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The Complete Dr. Phibes (UK Blu-ray review)

Specs

Specs

Details

Director: Robert Fuest
Writer(s): James Whiton, William Goldstein, Robert Fuest, and Robert Blees
Cast: Vincent PriceJoseph CottenHugh GriffithRobert QuarryValli Kemp 
Year: 1971, 1972
Length: 94 min, 89 min
Rating: 15
Region: B
Disks: 2
Label: Arrow Films and Video
Release Date: June 16, 2014

Video

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Type: Color

Audio

Audio: Enligsh: PCM 1.0
Subtitles: English SDH

Extras
  • Audio commentary on The Abominable Dr. Phibes by director Robert Fuest
  • Audio commentary on The Abominable Dr. Phibes by the creator of Dr. Phibes, William Goldstein
  • Audio commentary on Dr. Phibes Rises Again by critic and author Tim Lucas
  • Dr. Phibes and the Gentlemen: Interview with “The League of Gentlemen”
  • Daughter of Phibes: Interview with Vincent Price’s daughter, Victoria Price
  • The Doctor Will See You Now: interview with Vincent Price’s biographer, David Del Valle
  • Original Trailers
  • 100-page collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by Julian Upton, Martin Jones, Justin Humphreys and Jonny Trunk, the on-set recollections of Caroline Munro, plus interviews with Tim Burton and AIP publicist Milton Moritz, all illustrated with rare and original archive stills
DR_PHIBES_CoverThe world of show business can be fickle when it comes to age. Most actors find they have a limited shelf life when it comes to getting starring roles. Even the greatest names often find themselves side-lined in favour of shining new and young talent. However, one actor who went against the grain was Vincent Price. Price, who enjoyed a diverse career on the stage and in film—thrillers, comedy, noir, and small horror roles—, did not find his niche until he hit his 40’s. At the age of 42, Price starred in House of Wax (1953), catapulting him into the arena within which he would later become a household name. There are not many people who deserve the title of an icon, however, Price is one—of course, alongside actors such as Peter Cushing, who also had a very similar history finding his place in horror at a later age than many others. Price’s journey from House of Wax would see him work almost exclusively in horror for many years. Taking on contracts with major studios such as Universal and MGM, Price began to work with genre filmmakers such as the late, great William Castle, and Roger Corman. In 1960, Price signed a contract with A.I.P. Starting out with his work on the Corman-Poe cycle, he found himself functioning at a breakneck pace for over a decade, delivering his own brand of over the top, theatrical horror villains for audiences who simply could not get enough of his talents. In 1971, at the age of 60, he made The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a film that, alongside Theatre of Blood (1973), could be considered his swansong. The following year saw the revival of the Phibes character in Dr. Phibes Rises Again; a flamboyant and camp extravaganza of a sequel that paid no attention to issues such as continuity—which in this reviewer’s opinion did not suffer one bit as a result, although, some may argue otherwise. Finally, Arrow Video has brought together these two films in a newly restored Blu-Ray edition double disc collector’s pack—limited to just 3000 units—surely to be one of their most highly anticipated releases so far this year.

Films

To appreciate both films you have to ignore the connection between the two to some extent; just accept both take place in the Phibes universe, paying little relation to one another in terms of continuity. The Phibes universe is a weird and wonderful place, an avant garde celebration of camp, over the top horror/comedy that is unique to anything that came before—or after for that matter. Even though the films supposedly take place sometime in 20s/30s, they seem to have no grounding in anything other than pure imagination. On this basis, the Phibes universe can encompass ludicrous ideas and concepts, making them appear perfectly acceptable to the audience. Such is the skill of director Robert Fuest (who directed both instalments), and the enigmatic performance by Price. In the case of both films, you can immerse yourself in the pure fantasy they deliver (something rare in today’s climate of ultra-realism in genre flicks).

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

The Abominable Dr. Phibes sees Price portray the ominous Dr. Anton Phibes. Heavily disfigured in an accident—an idea that harks back to his previous role in House of Wax—Phibes is a tragic character who, grieving for his late wife Victoria (Caroline Munro), sets out to punish the medical staff he believes failed her. So it is that the doctor sets about constructing an elaborate, and quite honestly mind-bending, series of revenge murders based on the plagues of Egypt. Aided by his assistant, the hypnotic Vulnavia (Virginia North) with her outstanding array of fantastical seventies retro-chic costumes, Phibes sets to task punishing the team who worked on his wife, as she lay dying on the operating table. The deaths flow at a furious pace: death by bats, rats, an elaborate frog mask at a masquerade, locusts, and other hideous concepts like bloodletting, all served up with panache and an extra dose of wickedly black comedy.

The performance Price puts in has to be one of the greatest and most memorable of his career. Inhabiting many of the elements the actor had become well known for in his previous genre roles—tormented lunatic, grief stricken widower, genius villain, and tragic figure—it could almost be considered a pastiche of Price’s career in horror. The humour is fiercely dark and dry; yet, the horrific elements manage to ground the film, preventing it from becoming a complete parody. Price’s performance is mesmerising and his on-screen presence dominates the picture. When you consider Dr. Phibe’s vocal chords have been damaged, and he therefore can only speak with the aid of an impromptu gramophone device (resulting in very little dialogue for Price), his portrayal becomes even more of a marvel. Price manages to convey the most subtle of emotions simply through a series of facial expressions: a raise of an eyebrow here and there, a steely glare.

