Release Date(s)1971/1972 (April 12, 2022)
Studio(s)American International Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: B+
- Overall Grade: B+
Although he was known as one of the screen’s masters of the macabre, Vincent Price was in a bit of a career slump by the time The Abominable Dr. Phibes was offered to him. His years with American International Pictures were drawing to a close and his days making lavish Edgar Allan Poe-based adaptations with Roger Corman were in the past. Robert Fuest, who had only directed a couple of films and worked on the popular television show The Avengers, was eager to tackle the script, which was rewritten under his own pen and guidance. The resulting screenplay attracted the likes of Joseph Cotten, Peter Jeffrey, and Terry-Thomas, among others.
In The Abominable Dr. Phibes (pronounced Fibes, not Fibees), police inspector Trout (Jeffrey) is investigating a series of murders perpetrated by an unknown killer. We learn that Dr. Anton Phibes (Price), an expert in theology and music whose wife Victoria (Caroline Munro) died during a surgical operation attended to by several physicians, purportedly died in a car accident after receiving the news. Somehow he survives, horribly disfigured without the ability to speak, using prosthetic make-up to make him look more normal and training his vocal chords to speak via a port in his neck. Believing that Victoria’s doctors were incompetent, he’s hell-bent on revenge, murdering each doctor one by one based upon the Ten Plagues of Egypt, which is facilitated by his mysterious and mute assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North). Despite the best efforts of Scotland Yard, Phibes outwits them while getting closer to Victoria’s chief physician, Dr. Vesalius (Cotten).
A surprisingly respected work within the filmmaking community, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is meticulously constructed. Specific camera angles are employed within the film’s mix of art deco and art nouveau styles. Fuest and cinematographer Norman Warwick splash the film with color and shadow—Phibes’ lair in particular is a lush palette of purples, pinks, and blues of all gradations. It’s almost an art film in the way that it’s presented, even allowing for extended and narratively unnecessary moments between Phibes and Vulnavia to share a dance set to music performed by Phibes’ mechanical orchestral band bearing the moniker “Dr. Phibes Clockwork Wizards.” It’s bizarre, ironic, and beautiful at the same time.
Many aspects of the plot are left unexplained, but it’s clear that Phibes is some sort of genius, surviving death and creating incredible gadgets to further aid him in his quest for revenge. It’s also never stated what the relationship is between he and Vulnavia. We never learn where she comes from, who she is, or what becomes of her in the end. But the mystery and intrigue is part and parcel as to why The Abominable Dr. Phibes works. Knowing the how and why are meaningless. We’re far more interested in Vincent Price’s performance and whether or not Phibes is going to get away with what he’s doing, even though his motivation for revenge is not entirely sound. We still root for him despite the fact that he’s a complete madman, but there’s a method to his madness, and even his exit from the film is a haunting one.
Because of the film’s success, American International wanted to make a sequel right away, which Fuest, Price, and the majority of the crew were happy to do since making the first film was such a pleasant experience. Fuest had been mostly allowed final cut on the first film, despite minor changes made at the studio’s request. However, the birth pangs of Dr. Phibes Rises Again were sharp and severe. The bulk of the main production was mostly left alone, but American International later re-edited the film and added in additional dubbing without Fuest’s involvement, cheapening it and making it a much lesser experience than its predecessor. This is clearly evident when viewing the theatrical trailer, which has many additional moments that were cut out of the film. As of this writing, a director’s cut of the original version has yet to surface.
In Dr. Phibes Rises Again, three years have passed since the events of the first film, and Phibes has slumbered alongside his dead wife. Upon the evening when the moon comes into alignment with the planets, he wakes up and discovers that his lair has been decimated, and that an ancient piece of map that was in his possession has been taken. Vulnavia (now portrayed by Valli Kemp) re-materializes to assist Dr. Phibes on his quest to recover the map from those who stole it and make his way to Egypt, where he hopes to find the secret of eternal life for he and Victoria. Meanwhile, a man named Darius Biederbeck (Robert Quarry) is also seeking the secret to the River of Life, and is the one responsible for stealing the map. Dr. Phibes soon retrieves it and each man separately makes their way to Egypt. Inspector Trout is not far behind and begins to suspect that Phibes has returned when ritualistic murders of Biederbeck’s men begin occurring.
Unfortunately, Dr. Phibes Rises Again is not as interesting or as well presented as the first film, thanks in no small part to American International’s tinkering in post, but also because it just isn’t as lavish in appearance. Alex Thomson, who later shot Excalibur and Legend, replaced Norman Warwick from the first film, and his style doesn’t fit the production. His work is comprised mostly of handheld work and close-ups instead of the steady angles and occasional wide shots. Not all of it lacks Robert Fuest’s composition, but it’s certainly not as harmonious visually.
The murders and their motivation are also a bit lacking, particularly when Phibes sends an eagle to scratch a man’s face to death. Still, there are fine points. Robert Quarry does fine work with the material, even if he’s a bit stiff (to be fair, he always was), and Valli Kemp is a worthy replacement for Virginia North (for my money, she’s my preferred Vulnavia, but that’s a matter of debate). It’s a decent sequel, but knowing how compromised and watered-down it is makes it a less exquisite experience. Further sequels were bandied about by different entities over the next couple of decades, but as Vincent Price grew older, that interest eventually waned. More’s the pity.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes was shot by cinematographer Norman Warwick on 35 mm film, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Kino’s presentation features the same previous master as the Shout! Factory release, which is a good one. It’s an older master, which is a little more soft than newer scans, but potent nonetheless. Minor instability and black and white speckling are prevalent, but for a film with such an aggressive visual style, there’s excellent saturation to be had, particularly in the confines of Phibes’ lair. Contrast is good while blacks and shadow details are lovely. A fresher scan would yield even more detail, particularly in 4K, but this is still a fine presentation.
