Star Wars: The Original Trilogy – Science Fiction Film Review

An Appreciation of the Original Films and a Look at How Times (and George Lucas) Have Changed Them

When STAR WARS premiered in 1977, there had never been anything quite like it. Sure, the antecedents were obvious (everything from Kurosawa’s THE HIDEEN FORTRESS to Flash Gordon serials, not to mention Arthurian myth) but the elements were assembled in a way that made the results seems fresh and invigorating. Like a variation on a well-known melody, the very familiarity drew audiences in, while the variations amused and surprised.
More important than that was the way that the film established a pact with its audience that made it nearly critic-proof. Much of what happens in STAR WARS, EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE is obviously corny and hokey, but the film works to earn good will on this count. Almost every frame says, “Yes, these are clichés, but they’re fun, and if you will give us the benefit of the doubt, we will use them to entertain you in the most magnificent way possible.” Thus, after a decade of contemporary, serious film, often reflecting a Watergate-inspired cynicism, it once again became possible to boo the villain and cheer the hero, to engage in a kind of simple but very primal action-adventure style excitement that had been long absent from the screen.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the film had the sort of production values to pull off this coup. Although some contemporary commentators (e.g., late Frederick S. Clarke, founder of Cinefantastique magazine) railed against the film’s lack of content, they missed the point, which is that the formal execution was excellent. A well-played melody, even a simple one, can be as moving as botched virtuoso attempt. George Lucas’ film obviously lacked the profound grandeur of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, but on the basic level of simple entertainment it succeeded as well as any film ever has.
Much has happened since then. The trilogy has assumed its place in the cultural landscape with such stature and devotion that the aesthetic value of the films has almost become irrelevant. The films were reissued, in so-called Special Editions, in 1997. Although the opportunity to see pristine new prints on the big screen was compensation not to be dismissed lightly, tampering with the films resulted in controversy regarding the wisdom of altering something so beloved in the first place.
Ominously, some of the changes seemed geared toward making the old films fit better with the long-planned prequel trilogy. When the first two prequels emerged, STAR WARS, EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999) and EPISODE TWO: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002), they were so bad that even many long-time believers started to lose faith. They also showed that Lucas was having trouble tying together the loose plot threads, raising more questions than he answered.
The next step in the de-evolution of the original trilogy was their release on DVD on September 21, 2004. Supposedly, back in 1997, we were seeing the original trilogy as George Lucas had always wanted it to be seen, had he the luxury of perfection the first time around. The evidence of the films themselves failed to bear out this claim, and the DVD release drives the point home even more clearly, because once again the films underwent revisions—some obvious, some subtle.
STAR WARS (1977), subtitled A NEW HOPE since the release of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in 1980, has aged a bit, mostly apparently in comparison to EMPIRE. The photography lacks the rich colors that later bathed the first sequel in layers of atmosphere. As a writer-director, Lucas obviously knew how to put together an entertaining package, but he does not necessarily have a great deal of finesse in either area. The dialogue is often fun, but sometimes it is downright clunky, and the performances he elicits from his cast are superficial. The three leads (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford) seem to be play-acting at their roles, rather than really embodying characters; this has benefits, in that it makes the adventure seem fun and exciting, rather than truly dangerous, and it certainly makes it easy for younger audiences to relate to the characters. In fact, the only really strong character scenes inevitably involve the more seasoned performers, Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness. Still, the editing of the action scenes is invigorating: for example, the attack on the Death Star is not merely a great effects show; it is a well-choreographed space ballet.
On the other hand, seeing the film with its sequels and prequels in mind, it becomes obvious that, for all Lucas’s mythic aspirations, the biggest myth of all is his Master Plan. For example, Darth Vader clearly is the only member of the Empire who believes in the Force: “You are all that’s left of that ancient religion,” he is told, and the underlings of the unseen Emperor even diss the Force, preferring to put their faith in the power of the Death Star. This makes the depiction of the Emperor in the sequels and prequels, as a practitioner of the Dark Side of the Force, somewhat inexplicable.
The knowledge that Darth is Luke’s father alters A NEW HOPE in ways that are sometimes interesting and sometimes convoluted. For instance, there is nothing in the film to imply that Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are not literally Luke’s uncle and aunt, which would make them Darth’s brother and sister-in-law, respectively. Since Darth’s minions are responsible for killing the elderly couple, it made Luke seem a bit niave in RETURN OF THE JEDI when he depended on familial affection to protect him from Darth’s anger. Of course, Lucas had to clear this up in the prequels showing that Owen and Beru are not really blood relative of Anakin Skywalker. However, there is no clearing up Princess Leia’s brother-sister relation to Luke. Overlooking the chants of “Incest!” that now erupt from audiences in response to any suggestion of romance between the two, there is also the question of Vader’s sensory powers—or, in this case, lack thereof. That’s right: Vader, who can detect Obi Wan and Luke long distance, never gets even a tingle of the force when face to face with his own daughter.

