The Complete Dr Phibes
Arrow films resume their retrospective of the finest titles from Vincent Price’s filmography with a boxset showcasing Robert Fuest’s Doctor Phibes films – the Abominable Dr Phibes and Dr Phibes rises again. Before moving onto the films themselves the matter of the bundle is in question. With its gorgeous recycling of the iconic poster art (complete with nonsensical tagline), this Boxset sees the features take centre stage away from the usually cargo of extras drowning this breed of release.
What little extras are confined to interviews and commentaries, the sole standout is an affectionate discussion from the League of Gentlemen whereby Fuest’s films are discussed from a much more personal level than the cold academics adopted elsewhere. Commenting on the visual fidelity has become increasingly redundant with Arrow Video’s rise to prominence; reciting the same comment about the clarity restores the films to an all-time high.
Moving away from the peripheries and onto the meat of the matter that is the films; starting with 1971’s [the] Abominable Dr Phibes.
THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES
The Abominable Dr Phibes has an influence that can be seen as far as Sam Raimi’s Darkman and the Saw Franchise to the closer to home Theatre of Blood. The titular Dr Phibes sees Vincent Price appear as a prodigious musician and purveyor of the clockwork who falls victim to tragedy. There are complications with his wife’s pregnancy that see her dying on the operating table, in a maddened rush to get to his wife’s side Dr Phibes has a near fatal accident that costs him his face and voice. With such a complete loss, Phibes commits himself to getting bloody revenge on the nine doctors he considers responsible for his wife’s death. Baring the greatest responsibility is Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotton), who Phibes has saved the most audacious of revenge schemes for. On the other side of this coin is the police investigation fronted by Trout (Peter Jeffrey) and Crow (Derek Godfrey).
Directed by Robert Fuest, a principal force behind TV’s the Avengers, both films have an idiosyncratic 1970s British feel and a shared comedy value. Even if the murders span the divide between grotesque and over-staged parallels of the Crystal Maze, there is a welcome unpretentiousness to the material. Whether unbolting a body from a wall after being pierced by the screw-like horn of a unicorn statue or the general incompetence of the police investigation it breathes life into the (even then) tired revenge motif. Indeed the comedy doesn’t always work, with some broad attempts to trivialize the police become a little over-zealous over the 90 minute run. The most ingenious humour is jet black, with the mute Phibes and his mysterious assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) camply murdering their way through [1920’s] London’s medical body being a particular delight.
By both script and design, the Abominable Dr Phibes is a fun film. With his orchestra of clockwork Frank Sidebottom’s, Dr Phibes hideouts complete with gaudy neon organ is an art-deco anachronism but a undeniably wonderful one. On the other side of the design spectrum are the set-pieces which see Phibes and Vulnavia turn biblical plagues into 20th century modes of murder. The eccentricity is expertly played off the super-conservatism of 1920’s England, a contrast that not only makes this a joyously inexplicable and distinctive film, but an absolute blast for any fan of classic horror. A form that isn’t continued in the sequel, still the sheer invention of the abominable Dr. Phibes is a highlight of early 70s horror, as campy as it may be.
DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN
Released a year later in 1972 – Dr Phibes rises again, and from the get go it lacks the spark of its predecessor. Dr Phibes is the same creation; it is still Vincent Price horrible maimed and wearing an ashen “mask”, talking through a mechanical vocoder injected into his neck. The art-deco design is still present and still serves as a brilliantly unique identifier for the series, but still it’s found lacking. The reason for this is simple – context.
Dr Anton Phibes had his revenge, now in the sequel he us using a parchment to tap into the Egyptians understanding of the afterlife to recover his dear Victoria. Even if Phibes loses himself to revenge, his plight in the first feature was justifiable in his crazed state and the invention he adopted in his murders made sense. Likewise, his poetic dialogue was endearing. That same dialogue feels more hackneyed and his murderous rampage doesn’t really make sense within the films narrative. There is no revenge, one or two of the kills make sense, the rest are just a transparent effort to recreate the successes of the abomination… without sufficient backing. While much more graphic, the instruments of murder are far too high concept to comply with any filmic logic. Previously Phibes had been planning and scheming for years, here he is improvising, reacting as developments surprise him – the modes of murder he uses don’t comply with this hurried rationale.
The Abominable Dr Phibes begged questions of suspension of disbelief, but Fuest, Price and co. succeeded at presenting a charming feature that papered over the cracks. Dr Phibes rises again feels like a contractual obligation to recapture past glories. Dr Anton Phibes deserves to be held up in the pantheon of truly great horror villains and as a consequence of such severe diminishing returns he becomes a mere foot note. Nonetheless, this package and the classic original film more than make this Boxset worth a place in any horror fans collection.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS:
- Limited edition boxed-set (3000 copies) containing both films and 100-page collector’s booklet
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again, transferred from original film elements by MGM
- Original uncompressed 1.0 Mono PCM Audio for both films
- Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for both films
- Audio commentary on The Abominable Dr. Phibes by director Robert Fuest
- Audio commentary on The Abominable Dr. Phibes by the creator of Dr. Phibes, William Goldstein
- Audio commentary on Dr. Phibes Rises Again by critic and author Tim Lucas
- Dr. Phibes and the Gentlemen – The League of Gentlemen fondly recall a pair of British horror classics
- Daughter of Phibes – Victoria Price discusses Vincent Price’s career
The Doctor Will See You Now – an interview with Vincent Price’s biographer, David Del Valle
- Original Trailers for both films
- 100-page collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by Julian Upton, Martin Jones, Justin Humphreys and Jonny Trunk, the on-set recollections of Caroline Munro, plus interviews with Tim Burton and AIP publicist Milton Moritz, all illustrated with rare and original archive stills.