Robert Fuest's The Abominable Dr. Phibes [click to enlarge]

Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes [click to enlarge]

For the supporting cast, Fuest enlists the help of some strong British talent, all of whom play their parts fantastically. Stand out mentions go to Terry Thomas, as the creepy Dr. Longstreet with his penchant for watching nudie films on a 1920’s home projector. Peter Jeffrey, as Inspector Trout, provides some of the funniest dialogue and welcome comedy relief. While Joseph Cotten puts in a convincing turn as Dr. Vesalius, grounding the piece with his dramatic acting style.

While the performances are a marvel, and the effects a joy to watch, the sets are the icing on the cake: no expensive is spared on pure art deco decadence and glamour. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is nothing short of a stylish masterpiece that exudes originality and elegance. The Phibes lair is a piste de resistance for the feature when you consider the ostentatious set design: marble floors, a giant ominous organ decorated with a slide show of a glamorous looking Caroline Munro as Victoria, gaudy colors, and Phibe’s clockwork band, The Clockwork Wizards, give the setting an extremely offbeat vibe unrivaled in anything else that was being made around this period.

Robert Fuest's The Abominable Dr. Phibes [click to enlarge]

Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes [click to enlarge]

Dr. Phibes Rises Again

Dr. Phibes Rises Again sees the return of Price as Dr. Anton Phibes. In order to accept anything that happens in the unfolding plot you have to, as previously mentioned, ignore some of the key factors that occur in the first film. This time Phibes is set for Egypt to resurrect his dead wife in a fountain of youth. His plans have been in the pipeline for some time, although there is no mention of this in the first Phibes venture! Phibes has an enemy, however, who may just thwart his plans, Darrus Biederbeck (Robert Quarry), who is also intent on getting his hands on immortality. Phibes is joined by his ever devoted assistant Vulnavia (this time played by Valli Kemp), traveling by ship to Egypt with Victoria’s embalmed corpse cleverly disguised as part of a sideshow exhibit, alongside his Clockwork Wizards. On arrival, Phibes sets up home in a grandiose pyramid that has been given an art deco interior makeover. The revenge-fueled doctor waits for the right time to resurrect his dead lover, leaving plenty of time for killing his emissaries using some of his best tricks yet to stop them hindering his plan.

This sequel takes everything weird and wonderful about the original film and injects it with a huge dose of extra camp—this is camp on steroids. Some may lament the lack of cohesion with the first feature, however given how the film ends there is very little that could have been done without taking a huge back step and trying to rewrite history. In order to get the full enjoyment you just have to roll with the punches and not ask yourself too many questions; it is after all another opportunity to see Price giving a delectable performance as the grief stricken mass murderer.

Robert Fuest's Dr. Phibes Rides Again [click to enlarge]

Robert Fuest’s Dr. Phibes Rides Again [click to enlarge]

The pacing for this second film is slightly more low-key; this is due to the way the plot is delivered, as the murders are not pre-planned. However, there are some deliciously complicated deaths that showcase the gothic elegance Fuest manages to, once again, envision on screen.

Performances across the board are mainly strong. Phibes this time is slightly less sinister, but this works with the developing plot. There seems to be more emphasis on the tongue-in-cheek one-liners for Price and, now, apparently able to talk, he has more dialogue in this film. Terry Thomas has a small role resurrected as an entirely different character, which may be a little confusing for some. Robert Quarry, who at the time was being prepped as A.I.P’s rising star, gives a convincing performance as Darrus, an unlikable character that supports the notion of Phibes as the anti-hero. Peter Jeffrey returns as Trout, reviving his earlier position and injecting some dry wit into his scenes. Watch out for a very small, but nevertheless noteworthy, cameo from Peter Cushing as Ship Captain—Price and Cushing would team up in Madhouse (1974) just two years later, however, here do not share screen time.

Perhaps the weakest link in the casting is the replacement of Virginia North as Vulnavia with actress Valli Kemp. The original incarnation of Phibes assistant had an eerie robotic presence—something that lead fans to speculate for years over whether Vulnavia was one of Phibe’s clever creations. However, Kemp gives the role a slightly more human performance, hinting emotion that conflicts with the original role. Although Kemp adds glamour, it could be argued that North provided the most enigmatic and mysterious carnation of the character.

Robert Fuest's Dr. Phibes Rides Again [click to enlarge]

Robert Fuest’s Dr. Phibes Rides Again [click to enlarge]

Video

Fans of the films will be pleased to see that this newly remastered edition from Arrow represents a vast improvement, in terms of quality, from the previous DVD releases. Most prominent, the splendid use of rich colors now emanates from the screen; the restoration showcasing just how stylish and luscious the production values were for both films. The bold color palette—of rich purples, and yellows—in particular, gives the films their personality and to see them restored so beautifully is bound to please fans. MGM provided original film elements for the transfer, and it is presented here in limited edition MPEG-4 AVC encoded, 1080p Blu-Ray. The restoration is crisp and clean, allowing the minute details in the setting and costumes to be seen. The original film grain is retained, and the print does not look overly tampered with, showing a cinematic depth that is faithful to its original release format.

