Arrow present a handsome Blu-ray set of Robert Fuest’s two campy, art deco black comedies celebrating the sinister machinations of an evil genius played by Vincent Price, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972). Rather than a mad scientist, Anton Phibes is a doctor of musicology and theology, studies he relies upon when he decides to revenge himself upon the surgical team who failed to save his wife’s life. It’s a slender motivation, but a very thorough revenge, murdering the medicos according to his own interpretation of the 10 plagues of ancient Egypt.
Co-writer and director Robert Fuest was an art director in the early days of commercial television in Britain, graduating to director on early episodes of The Avengers, where he obviously responded to the campy, surreal sense of Englishness. (He also introduced Richard Lester to the music of the Beatles, whom he had made amateur recordings of.) A heavy drinker, rumoured cross-dresser, and a favourite of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, Fuest made only a few features, and the last two were heavily compromised, but between Hitchcockian thriller And Soon the Darkness, pop art sci-fi apocalypse The Final Programme, and his two Phibes films, his cult reputation is assured. His first film, comedy Just Like a Woman, is a funny and convincing portrayal of 60s media people, and his version of Wuthering Heights (1970) with Timothy Dalton is actually one of the finest Brontë adaptations.
The first Phibes film inaugurated the mini-sub-genre of themed murder movies continued in Theatre of Blood and Se7en, and is a precursor of the slasher genre: the plot is essentially a string of elaborate killings, with the authorities continually several steps behind, so as not to interfere with the fun. The themed killings are sometimes horrible, sometimes enjoyably ludicrous, but it’s actually the incompetent investigation following Phibes that provides most of the fun.
Price, that inveterate ham, is somewhat muted by the script’s casting him as a man with a prosthetic face and no vocal chords, relying on a gramophone plugged into his throat to communicate. It’s almost as if the filmmakers wanted to constrain Price’s mugging… The presence of Joseph Cotten points up the film’s debt to Citizen Kane, joining disparate scenes together with witty links, in which a spoken question is answered by the first image of the following scene. All in all, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a unique, crazy, and rather personal film, devoted to Fuest’s love of jazz, elaborate art direction and costume design, fruity performance, and naked sadism.
The sequel struggles a bit, lacking the structure of 10 curses, and has to keep inventing excuses to kill people in ridiculously elaborate ways, and shuffling guest stars on and off, but it benefits from Robert Quarry’s faded matinee-idol charm, and a rather intriguing mythological grounding, capitalising on the 20s-30s enthusiasm for Egyptology. Rather than relying on a virtuous hero (ditching Joseph Cotton’s crusty protagonist), the film pulls off a nice trick by opposing Phibes with an equally ruthless villain, while Inspector Trout scurries in their wake, perpetually baffled.
Like the original, it lurches from one gruesome highlight to another, sometimes stumbling, but helped along by grace notes of performance (Terry-Thomas, Beryl Reid) and set design (by Brian Eatwell, consistently ravishing). And Peter Jeffrey, as Trout, accompanied by his truculent, yapping terrier of a boss, John Cater, is a joy, delivering some truly awful joke dialogue with stiff-upper-lipped aplomb.
Watch the trailer for The Abominable Dr. Phibes: