Starring: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Peter Jeffrey
Director: Robert Fuest
Arrow have been doing Vincent Price fans proud recently with releases of Theatre of Blood and The Pit and the Pendulum. Now we have this sumptuous two-disc box set which gathers together The Abominable Dr Phibes and its sequel, Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972). The Abominable Dr Phibes makes use of much the same “nasty deaths” premise as Theatre of Blood (1973). Price plays Dr Anton Phibes (a doctor of music and theology, in case you were wondering) who sets about dispatching the surgical team whom he holds responsible for the untimely demise of his wife Victoria. Soon a pair of comical coppers are investigating the murders, based (allegedly) upon the ten curses of the Pharaohs in the Old Testament. But the good (well, so bad he’s good) doctor is always one step ahead of them.
Although released in 1971, The Abominable Dr Phibes feels like a throwback to the height of the Swinging Sixties. The director, Robert Fuest, was one of the creative team behind The Avengers, and Steed and Mrs Peel would be right home in the movie’s dandyish, fantastic version of London (devoid, as critic David Del Valle points out, of traffic or passers-by). The arcane nature of the murders is the least of it: Phibes operates out of an Art Deco sanctum in shades of deep purple (complete with a lipstick red cinema organ and a mechanical trad jazz band called Dr Phibe’s Clockwork Wizards), where he’s kept company by a fur-hatted, long-booted, violin-playing female sidekick going by the rather rude-sounding name of Vulnavia (the very striking Virginia North, who later married wealthy industrialist Sir Gordon White). When most directors played with this kind of high camp, they courted disaster. Fuest somehow makes it brim over with glamour and mystique and a sense of yearning.
Despite being very much of its own era, The Abominable Dr Phibes has a delicate, poetic, dark fairy tale quality that makes it perfectly keyed to modern sensibilities. It’s also genuinely creepy, thanks to Price’s performance. Having suffered severe burns in a car crash, Phibes is forced to wear a rubber mask and speak, haltingly and raspingly, through a device that plugs into his throat at one end and into a gramophone at the other. The sight of our favourite horror icon going about his business mutely and impassively is really quite disturbing, just because we’re so used to him being flamboyant and over the top.
On this bold, crisp Blu-ray transfer, the trippy visuals are more potent than ever, like stepping inside a lava lamp, and the set design (which mixes silent era Hollywood glamour with Art Nouveau detailing and strident, psychedelic colours) comes up dazzlingly well. Extras include a commentary by the director and William Goldstein, co-author of the tongue-in-cheek script, and a 13-minute chat with the League of Gentlemen, who reminisce about the film in a lively manner and talk more widely about the nasty death genre.
In Dr Phibes Rises Again, murder takes a backseat as Phibes sets up home with his cinema organ, his jazz band (here called The Alexandrian Quartet in a nod to Lawrence Durrell’s novels) and Vulnavia inside an ancient Egyptian tomb, in search of a magical river of life which he hopes will bring Victoria back to him. However, he has stiff competition in the form of Biederbeck (Robert Quarry), a wealthy toff who fancies a bit of eternal youth for himself.
With its bonkers mystical plotline, the movie suffers from the bloating effect usual with sequels, and Price, this time, plays it strictly for laughs. For modern viewers, it has strange pre-echoes of Indiana Jones, Stephen Sommer’s movies and even Steve Moffat-era Doctor Who. But it’s beautifully crafted, with glossy, pastel-hued production values that makes you think of the late Fellini of Casanova or And the Ship Sails On. And look out for John Thaw (with dark, curly hair) as an ill-fated tomb robber.
For some reason, the first twenty minutes or so are a bit soft and gauzy, but once the story takes to the seas and then to Egypt, the HD transfer becomes much more vivid and vibrant. The extras include an audio commentary by Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog, and 20 minutes’ worth of interviews with the usual suspects of Arrow’s Vincent Price releases, Victoria Price and David Del Valle. The former talks about her father’s distaste for handling the bugs and rats that were a standby of horror (you can see it on his face when he has to shove an uncooperative locust through a whole in the floor in one scene) and complains that she thought he didn’t push himself hard enough as an actor. The latter talks about the background to the Phibes movies and Price’s rapport with Fuest.
True, the second film can’t hope to match the first as a sustained exercise in phantasmagoria, but taken as a whole, with its ravishing transfers and interesting extras, The Complete Dr Phibes is a complete delight.