One of horror’s greatest heroes, Vincent Price has appeared in many a memorable role in his time - Edward Lionheart in Theatre of Blood and the last man on earth in er, The Last Man on Earth - but perhaps his finest creation is Dr Anton Phibes, a twisted genius seeking revenge on the doctors who caused his late wife to lose her life.
Pitched as a horror-comedy (which is right up our street obviously), The Abominable Dr Phibes was such a hit on it’s 1971 release that a sequel, Dr Phibes Rises Again was rushed into production to take advantage of the popularity of the villainous, non-speaking Doctor. Unfortunately, a planned third part, which would have either featured Phibes fighting a group of Nazis, or him searching for the key to Olympus, never got made.
So instead, we’ll just have to settle for a double-bill of the great Anton Phibes and his wonky voice box, cool contrived killings and countless cameos (Caroline Munro! Terry Thomas!! John Thaw!!! Beryl Reid!!!!). At Vincent Phibes Night, the Price is Right – so come on down...
Tonight’s Zombie Club was brought to you by Rawshark and his Clockwork Wizards. Take it away guys…
The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)
Plot Phibes gets revenge.
Rawshark It’s pretty obvious right from the off that Dr Anton Phibes is not quite all there. Seated at an organ, he makes a dramatic entrance to the film, rising up into a ballroom where he dances with a pretty woman to the sounds of his robotic musical band. O-kay! Not long after he’s killing a sleeping doctor by dropping bats in the victim’s room that cause him to die by ”having a porridge face” (Jim).
Enter our bumbling / smart cop duo and the scene is set for lots of murders, bolts of comedy, lashings of horror and a glimpse of an early screen appearance from Caroline Munro. Vincent Price is price-less (sorry) as Phibes, a man on a mission to kill the nine doctors who failed to save his late-wife on the operating table. This he intends to do via a scheme known as ‘The Curse of the Pharaohs’ – a method meaning that each murder must fit one of the ten ancient curses (boils, bats, frogs, blood, rats, hail, beasts, locusts, first-born and darkness).
With boils, bats, blood (a lecherous Terry Thomas) and frogs (a self-tightening frog mask at a masked ball) out of the way, the film then becomes a guessing game as to what method of murder is to be used next, with Zomblee at one point mistaking the snow gun (hail) for the rats (”I know now that isn’t a rat pump, but we should certainly do a film one day with one in”). The rats came later, more predictably at the London Aeroplane Club (”There’s a rat in my cockpit, what am I going to do?” - Jim)…
With it’s slightly complex plotting of revenge murders, The Abominable Dr Phibes is a fantastic film, and it’s influence can be clearly seen in such recent ‘originals’ as Se7en and the Saw series. Phibes’ character, a kind of mute Phantom of the Opera, is a joy to behold, especially as he has to talk through a voice box and speaker (“He even has wheels for the speaker so he can move it around!” - Zomblee), and is forced to eat in a slightly unconventional manner (”He’s pouring it down his neck!” - Jim). Great script, great performances, great music - classic stuff.
“Fools, fools, they’ll have the worms soon enough.”
Jim Yes, I have to admit that Dr Phibes really caught me by surprise. I'm not a big fan of Vincent Price in general, I love his kookiness and all that but I usually find his work a bit too overly theatrical and self absorbed for my liking, preferring my movies to be a bit less thespian orientated and a little more trashy. I mean, do you think old VP will be driving around on any missile motorcycles or in battle trucks in a hurry? No, I didn't think so.
But Phibes is loads of fun. It's very British, very well made and very, well, trippy. Those clockwork musicians in Phibes' lair are excellent and wouldn't look out of place in a Beatles movie, as with that wicked big organ of his - and yes, he does that thing where he raises his hands high in the air between key strokes, like any decent insane organ player should. And all that stuff about Phibes killing them doctors off one by one ("There's a lot of doctors in this movie." - Zomblee I think, can't say for sure) in the style of Ancient Egyptian plagues is quite frankly brilliant, with some of the deaths, rat pump included, being truly ingenious. You know how hard we are to please at Zombie Club.