As for the additional footage, it’s mostly a bust. Jabba the Hutt’s scene was rightfully cut during the initial release time, because it is redundant, merely repeating what has been established in the preceding scene with Greedo, the bounty hunter whom Han shoots. The only reason for the presence of Jabba now is as a kind of CGI stunt: his appearance does not improve the film; it merely impresses with the ability to slap a special effect monster on top of what was originally meant to be an actor. And Jabba is far too nice: he seems more disappointed with than angry at Han; he’s just too far away from the disgusting, vengeful slug we later meet in JEDI and the prequels.
Apparently, Lucas himself was not satisfied with Jabba’s appearance in A NEW HOPE. The DVD version redoes the CGI work to make the character look more as he does in A PHANTOM MENACE. This is a bit like slapping a new coat of paint on a car because the engine needs a tune-up. Also tinkered with is the shoot-out between Han and Greedo: they’re shots come closer together now, but Greedo still fires first. (Han—a mercenary always looking out for number one—shot first in the original 1977 version. In order to make Han look more like a conventional goody-two-shoes hero, Lucas had Greedo shoot first in the 1997 Special Edition; Lucas claimed that Greedo had always shot first—it was just harder to see in the old prints—an assertion undermined by a frame-by-frame look at the laserdisc release.)
Even worse were some of the other additions, such as the moving dewbacks and the expanded city of Mos Eisley. The stationary dewbacks in the original STARS WARS typified the film: it seemed to take place in a complete world, filled with things we did not have time to stop and see; they merely passed before our eyes in tantalizing glimpses. Well, no longer: the added effects are not tantalizing but distracting, especially an annoying flying probe that accompanies the storm troopers. Likewise, the tour of Mos Eisley merely slows things down before we get to the next important scene. The CGI effects clash badly with the original look of the film, and the shots have no point of view: it’s not as if we’re seeing things through the eyes of young, naive Luke, who might be impressed by all this grandeur—and it is an awful lot of grandeur for the backwater planet that Tattoine is supposed to be. (This sequence has been somewhat improved in the DVD release, with smoother CGI work that makes the characters look a bit more believable as their vehicle zooms past the camera.)
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK came across better in its 1997 Special Edition, because there were no missing scenes to be intrusively reinserted. A couple of additional shots of the Wampa (that abominable snowman thing that captures Luke at the beginning) were the most obvious addition, and they actually helped, by increasing the creepiness and sense of danger that pervade the rest of the film. A lot of transparent space ships and obvious matte lines were cleaned up, but there was still some woefully obvious blue fringing around Chewbacca’s face in one shot. The cloud city was more impressive, thanks to views added through windows in the sets. When seen from the sky, however, the new footage bears suspicious resemblance to Tattoine, if not in architecture, then in the geometrical arrangement of the buildings.
Unfortunately, although EMPIRE escaped the Special Editions relatively unscathed, it has fared less well in the DVD set. The previous depiction of the Emperor (played by an anonymous actress under heavy makeup, with a voice supplied by Clive Revill) has been replaced by Ian McDiarmid, who played Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious in the prequels. And bounty hunter Boba Fett’s voice (previously supplied by Jeremy Bulloch, the actor inside the suit) has been overdubbed by Temuera Morrison, who plays Jango Fett in ATTACK OF THE CLONES. (This makes a kind of sense, since Boba is supposed to be a clone of Jango and therefore should look and sound exactly the same.)
Despite these changes, and an unresolved storyline that paves the way for its dismal sequel, EMPIRE remains in many ways the best (indeed the last good) STAR WARS film, thanks to some matured acting on the parts of Hamill, Fisher, and Ford, not to mention improved writing (courtesy of Lawrence Kasdan and the late, great science fiction author and screenwriter Leigh Brackett) and improved direction from Irvin Kershner. Kershner may not be the sort of creative artist who could have conceived something like the STAR WARS saga in the first place, but when it comes to the basic craft of staging action and working with actors, he is a seasoned pro who took Lucas’s material and did a better job than Lucas himself could have.
The same could not be said about helmer Richard Marquand in RETURN OF THE JEDI. That film, of course, is such a dud that no amount of reworking could have saved it. (Let’s just say that the Sci Fi Universe cover story entitled “50 Things We Hate about RETURN OF THE JEDI” could as easily have been “150 Things.”) The little new footage only increases the problems, particularly a ridiculous and inappropriate song-and-dance number of embarrassing quality. As before, we’re left wondering why bounty hunter Boba Fett is hanging out with Jabba’s entourage instead of running around hunting for bounties (of course, it’s so he can be conveniently killed off). The question is exacerbated by his presence in the restored Jabba scene in STAR WARS: the character looked like a free-lancer when introduced in EMPIRE, but now he seems to be on Jabba’s permanent payroll.
We do have to give the Special Edition some credit, for eliminating one of the more amusing gaffs: On your old laserdiscs or videotapes, watch the first set of tie fighters in the shot just prior to the Emperor’s arrival on the new Death Star; keep your eyes glued to them—no matter how many other ships zip in front to distract you—and eventually you will see them blink out of existence just before the shot ends. The Special Edition simply cut the shot before the mistake.
Never one to leave well enough alone, Lucas has made new changes for the DVD. In some cases, these are minor things noticeable only to hardcore fans; for example, buildings seen in the prequels have been added to exterior special effects establishing shots, and actor Sebastian Shaw’s eyebrows have been digitally airbrushed away for the scene when Darth Vader’s face is finally revealed. The biggest change, however, will be obvious to everyone. At the end, when Luke sees the ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin Skywalker smiling at the victory celebration, Anakin’s ghost is no longer portrayed by Shaw. Instead, we see Haydin Christiansen, who played the young Anakin in ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH. This is supposed to make a kind of sense: restored to a stage of grace, Anakin appears as he did before his change into Darth Vader. Nevertheless it is an odd choice, because Luke has only seen the older, badly scarred version of his father. You have to wonder why Luke is not asking, “Who the hell are you – and where is my real father?”
Since JEDI was never very good to begin with, these changes did not seem to be worth getting upset over; however, they did point in a bad direction. Lucas was retrofitting his original trilogy to match up with the prequels; unfortunately, the prequels almost make JEDI look good by comparison, so the changes tend to degrade the originals down, rather than lifting them up. With REVENGE OF THE SITH completing the prequel trilogy in 2005, one had reason to wonder whether Lucas had finally closed the book on the old films – or would there be a new round of “improvements” for whatever the next new viewing format turns out to be – the iPhone trilogy, maybe?
The answer turned out to be that Lucas was planning to convert all the STAR WARS films to Digital 3D, a strategy announced at Showwest in March of 2005. At the time, Lucas did not commit to a specific schedule, but he did suggest that he would have A NEW HOPE ready in time for its 30th anniversary in 2007, with the intention of subsequently releasing one STAR WARS film per year. The digital 3D process can convert any conventional 2D film. It was successfully used on Tim Burton’s A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS in 2006; however, 2007 passed without a STAR WARS 3D release.


