mansion that housed his resting place in an underground crypt has been reduced to rubble in the intervening three years, although his faithful female servant Vulnavia (this time played by the even more gracefully inscrutable model Valli Kemp, replacing Virginia North in the role) immediately reappears amongst the ruins to resume her role, looking none the worse  even though she was supposed to have been killed after being disfigured by acid at the end of the last film.

Phibes' latest plan is to take the preserved body of his dead wife off to Egypt where, many years before, he had marked out the location of the rejuvenating River of Life on an ancient Egyptian papyrus scroll that he has since kept hidden in his safe while waiting for the correct alignment of the stars. The only trouble is, the safe has been lying exposed in the rubble of his mansion for the last few years, and the scroll has disappeared! But it doesn't take Phibes long to track it down to the abode of rich antiquarian Darrus Biederbeck. This mysterious explorer of the occult is also on the trail of the so-called mythical River of Life because the special elixir he has been using to enable him to live to his current age of one-hundred without ageing is now on the verge of running out! Phibes steals back the scroll with the aid of a mechanical snake and a booby-trapped phone, and both he and Biederbeck set out on a race to reach their shared destination before the other. Meanwhile, Phibes' old adversary Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) and his insufferable boss Sir Wayne Waverley (John Cater) realise that Phibes is back in action after Biederbeck’s colleague Ambrose (Hugh Griffith) is washed up at Southampton docks ... entombed in a giant gin bottle after being unfortunate enough, while travelling to Egypt on the liner ‘The Empress if Quebec’ with his employer, to have stumbled upon the body of Phibes' wife stashed away in a decorative display case in the ship's hold, along with the diabolical doctor's troupe of mechanical jazz players! Naturally, Phibes disposes of him in a typically eccentric manner, and Trout and Waverley soon find themselves also bound for Egypt, determined to bring their foe to justice once and for all.

This film tends to get a bit of stick thanks to the obvious sabotage performed on it by AIP, and is often viewed as an inferior rushed cash-in on the original with little thought existing behind it. How, for instance, does Phibes manage to smuggle a giant wind machine into the Egyptian desert? And, come to think of it, how does he power it? The film is full of absurdities such as this, which seem to perplex some viewers; but they all seem to be missing the point to me: the film is deliberately and deliciously daft and is even more of a spoof on the "mad phantom” genre of Gothic horror movie than was the first film. Fuest evidently doesn't care a jot about logic or coherence and simply ignores anything that might get in the way of a well-honed set-piece, a beautifully weird image or a clever visual gag! Vincent Price and the rest of the cast seem more than happy to play along -- with even Terry-Thomas joining in the fun again, this time as a squiffy shipping agent – and there are many more enjoyable if brief cameos from the likes of Peter Cushing (who gets one scene as the ship’s captain) and Beryl Reid as the murdered Ambrose’s elderly sister.

 The colourful art-deco set designs aren't quite so colourful this time round, but they are still impressive showcases for Brian Eatwell’s huge talents, as are some of the skeleton-scattered remains of the Egyptian monuments designed for the film to grace the outside of Phibes’ hidden lair -- although other studio-created backdrops for the Egyptian desert are singularly unconvincing in HD, even if one might be inclined to argue that their artificiality adds to the comic-book aesthetic of the Phibes universe. Phibes' Egyptian hideout is an even larger version of the set from the first film, modelled on the dancehall design seen in his London mansion, only with tasteful Egyptian hieroglyphic designs in silver and gold adorning the walls adapted to the 1920's décor style. Once the race to be the first to find the River of Life is established as the primary focus of the story, and all of the characters have been safely transported to the Egyptian desert, the film resolves itself once more into a series of set-piece killings orchestrated by Phibes with the aid of the beautifully gowned Vulnavia, as a number of scouts from Biederbeck's party stumble upon Phibes' lair hidden in some remote caves and so have to be disposed of. One of these is a young John Thaw, who gets his face pecked to a pulp by an eagle. Other highlights include Lewis Fiander being crushed to death in a giant screw-turned vice, and a particularly nasty scene in which another of the archaeological party gets stung to death by scorpions after having his arms impaled in the gold-plated spiked pincers of a giant ornamental scorpion of Phibes’ design.

