50 Years Of Dr Anton Phibes
Johnny Restall celebrates 50 years of Dr Anton Phibes – Malevolent Master of Music & Murder…
Pink marbled steps, rising in a semi-circle. The camera ascends, unveiling a mysterious caped and hooded figure at their top, playing an elaborately lit organ. As the opening credits roll, he performs Mendelssohn’s ‘War March Of The Priests’ with demented elan, hands waving akimbo, watched by an audience of stuffed birds in fake trees.
His solitary recital concluded, he stalks over to four mannikins bearing musical instruments, identified by the logo on the bass drum as ‘Dr Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards’. At the crank of a lever, they break into a strange, yearning jazz waltz. A flamboyantly dressed woman in white enters in a blaze of light, and the two figures dance a tender duet.
As the music winds down, they set about loading a cloaked cage into a vintage car and drive off into the night, where they proceed to drop live bats into the bedroom of a sleeping victim with the same stylish assurance they brought to their musical performances.
Welcome to the world of Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price), where culture and murder are of equal aesthetic concern, and it would be vulgar to kill without creativity and taste!
Celebrating its 50th birthday this April, The Abominable Dr Phibes was released in 1971, with a sequel, Dr Phibes Rises Again following in 1972. Both films starred Price in the lead, and were directed by Robert Fuest (whose other works included the cult 1970 UK thriller And Soon The Darkness, and less auspiciously, the demented 1975 US Satanic chiller The Devil’s Rain). In short, the plots follow Phibes, a former musician turned diabolical mastermind, as he seeks vengeance and restitution from the world for the car crash that left him disfigured, and his beloved wife Victoria dead (a sadly minimal role as a preserved corpse for Caroline Munro).
His efforts in the first film are centred around his vendetta against the nine medics who failed to save Victoria’s life on the operating table. His ingenious (and deliciously ridiculous) murders are supposedly based on the ten Biblical plagues of Egypt. However, the Old Testament curses are not so much loosely adapted as gleefully disregarded for maximum mayhem by James Whiton and William Goldstein’s witty script. Heads are crushed, blood is drained, and brass unicorn heads are fired through doorways in such wildly non-canonical ways that a serious theological scholar could be driven to despair.
Unlike the similarly-themed Se7en (US, David Fincher, 1995), with its seven deadly sins-inspired killer, The Abominable Dr Phibes does not expect to be taken seriously. Its playfully sinister tone is closer to The Avengers TV series (ABC, 1961-69) – perhaps unsurprisingly, Fuest having previously directed several episodes of the programme. The influence of some of the grislier traps can arguably be seen in the Saw franchise (US, 2004 – present), although their overall approach is quite different. Perhaps its closest cousin is the similarly Price-starring Theatre Of Blood (UK, Douglas Hickox, 1973), which, though wonderful in its own right, essentially steals Phibes’ plot and its murderous mix of camp and cruelty, with critics replacing medics as the victims.
Despite the knowing wit, the film should not be dismissed as forgettable or carelessly made. Describing the opening scenes for this article, it is striking just how confident it is in creating its own bizarre world. Few films would dare open with two instrumental musical numbers and an outlandish murder-by-bat set piece, with not a word spoken until almost ten minutes have passed.
The art deco sets are boldly and beautifully unrealistic, and the costumes wildly stylised. Although the storyline is essentially secondary to the show-stopping homicides, the screenplay is consistently entertaining and ingeniously odd. The sharply drawn characters are brought to life by a distinguished cast including Peter Jeffrey as the bemused Inspector Trout, Virginia North as Phibes’ mysterious mute assistant Vulnavia, and an admirably straight-faced Joseph Cotten as the final surgeon standing. Fuest’s direction never lets the pace slacken, and the gorgeous score, by cult jazz and avant-garde composer Basil Kirchin, brings a certain melancholy to the lovelorn Phibes and his quest for revenge.