The gash in his neck got a few laughs, whether he was drinking through it ("I've never even seen a gash in his neck, where'd he pour it?" - Rawshark) or talking through it ("Gash in neck talking!" - Zomblee), and the way they engineered that easy-to-sequel ending was also pretty clever. In fact, I was thoroughly expecting to be bored while watching Dr Phibes, but wasn't even for a second. What a result. And yes, it was me that spotted the fact that his much, much younger wife was Caroline Munro. Zomblee's met her you know, and he once bumped in to her on a train but didn't say hello because she was with her daughters, so he thought it was an inappropriate time to talk to her about Starcrash.
"A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon!"
Zomblee Yeah, that's true, but I didn't feel I'd missed out because I met Ms Munro before and asked her if it's true that Roger Moore runs like a girl, to which she replied, "No, he was very athletic." Roger was nowhere to be seen tonight, but who needs Roger when we have VP in a most welcome less talky role as the organ bashing Dr Phibes, in an influential British export to be proud of.
This is an ingenious little tale, told and played with a great streak of macabre humour throughout. If you're a fan of Price (which, strangely, we all decided we weren't), you simply can't afford to miss this - surely one of his most iconic performances. He doesn't even say a word until 30 minutes in, and even then it's through his strange, self-designed speaking valve - this gives a whole new dimension to his performance as we get to see his facial expressions match up to what must be post-sync dialogue. He's having so much fun with what he can do with the role, so you know you'll be in for a giggle when he raises a glass and pours it down his gash ("I've never seen anything like that before!" - Jim)
Another reason not to miss this one is its production design - Phibes' majestic chamber is a work of art in itself, with its creepy waxwork band playing the quirky ragtime soundtrack against a backdrop of plush lilac / purple drapes; it's almost like his own personal theatre (of blood). Once seen, this rich visual backdrop isn't forgotten, and is as much part of Phibes as that gash in his neck, his insatiable appetite for revenge, and bashing the organ like Dreyfuss in The Pink Panther Strikes Again.
The supporting cast are also top-notch, there are many faces you'll recognise but probably won't know why (like the great Peter Jeffrey as Inspector Trout) as well as Terry-Thomas in a memorable turn as Dr Longstreet, eager for his housekeeper to leave so he can perv over some vintage dirty movies ("No one can lech quite like Terry-Thomas!" - Rawshark). Director Robert Fuest scored big with Phibes, but would later be relegated to the world of television after making the Satanic Melt Western, The Devil's Rain four years later.
"Bees in his library?"
Director Robert Fuest
Cast Vincent Price
(and Caroline Munro!)
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Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972)
Plot Phibes seeks eternal life.
Zomblee In this swiftly delivered sequel, Phibes' body is reanimated after "three years of darkness" by the alignment of the moon and stars, but he is non-too-pleased to find that his amazing house has been demolished and the papyrus scrolls stolen by crafty coffin-dodger Beiderbeck (Robert Quarry). Soon the race is on as they both head for Egypt in search of the elixir of life and Egyptian-themed deaths begin to occur, courtesy of our undead organ-enthusiast Dr Phibes.
With the first Phibes movie enjoying success at the box office, this one was rushed into production and although many consider it to be every bit as strong as the original, it feels muddled and a little lost out there in the deserts of Egypt. This is still good fun though, and manages to retain some of the spirit of Phibes 1, thanks in part to a host of familiar faces from that film, some of whom play the same characters (Peter Jeffrey and John Cater as the hilarious police officer double act - "It's like Carry-On Dr Phibes!" - Jim) whilst others crop up in completely different roles (Hugh Griffith and Terry-Thomas).
Lacking some of the inventiveness of the murderous methodology from before, Phibes 2 nevertheless successfully takes you by surprise every now and again ("It's a robotic snake!" - Rawshark) and even manages to conjure some very unpleasant local-themed specialities ("Scorpion biting knob is baaaaaaad!" - Jim).
At a healthy 89 minutes though, this actually feels a little long and loses momentum from the halfway mark. Price, God rest his soul, gets a little carried away with ranting for his dead wife and there are pretty clear quality issues with the direction / editing / set design overall. The cool cameos do compensate a little - I'll let Jim tell you about those.
"What kind of mind could conceive such a bizarre way to kill?"
Jim What cool cameos? Oh, I remember, you mean John Thaw turning up very briefly in that Egyptian temple, before he gets killed a few minutes later, in some very Egyptian kind of way. As in, in a pyramid, killed by scorpions. Was he the guy that gets the Scorpion cock treatment? Surely not? Wasn't that, no, actually all I remember is some guy getting tied up then scorpions rolling all over him. Or was he the guy that gets squished in that big Egyptian vice thing?
Who knows, all I can say is Terry Thomas was brilliant - no one can say 'I say!' like him and make it sound so filthy - and the guy that plays Beiderbeck is well cast, looking old-young as in he's old but he has a young look that was no doubt achieved with lots of make up. But most of all I was very happy to see more of those two detectives and their crazy boss ("I like the fact that the Police Captain gets more screen time in this movie" - Zomblee) that for some bizarre reason has apples perched on his window sill, like that was normal in the early 70s. Mind you, is it normal for a couple of Scotland Yard's detective to be carrying out an investigation in Egypt or is that slightly out of their jurisdiction, would you say? Still, as Rawshark pointed out ("They've turned into a parody of themselves."), which sums the movie up in general.
How Phibes managed to get his great new pad under a pyramid in Egypt I just don't know ("He's well connected." - Zomblee) Jesus, he must be. Similarly I thought all that running around the desert looking for a way in to Phibes’ lair, bumping into the most bizarre things ("Hey look, clockwork musicians in the desert!" - Rawshark) was a bit daft too. But at least the important stuff from the first movie is carried over ("Yay, he's drinking through the gash in his neck again." – Rawshark) so maybe we’re worrying too much.
At the end of the day, I thought this was a wicked little double header – unusual, unexpected, but one those movies that you’ve heard off but have probably never seen, The Abominable Dr Phibes is a classic bit of British Horror history. And the second is a slightly crapper, much camper sequel that’s not all that good but is a decent bit of fun, especially if you’ve just watched the first movie. Ace.
”We’re in the desert dear, not taking tea in Mayfair!”
Rawshark With a voiceover recap over footage from Phibes 1, Dr Phibes Rises Again kicks off three years after the close of the first film as the planets align, allowing Dr Anton to literally, Rise Again. Unfortunately, he discovers that during his three-year of suspended animation, his house has been reduced to rubble, and someone has gone and nicked his papyrus, which he needed to find ever-lasting life for both himself and his (still dead?) wife. Seriously, if it really was that important a papyrus, you’d have thought he’d have taken the thing with him into the ‘darkness’ at the end of the last blimmin’ film.
Taking into account it’s obviously rushed script shoe-horning, Dr Phibes Rises Again, is still good fun, with a lot of inventive ideas. The killing of the bald Bond guy (”He’s like a white Odd Job” - Jim, ”A White Job!” - Zomblee) with the robotic snakes and phone spikes is cool, as is the guy who gets trapped in a chair out in Egypt (”like a Venus Man Trap” - Zomblee). However, there is a sense of a little too much self-parody going on, specifically with the development of Inspector Trout, who has seemingly undergone a lobotomy to demote the weary cynicism he had in the first film to pure Benny Hill humour.
Having said that, Dr Phibes does eat through his neck again (hooray!), the implausible Egyptian set-design is pretty cool (” I love Egyptian stuff and sliding doors. It’s like Egypt meets Star Trek” - Jim), Terry Thomas returns in a completely different role just because, well, he’s Terry Thomas and the ending, with a reprise of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ as in the first film, was really cool and poignant. Oh, and of all the cameo appearances, Peter Cushing’s was the one that received the loudest cheers!
“I want you to sleep in the sarcophagus tent tonight”
Director Robert Fuest
Cast Vincent Price
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So, there you have it, a quality night’s entertainment thanks to Vincent Price (in a sort of non-speaking role which pleased us all at Zombie Club Towers), some quality British horror-comedy scripting, a double-helping of cool cameos and a raft of ingenious murders.
As is usually the case, the first is the superior film, but if you’re planning a double-bill b-movie night yourselves, you won’t go far wrong with these two classic Brit-flicks. Such a shame they never made a third – seeing Price battle the Nazis a la Indiana Jones would have just been the icing on the cake, but hey. Vincent Price - even in death he still gives us Good Phibes-brations…
Next Week: Jim brings the return of Italian Sci-Fi with Italian Sci-Fi Night Part 2 , including a special appearance from the humanoid known as Richard Kiel.