 Robert Quarry's character, the imperious Darrus Biederbeck, is set up as a foil for Price (the two did not get along at all in real life, either!), and for most of the film he comes across as completely amoral and self-centred, utterly unmoved by the deaths of those around him, including those of his closest friends, and concerned only with finding the secret of eternal life. Peter Jeffrey and John Cater are on fine form as the bickering detective duo and the film is peppered with surreal set-pieces involving Phibes, Vulnavia and Caroline Munro, the latter getting more screen time as the preserved Victoria here, but still not really getting to have her storyline resolved in any meaningful fashion. All this sets up what should be a brilliant showdown between Phibes and Biederbeck but unfortunately it doesn't quite come off, since Phibes manages to threaten the life of Biederbeck's wife Diana (played by Fiona Lewis) with one of his elaborately fiendish traps and diverts his foe from the ultimate prize at the crucial moment. The trouble is, Biederbeck doesn't ever seem to give a toss about his wife before this, nor she for him throughout the best part of the film, and it is only at the climax that he suddenly, inexplicably, becomes more human and committed to sacrificing his chance of eternal life to save her. It makes the character seem somehow unconvincing and hollow, and the ending is a bit of an anti-climax, despite its play on Egyptian mythology involving the journey by river to the afterlife … although the final image of the film, with Price crooning “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, is still quite poignant.

Both HD transfers are superb. “The Abominable Dr Phibes” always looked great on DVD and is even better here, but “Dr Phibes Rises Again” is considerably improved over its former DVD incarnation, although Alex Thomson’s cinematography doesn’t possess the glossy finish of Norman Warwick’s work on the first film. The sequel understandably now plays better for being immaculately restored to its former glories, though. Both films come in their own individual booklet-style packaging, housed in an outer slipcase displaying the original stylish poster design for “The Abominable Dr Phibes”, and accompanied by a 100-page book “The Complete Dr Phibes Handbook” containing many varied articles, including a piece on the Phibes series by Julian Upton, an appreciation of Vincent Price by Martin Jones, an interview with Tim Burton on the Phibes films, a memoir by Caroline Munro, an biographical piece on set designer Brian Eatwell by Justin Humphries, and an appreciation of composer Brian Kirchin by Jonny Trunk. It’s rounded off with several pieces on AIP, one by by Julian Upton, and another by Calum Waddell who interviewed the company’s head of advertising and marketing during the 70s, Milton Moritz. Presented in soft covers with glossy colour pages and plenty of production stills, this booklet would’ve been worth owning in its own right and adds considerably to the beautiful, stylish presentation of the set with its inclusion here.

The discs themselves include their fair share of extra features. “The Abominable Dr Phibes” features two commentaries, one with director Robert Fuest (who has since passed away) moderated by Marcus Hearn, in which Hearn has to contend with the elderly Fuest’s failing memory, although it does contain a few nuggets, including the revelation that Brian Clemens came up with the whole of the final act but refused to take a writer’s credit on the picture. The second commentary is, it must be admitted, rather eccentric. It features original Phibes creator William Goldstein with his son Damion, who spend the majority of the film describing what’s happening on the screen as they watch the film back. They do also remember to talk about their series of Phibes novels though, and their bizarre YouTube Forever Phibes channel -- and we get to hear their take on who or what Vulnavia actually is, and about their somewhat unlikely plans to make their own Phibes film! The first disc also includes an original theatrical trailer and a lovely discussion piece (13: 14) featuring the re-united comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen, who talk about why the Phibes films were some of their favourite movies when growing up in the 1970s. The second disc features an informative commentary for “Dr Phibes Rises Again” by Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucus, plus a theatrical trailer and several video featurettes created by High Rising Productions -- with Vincent Price’s daughter Victoria talking about her attitude to her father’s horror career and his screen persona (“Daughter of Phibes” [13: 11]) and film historian and Price’s biographer David Del Valle discussing the legacy of the Phibes films and Price’s final days at AIP (“The Doctor will see you Now” [8:36]).

All in all, this is a gorgeously packaged, superbly restored set of 1970s Vincent Price classics, lovingly presented by the team at Arrow Video in a manner that fully lives up to the films’ reputation for glossy, eccentric art deco stylishness. A collector’s essential purchase.


Read More from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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