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Dr. Phibes Rises Again!

Dr. Phibes Rises Again!

Robert Fuest

USA, 1972

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 13 July 2011

Source MGM DVD

Categories Vincent Price

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is one of the great Vincent Price movies: mixing dry British humor with gruesome, campy murders and sporadic musical interludes, it takes on the feel of an MGM musical in decay. It’s a cult movie treasure, and one would be forgiven for doubting that its 1972 sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again!, could live up to the loopy heights of the original. Yet while Rises Again! naturally lacks some of the novelty of the first film, it has enough warped comedy and sick creativity to keep horror fans – and particularly fans of its inimitable star – tremendously amused.

The sequel opens with footage from the previous film and a voiceover that succinctly reminds us of the story so far: Dr. Anton Phibes, a world class organist with a doctorate in theology and a yen for the elaborate, sought revenge against the medical personnel who he blamed for the untimely death of his wife Victoria. Phibes based his murders on Biblical plagues, which somehow led to an unfortunate man being impaled on a brass unicorn, that grim demise being just one among a number of ghastly fates met by Phibes’ enemies before Phibes himself descended into the grave. Now, the voiceover helpfully explains, three years have passed, and Phibes is not dead after all, but rather resting “neither alive nor completely dead” in a grave that opens up when the moon shines a certain way. It’s best just to give in to the B-movie logic of it all, particularly when Phibes’ assistant Vulnavia, presumed dead at the end of the last film, materializes out of thin air to help out once again (that she is played by Australian model/actress Valli Kemp instead of the original film’s Virginia North only heightens the oddness of her reappearance).

Even paler and stranger than before, Vincent Price is a macabre delight in his encore performance as Phibes, a mostly-mute character who sometimes speaks through a contraption at the back of his neck. Phibes’ dialogue has a tendency toward the expository in both films, but Price’s delivery – all rolled r’s and excessive grandeur – gives it a certain kick. His pronunciation of the word “papyrus” is enough to elicit a grin. Nevertheless, much of the wit of Price’s performance lies in nonverbal flourishes: the look of devious amusement that he wears for much of the film; the perfect bit when, having freshly risen from the grave, Dr. Phibes sits down at his organ and gives his knuckles a good crack.

Director Robert Fuest is at the helm again, this time directing a script that he co-wrote with prolific film and television writer Robert Blees, and the film benefits a great deal from its sense of continuity with its predecessor. British actors Peter Jeffrey and John Cater make a welcome return as befuddled detectives dispatched from Scotland Yard, and many of the more inspired flourishes of the first film – such Phibes’ immensely creepy clockwork musicians and Vulnavia’s over-the-top fashion sense – resurface here.

But the best thing about Dr. Phibes Rises Again! is that it does not simply replicate the original. It seeks to take the premise further, and in some ways it is the more satisfying of the two films. The outrageous murder scenes – which I won’t give away here, but trust that they involve scorpions, snakes, and simulated sandstorms, among other bizarre touches – feel even twistier this time, and the stakes are different. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a trippy revenge flick in which Phibes dispatches enemy after enemy in the pursuit of an admittedly abstract goal. His quest feels pointedly misguided: we have little reason to doubt that the medical staff who failed to save Phibes’ beloved Victoria nonetheless tried their hardest to do so.

By contrast, the sequel allows Phibes to edge away from sheer villainy and toward the role of (a very anti-) antihero. Here Phibes is in search of eternal life for himself and Victoria, going toe-to-toe with Darrus Biederbeck, a rival who isn’t particularly sympathetic, who is certainly far less amusing than Phibes, and who actually is standing in the way of Phibes’ goals. It’s rare to find a horror sequel that remains true to the spirit of the original film while expanding on it, but Dr. Phibes Rises Again! makes a fine complement to its predecessor. The ending, which repeats the first film’s hugely memorable misappropriation of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” offers a satisfying close to the whole saga. With a mix of eerie imagery, well-timed quips, great sight gags and preening theatricality, the Phibes movies feel like a genre unto themselves. And so, for Price – and for us – the mad doctor proves well worth revisiting here.

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