Dr. Phibes Rises Again was shot by cinematographer Alex Thomson on 35 mm film, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It too is sourced from an older master, but it’s not quite as refined as its predecessor. The source is weaker with lesser depth, more prominent grain, and weaker blacks that are sometimes slightly washed out. Saturation is decent but contrast is often lacking. The same issues with minor instability and black and white speckling are prominent. It’s definitely in need of a new scan, much more than the previous film.
Audio is included for each film in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio with optional English subtitles. Both are solid single-channel sources with good support for both dialogue and score. Sound effects are a tad lacking at times, but each track is otherwise clean, even robust.
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHONES (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): A/B+/B+
DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B-/B-/B+
The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again are included on separate Blu-ray discs in Kino Lorber’s Double Feature release, which features an insert and slipcover with artwork from the original Italian posters for each film. The following extras are included on each disc:
DISC ONE: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES
- Audio Commentary by Robert Fuest and Marcus Hearn
- Audio Commentary by Justin Humphreys
- TV Spot (HD – 1:00)
- Theatrical Trailer (SD – 2:35)
- Theater of Blood Trailer (SD – 2:31)
- And Soon the Darkness Trailer (SD – 2:45)
Marcus Hearn moderates a commentary session with director Robert Fuest. The two men discuss the film’s various titles prior to and during its release, Vincent Price and his work in the film, the original script and the changes that were made when Fuest got involved, the other actors, the make-up effects, the budget, Fuest’s reactions to critical reactions to the film, the set design and look of the film, having to change a line during editing at the request of the studio, playing music on the set, working with the producers, shooting with animals, choreographing various sequences, a moment of Phibes firing the brass unicorn with a catapult that was ultimately cut from the film, using rear projection, a shot that frightened his young sons, defining “camp”, problems with the sequel, changing the ending, Price’s dissatisfaction towards the end of filming, the unmade second sequel, and Fuest’s final thoughts on the experience. It’s fair to say that Fuest’s memory isn’t always the best, which isn’t a criticism, and the track goes quiet a few times, but he mostly provides wonderful and informative commentary for the film.
In his commentary, author and fan of the film Justin Humphreys discusses the film’s art deco and art nouveau styles, the cast and crew, the sets, Fuest’s tactic of “wrongfooting” the audience by changing elements from shot to shot without explaining them, where Fuest got some of his ideas for the film, script rewrites, the music and the score, the use of humor, the cinematography, the sound effects, details from the original script, and the film’s release and ad campaigns. He also highlights many of his favorite moments, perhaps a bit too much.
DISC TWO: DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN
- Audio Commentary by Justin Humphreys
- Audio Commentary by Tim Lucas
- Radio Spots (HD – 2 in all – 1:33)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:09)
- Scream and Scream Again Trailer (HD – 2:22)
Justin Humphreys, Dr. Phibes aficionado, returns for the sequel. He discusses the score for the film, re-using many of the same sets and costumes to save money, the so-called feud between Vincent Price and Robert Quarry, the careers of the cast and crew, the cinematography, the state of Price’s career at the time, many of the moments that were trimmed out of the film, other art deco-style films, the film’s lack of structure compared to the first film, his hope that a director’s cut will someday surface (I’m with him on that), the lack of chemistry between Fiona Lewis and Robert Quarry, his criticism of the US ad campaign, other filmmakers who adore these films, other entities who were interested in making more Phibes films, the promotion of the film, alternate footage in the film’s trailer, and the film’s closing music. He also mentions some of the same factoids that he spoke about in the commentary for the first film.
Tim Lucas dutifully provides a second audio commentary, highlighting the tensions between Robert Fuest and American International, and the subsequent cuts made to the film prior to its release. He details background information on the cast and crew, aspects of the plot, the special effects, various aspects of the murder set pieces, his disappointment in the cinematography, and the problems between Vincent Price and Robert Quarry. He brings his A game, as per usual, but dips into silence a few too many times.
Since these films have been released a few times on both sides of the Atlantic, there are a few extras missing. For The Abominable Dr. Phibes, the 2013 Shout! Factory Blu-ray release of The Vincent Price Collection includes the featurette Introductory Price: Undertaking the Vincent Price Gothic Horrors (which had more to do with the PBS introductions by Vincent Price that were included on that set). Their re-release of the set in 2020 includes an additional audio commentary by film historians Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr, as well as a still gallery. The Arrow Video Region B Blu-ray release features an audio commentary with William Goldstein and David A. Goldstein, as well as the featurette Dr. Phibes and the Gentlemen. For Dr. Phibes Rises Again, the Shout! Factory Blu-ray release of The Vincent Price Collection II includes a still gallery, while the Arrow Video Region B Blu-ray release includes the featurettes Daughter of Phibes: Victoria Price on Her Father's Career and The Doctor Will See You Now: An Interview with David Del Valle. It's also worth noting that the Arrow Video Region B Blu-ray release of The Complete Dr. Phibes Blu-ray box set includes a 100-page booklet featuring essays by Julian Upton, Martin Jones, Justin Humphreys, and Jonny Trunk; interviews with Caroline Munro, Tim Burton, and AIP publicist Milton Moritz; and stills from each film.
A brilliant blend of humor and horror filmed beautifully, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is one of Vincent Price’s and Robert Fuest’s crowning achievements. And though Dr. Phibes Rises Again is lacking, it’s still a fine follow-up. Kino Lorber’s treatment of both titles is commendable, and keeping these films in print is imperative. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons