Victoria Price has a theory about the longevity of her father’s career which lasted from the mid 1930s to the mid 1990s, in that unlike many actors who found their lasting fame in specific roles in horror films, such as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula or Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster, it was Vincent Price himself who was the star rather than the characters he portrayed, beloved of audiences across the world as “the elegant side of evil.” Certainly there are associations in his career, primarily with the work of Edgar Allan Poe, but in over a hundred films he had few recurring roles; Egghead on seven episodes of Batman, Doctor Goldfoot in two James Bond parodies and Doctor Anton Phibes.
Now remastered as part of a two Blu-ray edition entitled The Complete Dr Phibes, the first film was released in 1971 by American International Pictures who had crafted the many Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman, but this was a very different project, filmed at Elstree Studios and featuring location shooting at London’s Highgate Cemetary as well as the local countryside, England fast becoming a second home to Price following his success with Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General in 1968.
Even by the eccentric standards of those involved, The Abominable Dr Phibes was an oddity; set in 1925, it opens with a masked figure playing an organ which rises to take its place amongst a clockwork band, a scene eerie, disturbing and surreal, before a beautiful but silent woman enters the gloriously decorated art deco chamber, dancing with him before assuming the role of his glamorous but oddly cold chauffeur, delivering him to an address in London where a most unusual murder takes place.
Investigated by Inspector Harry Trout (British character actor Peter Jeffrey, familiar from two guest appearances in Doctor Who, The Odessa File and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen among many roles), initially his superior officer Waverley (John Cater, The Avengers, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter and again Doctor Who) refuses to believe that there can be any connection between the bizarre deaths of medical professionals which Trout believes are linked, the death of Doctor Dunwoody, torn apart by bats in his own bedroom following shortly after the unseen death of Professor Thornton from bee stings, then that followed by the death of Doctor Hargreaves killed by his sabotaged costume at a fancy dress party.
With the assistance of Doctor Vesalius (Joseph Cotten, a genuine star of American screen and television best remembered for his long friendship with Orson Welles, featuring in The Magnificent Ambersons, Journey Into Fear and most famously as the best friend of Citizen Kane), Trout is able to establish that they all have link to a surgical procedure which was carried out on Victoria Regina Phibes, who died on the operating table 20th April 1921.
Trout immediately suspects a bereaved husband, but Vesalius states that he is also dead, killed en route to the hospital when his car left the road and burst into flames. Not dissuaded, Trout visits the mausoleum where both are interred to find only ashes which cannot be identified where physician and musician Anton Phibes should lie at rest but that Victoria Phibes’ body is most definitely missing.
Convinced that Phibes has risen from his grave, Trout determines that any other medical personnel involved will also be targeted, his fears confirmed by the deaths of Doctors Longstreet (Terry-Thomas of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines in an all too brief role playing his characteristic upper class twit) and Hedgepath, the pattern of deaths now becoming apparent as based upon the curse of the Pharaohs, each killing bearing an aspect of the ten plagues of Egypt.
Despite the efforts of trout Doctor Phibes is not defeated, his exit orchestrated by his own hand even as the police arrive to save the kidnapped son of Doctor Vesalius, intended to play a starring role in the final plague, the death of the firstborn, paving the way for the 1972 sequel Dr Phibes Rises Again. With a dramatic voiceover recapping the first film, Phibes having remained in his coffin for three years “until the moon coming into proper conjunction with the eternal planets shone upon the golden moon of the crypt…Doctor Phibes once more walked upon the Earth.”
Again drawing on Egyptian mythology but with even greater dramatic licence, stylistically the two films match but the storyline of the sequel is undermined by a less convincing premise. While the first film was written by James Whiton and William Goldstein with uncredited work by director Robert Fuest, the second was written by Fuest and Robert Blees, following the template of the first but shifting Phibes from the drive for revenge to a quest template, Phibes playing an almost heroic role as he returns to his secret lair in Egypt with its art deco hall beneath the ruins as he awaits the rising of the Nile which will return his wife to him and grant them both eternal life.
