The Complete Dr Phibes brings together my two favourite Vincent Price movies – since you can’t have one without the other, and makes for a fantastic release following the recent Theatre of Blood: Special Edition. And this double dose of death, in which everyone gives their all, makes you realise that almost everyone involved, onscreen at least, has since shuffled off their mortal coils…
Dr Phibes (Price) is in a bit of a mood as the first film, The Abominable Dr Phibes, begins, because his darling wife Victoria (an uncredited Caroline Munro), has been murdered by 9 men and our titular hero will see to it that they all die horrible deaths, starting with one of them being attacked by killer bats, which makes for a fantastic first offing as they creep towards the man, even though when the butler comes in the next morning, it’s daylight and so we see that one of them is being made to fly on an obvious wire. But it’s the little touches like that which make it so endearing.
However, like in the Shakespeare-based horror, this character also isn’t sexist and he’ll allow women to be bumped off as well. I won’t detail all the deaths here in case anyone reading this hasn’t yet seen it, but when Alex Scott‘s character declares himself as a psychiatrist, aka a ‘head-shrinker’ and then goes on to wear a frog’s head at a costume ball, he doesn’t realise at first that Phibes has tweaked it so that his profession will become a reality… Ooh, that’s gotta hurt!!
Both films are so brilliantly visually-composed, with Phibes’ assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) playing a mournful violin in the first one sometimes as someone else is about to die. And their relationship is never explained, since she never says a word in either film, yet appears completely loyal and devoted to him.
The cops on the case are Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) and Sgt. Tom Schenley (Norman Jones), both of whom get a regular roasting from Supt Waverley (John Cater), but in the second film Schenley is nowhere to be seen and Trout is accompanied by his boss, instead.
When it came to the dancing scene, the bizarreness of it really freaked me out as a kid. And so did the Clockwork Wizards, Phibes’ band (I probably thought they were real, back then, rather than actors in suits). In fact, there wasn’t a single moment of this film which *didn’t* put the wil
lies up me!
I also love the tagline on the front cover, which is one of many created for the first film: “Love means never having to say you’re ugly!”, which follows on from 1970’s Love Story‘s tagline: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
For the second film, Dr Phibes Rises Again, Phibes is back, and this time, he’s bringing his Dad! …No, that’s Indiana Jones.
Phibes has resurrected himself just three years after the events in the first film, and surprisingly, he’s not bursting for a piss the moment he get up.
His plan, this time, is to go and find the River of Life, and set sail with Vulnavia. However, on rising to the ground floor, he finds his house has been flattened by the council. Amazingly, they didn’t cement up the chamber where he slept. Sure, they didn’t know he was down there, but they knew how to access it, following the end of the first film when the police went down there.
However, Phibes is a bit moody because he suspects the contents of his safe – the one item be *can* find – have been stolen by Darius Biederbeck (Robert Quarry), all of which takes them eventually to Egypt as Biederbeck has his papyrus Scrolls of Life, which will help find the Pharaoh’s Tomb, and thus, the aforementioned River of Life.
Once again, lots of people die, but compared to ‘Abominable‘, ‘Rises Again‘ seems to take a fair while before the deaths start happening on any regular scale.
Also, what seems really odd is that Vulnavia is played by two different actresses across the two films, the first by Virginia North, who never acted again after her appearance, and then in the second by Valli Kemp, who later only appeared in 1981’s… erm, The Great Muppet Caper. I understand they wanted to name the character differently in the second film but that the studio execs insisted on keeping it the same, as if some sort of resurrection of the character after her mishap in the first one.
And I didn’t realise until now that a third film had been planned, Phibes Resurrectus, but rumours of it never happening range from there never been a script that was ready to film, to Price simply not wanting to do it, so asked for too much for the role and thus ‘price’-ing himself out of it.
There’s oodles of black humour in these two films, not least when Phibes is trying to drink out of his neck. And why are Dr Phibes’ puzzles always something akin to The Crystal Maze?
Oh, and another part which freaked me out came with “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” playing as the second film comes to an end, along with the accompanying visuals… Just incredible.
And yes, Terry-Thomas appears in both films, as different characters. The only cast member to do so.
The Complete Dr Phibes is released now on Blu-ray.
Go to page 2 for the presentation and the extras.
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.