Robert Fuest's The Abominable Dr. Phibes [click to enlarge]

Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes [click to enlarge]

Audio

Both features come with their original mono tracks—again remaining faithful to the original format—and the sound levels are clear, free of distortion, and well mixed. No signs of age-related issues are present, leaving a dynamic track to be aurally enjoyed. Both discs are accompanied with subtitles in English for the hard of hearing.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes comes with two audio commentaries. Director Robert Fuest gives an insightful and very in depth commentary about his time making Phibes. Additionally, Phibes creator, William Goldstein, gives his views on the second commentary track. Both commentaries make discerning listening for fans of the film.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again is delivered with one audio commentary, from Tim Lucas (writer, journalist, and editor of Video Watchdog). Lucas goes into explicit detail about the film’s production, the main players, and also covers the technical angle, making this yet again another highly educational commentary from Lucas.

Robert Fuest's The Abominable Dr. Phibes [click to enlarge]

Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes [click to enlarge]

Extras

This release is surprisingly light on in-disc extras spread over the two features. Disc one comes with ‘Dr. Phibes and the Gentlemen’ where The league of Gentlemen—Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, and Jeremy Dyson—talk about their love for the films and their first experience with the sinister Dr. Phibes. On the second disc, Daughter of Phibes sees Victoria Price talk about her father’s role in the films, giving insight on his work in the genre and her personal thoughts on his career in a touching and candid interview. The Doctor Will See You Now includes an intimate interview with David Del Valle (Price Biographer) who gives a valuable second hand account on Price as Phibes, and also insight into Vincent Price the actor based on his extensive interviews with Price.

Both discs come with the original theatrical trailer for each feature.

Robert Fuest's Dr. Phibes Rides Again [click to enlarge]

Robert Fuest’s Dr. Phibes Rides Again [click to enlarge]

Although slightly sparse when compared to other Arrow releases, the extras here are enjoyable and valuable inclusions. But, all is forgiven when you see the whopping 100-page collector’s booklet that accompanies the release. This mammoth undertaking, which could be considered a book rather than a booklet, includes exclusive writing from Julian Upton, Martin Jones, Justin Humphreys, and Jonny Trunk. Additionally, Caroline Munro gives an interview about her time working on the Phibes films. There are also interviews from Tim Burton, and A.I.P publicist Milton Mortiz. The booklet is beautifully presented with rare stills, archive publicity stills, and promotional material.

Robert Fuest's Dr. Phibes Rides Again [click to enlarge]

Robert Fuest’s Dr. Phibes Rides Again [click to enlarge]

Bottom Line

It can be said offbeat, dark horror comedy, does not come as gaudily wrapped as the Dr. Phibes features. The films stand as a testament to the statement ‘they just don’t make them like this anymore;’ both films reveling in eccentricity, artful direction, set design, and gothic panache. A highpoint of Price’s lengthy career in the genre, the films also carry the sad resonance that Price would soon bow out from his place as reigning lead villain in horror, as he pursued other avenues—especially the stage. While the actor remained with his toe dipped in the waters of horror film for the rest of his active career, these last starring roles gave some of his most interesting and memorable characters. Now faithfully restored by Arrow Films, the films beautifully rendered in high definition, this limited edition collector’s set is a must buy for all fans of the horror icon Vincent Price.

 

Details Director: Robert Fuest Writer(s): James Whiton, William Goldstein, Robert Fuest, and Robert Blees Cast: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Hugh Griffith, Robert Quarry, Valli Kemp  Year: 1971, 1972 Length: 94 min, 89 min Rating: 15 Region: B Disks: 2 Label: Arrow Films and Video Release Date: June 16, 2014 Video Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Resolution: 1080p Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Type: Color Audio Audio: Enligsh: PCM 1.0 Subtitles: English SDH Extras Audio commentary on The Abominable Dr. Phibes by director Robert Fuest Audio commentary on The Abominable Dr. Phibes by the creator of Dr. Phibes, William Goldstein Audio commentary on Dr. Phibes Rises Again by critic and author Tim Lucas Dr. Phibes and the Gentlemen: Interview…

Review Overview

Film: The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Film: Dr. Phibes Rises Again
Video
Audio
Extras

Bottom Line

User Rating: 4.15 ( 1 votes)

About Kat Ellinger

Kat Ellinger is the Editor-in-Chief at Diabolique Magazine, and the co-host of their Daughters of Darkness and Hell's Belles podcasts. She has also written for BFI, Senses of Cinema, Fangoria and Scream Magazine, and provided various home video supplements, commentary, liner notes, on camera interviews and audio essays, for a number of companies including Arrow Films, Kino Lorber, Indicator, Second Run and Cult Films. Kat is the author of Daughters of Darkness (Devil's Advocates, Auteur), and All the Colours of Sergio Martino (Arrow Films).

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