REVIEW: THE COMPLETE DR PHIBES / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: ROBERT FUEST / SCREENPLAY: JAMES WHITON, WILLIAM GOLDSTEIN, ROBERT BLEES, ROBERT FUEST / STARRING: VINCENT PRICE, JOSEPH COTTEN, PETER JEFFREY, ROBERT QUARRY, PETER CUSHING / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Since his death in 1993, Vincent Price’s contribution to the horror film genre has been, if not forgotten, then certainly cruelly underappreciated. Fortunately Arrow Video are making commendable strides in rectifying that situation with the recent Blu-ray release of his classic The Pit and the Pendulum and now this lavish and impressive two-disc set which brings together the two outrageous Dr Phibes movies Price made in the UK in 1971 and 1972.
The Abominable Dr Phibes and its hasty sequel Dr Phibes Rises Again are both fabulously dated, sitting as they are on the cusp on an era when the gloves were slowly coming off in the horror movie world, the tame bloody thrills of Hammer’s 1960s output giving way to more graphic gore and violence. But the Dr Phibes movies, whilst still capable of causing the odd shudder, are still mild fare compared to what was to come when the floodgates truly opened as the age of the video nasty arrived. Predating the better-known Theatre of Blood (another Price vehicle) by a couple of years, The Abominable Dr Phibes is set in London in 1925 and sees Price playing Anton Phibes, horribly disfigured in a car crash, exacting a terrible vengeance on the medical team whose incompetence, he believes, led to the death of his beloved wife Victoria. With his fantastically named nubile assistant Vulnavia he sets about bumping off his victims in an elaborate fashion loosely based on the ten Egyptian Plagues of the New Testament. Good gruesome stuff – and some of it is quite unsettling, especially poor Dr Longstreet (Terry-Thomas) whose blood is drained and displayed in jam jars, Dr Dunwoody (Edward Burnham) who is savaged by bats and Nurse Allen (Susan Travers) who is eaten alive by locusts. Price, who cuts a Phantom of the Opera-style figure sitting at his organ and lurking in his subterranean lair, strides through it all with typical eye-rolling, tongue-in-cheek gusto. Phibes speaks only with the aid of a special voice box which means we hear only Price’s pre-recorded dialogue, allowing the actor to gurn and twitch and ham the whole thing up with visible relish. Peter Jeffrey and Norman Jones are a great comic double act as the bumbling police team lukewarm on Phibes’ heels and the whole script has a raffish charm and knowingness missing in so much of Hammer’s output.
1972’s sequel, Dr Phibes Rises Again is sadly much less accomplished. Phibes… ummm… rises again in 1928 and finds that his home has been demolished and the priceless papyrus scrolls he requires to lead him to the Pharaoh’s tomb in Egypt and the ‘River of Life’ which will resurrect Victoria, have been stolen. Beiderbecke (Quarry), already centuries old, seeks out the River of Life so he and his lover Fiona can live forever. Phibes and Vulnavia follow Beiderbecke and his entourage to Egypt where the killing games begin again…
Sadly Rises Again just isn’t as much fun as its predecessor. Its story structure is messy, the deaths are much less inventive and far more bloodless and whilst the script has its moments, it’s generally heavier on its feet than Abominable and even copious amounts of location filming (Spain stands in for Egypt), a return for Jeffreys’ Inspector Trout and one-scene cameos from Peter Cushing, Beryl Reid and Terry-Thomas again (playing an entirely different character) can’t lift the film out of its doldrums and by the last reel it seems to be going through the motions without really getting anywhere.
It seems that contemporary audiences agreed and plans for further Phibes films were quietly shelved. Today they’re fascinating curios from a tamer age, worth visiting to savour the spectacularly extravagant Art Deco production design, Price’s glorious scenery-chewing performances and for the grisly bravado of the deaths in the first film. Arrow’s Blu-ray transfers are crisp, vibrant and colourful and the set boasts a collection of special features which do justice not only to a short-lived 1970s movie series but also to the unique and fabulous talent of Mr Vincent Price himself.
Extras: Collector’s booklet / Trailers / Commentaries / The League of Gentlemen discuss the Phibes films / Interview with Price’s daughter Victoria / Discussion with historian and Price expert David del Valle