The film is dominated by Price, in one of his most iconic roles. It was far from his first turn as a deranged doctor, but it is generally agreed to be a vast improvement on previous efforts such as Dr Goldfoot & The Bikini Machine (US, Norman Taurog, 1965) and Dr Goldfoot & The Girl Bombs (Italy/US, Mario Bava, 1966), which, despite their promisingly ludicrous titles and the presence of Bava, are sadly far less fun than they sound.
In a bold move, the famously velvet-voiced Price is largely denied his usual vocal assets, with Phibes being obliged to recreate his voice mechanically, due to the effects of his injuries. Price rises to the challenge admirably, conveying much of the Doctor’s character silently through facial expression and gesture. His silent but withering reaction to the artistic décor of one victim’s home conveys more than words ever could, his aesthetic tastes hilariously offended. Likewise, the look of homicidal glee on his face as he watches locusts march to their murderous work, or his spontaneous applause as yet another scheme reaches deadly fruition, are essays in wicked, wordless eloquence. His few lines, delivered in a malevolent monotone when vocally plugged in via a hole in his throat, are all the more memorable for their sparseness – pray he never pledges ‘Nine eternities in doom!’ against you…
Whether quite literally necking champagne, enjoying a relaxing musical number, or dispatching his foes in baroquely gruesome ways, Price plays the role to perfection, creating another formidable yet oddly sympathetic villain to his gallery of ghouls.
The following year’s Dr Phibes Rises Again is actually set three years after the first film (the events of which are briefly recapped, with the voice-over proclaiming them to be ‘all true!’). The fiendish Phibes is awakened from his embalmed state by the astrological position of the moon. Its conjunction with the planets apparently means that it is now possible for him to find the ancient River Of Life, which will have the power to bring back his beloved Victoria (Munro, again playing a corpse). The silent Vulnavia is also mysteriously resurrected to assist him, despite her apparent death in the first film (now played by Valli Kemp). Typically, there is no attempt to explain Phibes’ new interest in magical astrology or Vulnavia’s return, with the sequel, written by Robert Blees with director Fuest, content to dispense with logic and continuity for the sake of high camp carnage.
Interfering with Phibes’ quest for the River Of Life is Darius Beiderbeck (Robert Quarry, perhaps best known for his lead role in the two Count Yorga vampire films). Beiderbeck seeks the river for his own mysterious purposes, and the majority of the plot revolves around the competition between the two rival expeditions. Phibes and Vulnavia knock off victims one by one, as the tale moves from England to Egypt, with the hapless Inspector Trout (Jeffrey) once again investigating their crimes.
The more ambitious scope of the sequel, adding an H. Rider Haggard-style Boys’ Own adventure spoof to the grand guignol murders, is ultimately something of a mixed blessing. While the design in the opening scenes remains an art deco treat, the limitations of the budget are obvious once the plot moves to a clearly studio-bound ‘Egypt’. Despite some memorable set pieces (particularly death by scorpions), the plot lacks the drive and clarity of the first film’s cleverly structured murder cycle. It is notable that Phibes is far more talkative this time, mainly for the purposes of clunky exposition, explaining his plans at length in ways that were simply not necessary in the previous film. The humour also seems a little broader, giving it a slight feeling of Carry On Dr Phibes at times.
Many of the original cast return alongside Price, Jeffrey, and Munro, including Terry-Thomas and Hugh Griffith, who somewhat confusingly play completely different characters this time around. There are also brief cameos from Beryl Reid and Peter Cushing (sadly wasted as a cruise ship captain), and an appearance from a young John Thaw – if you ever hoped to see Inspector Morse pecked to death by an eagle, this is the movie for you.
Of course, anything which ends with Price dementedly crooning ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ cannot be all bad, and the sequel remains highly watchable, despite my reservations. Sadly, no further instalments of Dr Phibes’ adventures came to pass, despite several prospective scripts being solicited by producers American International Pictures. I like to imagine that Phibes continues his work regardless in some parallel universe, concocting terrible schemes and elegant dance numbers with the equal dedication of a true aesthete. So why not raise a glass to celebrate the Doctor’s 50th birthday this April? (I recommend drinking it through the mouth, but feel free to try his neck method if you prefer.)