70s Memories: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) & Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972)

Written by James Whiton & William Goldstein
Directed by Robert Fuest
Starring Vincent Price, Joseph Cotton, Virginia North, Peter Jeffrey, John Cater
US Release May 18, 1971
RT 94 min.
Home Video MGM
Classic Horrors rating = 8 (out of 10)

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Like Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, I don’t remember the first time I saw The Abominable Dr. Phibes. I do, however, remember the commercial for a television airing on CBS.  Over and over again, I watched a clip where a small airplane crashes and a crazed Vincent Price, who watches from the hillside, spins a brass telescope.  It’s not the best of the eight deaths Price orchestrates in the movie, but I guess it safely advertised the movie for all audiences.

In its entirety, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is sublime in its simplicity. It’s one of those movies that you can summarize in one sentence:  Dr. Anton Phibes (Price) seeks revenge on the nine doctors he considers responsible for his wife’s death.  That’s it.  The structure built on top of this foundation is clever and infinitely entertaining:  Phibes is inspired in his revenge by the Ten Plagues of Egypt from the Old Testament.

In a way, it’s a precursor to movies like Happy Birthday To Me, Final Destination and Saw, where the creative deaths are the stars of the show. What elaborate murder will Phibes engineer next?  But The Abominable Dr. Phibes has something those movies don’t:  Vincent Price.  Although monstrous and obviously insane, his Phibes is a sympathetic character.  In fact, I think he’s one of the great horror movie villains, played by one of the great horror movie actors.

There’s not much more to say about the plot of The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Going into too much detail would spoil its pleasures.  Instead, I will just mention that its music, art deco sets and overall style distinguish it from other 1970s horror films.  It’s darkly funny, yet not totally ridiculous.  Perhaps the best way to point out its strengths is to examine the weaknesses of its sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again.

Written by Robert Fuest & Robert Blees
Directed by Robert Fuest
Starring Vincent Price, Robert Quarry, Peter Cushing, Valli Kemp, Peter Jeffrey, John Cater
US Release July, 1972
RT 89 min.
Home Video MGM
Classic Horrors rating = 5 (out of 10)

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Released a year later, Dr. Phibes Rises Again has none of the charms of The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Where the original was darkly funny, this one is just dark… literally.  Although both movies were directed by Robert Fuest, they have different cinematographers, which I think explains the stark difference in visual appearance.  The art deco sets are mostly gone and the style is not unique in any way, shape or form.

But the largest failing of Dr. Phibes Rises Again is its story. Yes, there are creative murders, but there is no structure behind them.  Having sought his revenge in the first movie, Phibes now hauls his wife’s body to Egypt where he hopes to resurrect it and find eternal life for both of them.  Simultaneously, Darrus Biederbeck (Robert Quarry) is seeking eternal life, but for reasons that are never clear until the very end of the movie.

Instead of being the one in charge while in pursuit of revenge, he’s simply responding to events that go wrong in his plans for him and his wife. Had there not been the coincidental journey of Beiderbeck at exactly the same time, Phibes would have gone about his business without disturbing anyone else.  But that wouldn’t be much of a movie, would it?  It’s just too strained a concept and I much prefer watching Phibes/Price be the one taking action, rather than just reacting.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again has none of the fun and joy of The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Its humor comes from the two Scotland Yard detectives who improbably follow Phibes and Biederbeck to Egypt, then proceed to get lost in the desert.  Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) and Superintendent Waverley (John Cater) are in both movies and in both movies are in pursuit of Phibes.  They’re more over the top here, representing how all subtlety of the first movie is lost in the second.

Another example of the difference in quality comes in the form of Phibes’ assistant, Vulnavia. In The Abominable Dr. Phibes, she is a standout character played by Virginia North.  Here, Vulnavia has beauty, a personality compatible with Phibes and costumes that are lavishly suited to the style of the movie.  In Dr. Phibes Rises Again, she is a plain Jane played by Valli Kemp.  She’s pretty enough, I suppose, but has no personality and no style.  It’s an additional relationship that is a positive of the original and a negative of the sequel.

Price still has some good dialogue and there are some nice additions to the details of his character, such as the fact that to eat, he sticks a fork in the side of his neck. But the character who fares best in Dr. Phibes Rises Again is that of his wife, Victoria. Seen only in pictures in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, the lovely (and uncredited) Caroline Munro appears in the sequel in person as her dead body.  All she has to do is lie there and look pretty, at which she succeeds.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is such a unique movie that it stands on its own as a classic cult masterpiece. It’s required viewing and should be added to everyone’s home video library.  Dr. Phibes Rises Again is, well, not.  There’s no creative purpose for it to exist except, I’m sure, to make a buck.  Trust me, you are missing nothing by ignoring its existence.  Watching it or owning it is recommended only for hard-core fans and Vincent Price completists.

As a final means to compare the two movies, consider the music during their end credits. Both use Over the Rainbow; however, in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, it’s performed in snappy, Big Band style and in Dr. Phibes Rises Again, it’s performed in gloomy, operatic style.  That’s a great analogy for the two movies:  the first one is snappy and the second one is gloomy.  Which would you prefer to see?

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