While the killings are as bizarre and inventive as the first, including death by booby-trapped telephone receiver, death by sandblast and the scorpion scene probably the most genuinely nasty of the deaths in either film, the closing moments of Dr. Phibes Rises Again are almost a recreation of the race against time which concludes The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a bargaining for the life of a loved one about to be swept away.
The prints of both films are flawless, the colours of the exquisite sets and costumes rich, the location shooting of the first subtle and elegant, full of detail, and no expense is spared on the sets and props, even down to Victoria’s Rolls Royce coffin, though the high resolution can be unmerciful, the second unit location work in Egypt (actually Ibiza) in the sequel failing to match the main unit work with the principal cast.
His contract with AIP was coming to an end, Price is alleged to have said “I will only make another one if Bob Fuest is the director because he’s a mad, mad man,” and Jeffrey and Cater also resumed their roles as Trout and Waverley, as does the inanimate Caroline Munro as Victoria Phibes, “a strange presence, even in death.” Actors returning as different characters are Hugh Griffith (Quatermass II, Legend of the Werewolf), an unnamed rabbi in the first film whose field of expertise moved to Egyptology in the second as the doomed-to-the-drink Ambrose and Terry-Thomas, both the late Doctor Longstreet and the shipping agent Lombardo who arranges passage for Phibes and his silent companion.
Having been pregnant at the time of the sequel, original Vulnavia and former model Virginia North, later Lady White, was replaced by another former model, Valli Kemp, Miss Australia of 1970. Described in both films as “tall, attractive, hardly says a word,” Vulnavia’s background or devotion to Phibes is never addressed and no explanation is made of her own power of resurrection, nor does Valli have the presence of North, seeming to be going through the motions rather than engaging in the drama.
Other additions to the cast, each regrettably confined to a single scene, are Beryl Reid, Peter Cushing and a remarkably young John Thaw, savaged by an eagle, the principal star being Robert Quarry as Phibes’ rival Darrus Biederbeck. Best known from the title role in the AIP pictures’ Count Yorga, Vampire and The Return of Count Yorga, his relationship with the eternally warm and amiable Price was uncharacteristically frosty, and Quarry’s presence here is strictly functional, a necessary plot mechanic without grace. More interesting but sadly underused is Fiona Lewis as his travelling companion Diana Trowbridge, also remembered for her role in Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, effortlessly beautiful and composed but confined to conferring messages to Biederbeck while he repeatedly dismisses her.
Despite the expanded ambition of the sequel it is inferior to the original, but it is also demonstrably not the film Fuest had wanted to make, producer Samuel Z Arkoff declaring that he wanted “nothing arty farty.“ The final cut having been taken out of Fuest’s hands, the first change was the intrusive recap, though the inclusion was understandable from a studio point of view as it was rare to produce a sequel to a horror film featuring a character whose story wasn’t already established in literature, and in 1972 there were no video recorders with which audiences could familiarise themselves if they had not seen the first feature.
The background of Robert Fuest was in production design, including work on ten episodes across the first two seasons of The Avengers, a show where he also directed eight episodes, one in the first season the rest in the final year, returning several years later for two episodes of The New Avengers. He also worked on genre projects elsewhere in his career, directing Ernest Borgnine, Eddie Albert, Ida Lupino, William Shatner, Tom Skeritt and John Travolta in The Devil’s Rain in 1975 and Sharon Gless, Julie Kavner and Don Johnson in Revenge of the Stepford Wives, and possibly most notoriously The Final Programme, based on the Michael Moorcock novel, starring Jon Finch as Jerry Cornelius, an aspect of the Eternal Champion, and Hugh Griffith.
A huge success in America with its portrayal of a romanticised England full of colourful characters and adventure, the feel of The Avengers is more obviously present in The Abonimable Dr. Phibes, with many scenes absent of dialogue and carried instead by the big band feel of the soundtrack as classic cars prowl the London mews, the pleasant countryside and timeless manners concealing sinister plots and the ridiculous gimmicks used to achieve the outlandish killings, death by bees, bats and ice machine, murder while sipping champagne, Phibes’ clockwork band reminding of the blank faces of the Cybernauts which twice threatened Steed and Mrs Peel.
The style of that beloved classic of British television is also present in the costuming on both films; though she never contributed directly to the show, Elsa Fennell had collaborated on several projects with Albert Fennell, producer of The Avengers, as well as Gerry Anderson’s Journey to the Far Side of the Sun and a double date with James Bond on Diamonds are Forever and The Man With the Golden Gun while her successor Ivy Baker Jones had worked on thirteen episodes of the final season including the last ever episode Bizarre, her other credits including The Third Man and One Million Years BC.
Although both Phibes films were produced and released before the more sophisticated Theatre of Blood, four decades of hindsight cannot avoid the comparison: the supposedly dead performer exacting revenge from beyond the grave, facilitator Vulnavia becoming provocateur and seductress Edwina Lionheart, the elaborately staged killings, most specifically the bedroom intrusion and murder of Doctor Dunwoody prefiguring the nocturnal decapitation of theatre critic Horace Sprout.
In the accompanying Phibes and the Gentlemen featuring League members Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, Gatiss states that both Theatre of Blood and Doctor Phibes were “tailored to [Price],” while Pemberton comments that this has dated more thanTheatre of Blood, the Shakespearean allusions giving the latter a timeless quality. Indeed, while Theatre of Blood concentrates on the theatricality of Edward Lionheart’s recreations, each dramatically apt for the victim, here they are constructed with the stagecraft geared towards showmanship rather than drama, purposefully outrageous, though Gatiss still feels “If you’re ever going to be in a horror film, you want it to be one like this.”
Other echoes back and forward are 1953’s House of Wax where Price starred as the deformed sculptor Professor Henry Jarrod, here similarly concealed behind a recreation of his own face, the bottles of decanted blood recreated a decade later to far more disturbing effect in Exorcist III, William Peter Blatty’s adaptation of his own superb novel Legion, with Shearsmith pointing out that David Fincher’s Seven has a Phibes vibe.
Along with the booby-trapped mask which kills Doctor Hargreaves, the use of mannequins through the clockwork band and the doll placed in Doctor Hedgepath’s car and the supposedly dead protagonist were all reflected many years later in the Saw films which devolved narrative expectations to the merest thread to validate the deaths which became their only purpose, Gatiss describing how the horror sub genre of nasty deaths is in regrettably strict adherence to the law of diminishing returns, The Omen giving way to Final Destination.
In addition, the first film has two commentaries, the first a faltering but affectionate affair by director Robert Fuest recorded not long before his death in 2012 at age 84 while the second is with writer William Goldstein who describes it as “a love story inside of a horror story,” the sequel being treated to the meticulous analysis of expert Tim Lucas.
His dialogue recorded prior to filming and played back on set, Price works without words through both films, his eyes conveying everything, and he is rightly the focus of the special features. Relaxed and engaging throughout Daughter of Phibes, Victoria Price is clearly delighted to be sharing her personal memories of her father, freely admitting that “It’s only in retrospect that I realise how different and extraordinary my life was.”
Seeing him almost as a spoof of himself on television as she grew up, she questions whether he had done a disservice to himself by allowing his camp onscreen persona to develop but recalls how the “violent, scary, dark” contrast of Witchfinder General and seeing him play Oscar Wilde in Diversion and Delights changed her feelings about him as an actor, film historian David Del Valle agreeing in The Doctor Will See You Now that “Vincent had pathos, he had a great sense of tragedy,” describing him as “a dear, wonderful man.”
Her words indicating her father would have agreed with the assessment of the League of Gentleman on the state of modern horror, Victoria Price says “The more violent the horror films got, the less he liked the genre. He always said that… the less you saw, the better it was,” the League’s acknowledgement of the inspiration their own creations took from these films returned when she says “Without horror fans my dad’s legacy would not be what it is.”
The Complete Dr. Phibes is available from 16th June as a limited edition from Arrow Films