Overall, the original STAR WARS trilogy (at least the first two films) were great entertainments that sacrificed a certain depth and ambition in favor of old-fashioned action-serial story-telling delivered with zeal. STAR WARS, especially, was not simply the hyperthyroid version of FLASH GORDON that critics tagged it. It was not so much the movie we all imagined we had seen as kids; rather it was a sequel to the movie we imagined we had seen—a sequel to our universal cultural consciousness. That’s why the story could start in media res. That’s why a mere paragraph opening crawl could establish all we needed to know—because on some level, we knew already. That’s why we could relate to characters and situations drawn so broadly.
Unfortunately, that connection was slowly eroded as George Lucas worked out his alleged master plan. With each piece of the puzzle he added—either by revising the old films or by making new ones—he took something away from us, some part of imagined memories, that we had invested into the film. What was once a kind of interactive process of a very gratifying kind has degenerated into a sort of forced-fed pseudo-religion. None of that is enough to detract completely from the entertainment value of A NEW HOPE and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, when viewed on their own, but the larger phenomenon has gone a long way toward diminishing the sheen.
STARS WARS, EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE (1977). Written and directed by George Lucas. Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guiness, Peter Cushing, ,Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, peter Mayhew, David Prowse.
STAR WARS, EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). Directed by Irvin Kirshner. Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, story by George Lucas. Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz (voice), Jeremy Bulloch.
STAR WARS, EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983). Directed by Richard Marquand. Written by Lawrence Kasan and George Lucas. Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, James Early Jones (voice), David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz (voice), Warwick Davis, Jeremy Bulloch.
Copyright 1997 Steve Biodrowski; revised version copyright 2004. revised again in 2008. The original version of this article appeared in the June 1997 issue of Cinefantastique.

Remaking Asian Horror – A Brief History

THE GRUDGE: Kayako (Takako Fuji) performs her infamous downstairs crawl in the American remake.

THE EYE (based on the 2002 film by the Pang Brothers) is the lastest in a series of remakes inspired by horror films from Japan, Korea, and China. American audiences first became aware of this trend in 2002, when THE RING (a remake of Japan’s 1998 gem RING) was released to blockbuster success – nearly $130-million at the U.S. box office alone. This led to THE GRUDGE two years later (based on JU-ON: THE GRUDGE), which was almost as big a success as THE RING, earning in excess of $110-million on American screens. Of course, this kind of success inspires repetition, and it seems as if American cinema has been drowning in remakes of Asian horror films ever since (a fact spoofed in the tagline for HATCHET, which proclaimed, “It’s not a sequel, it’s not a remake, and it’s not based on a Japanese one”).
As one might expect from a trend based entirely on mercenary motives, the critical reaction has been mostly negative. After all, few of these films cry out to be remade; most of the originals are superior; and the main stumbling block to U.S. distribution is the language barrier (American audiences do not like to read subtitles, and dubbing often sounds silly). American filmmakers look to Asia less for inspiration than for ready-made templates that can be used to punch out duplicates; besides language and loctation, the major “improvements” usually consist of pumping up the pacing with a few more jump-scares and enhancing the special effects with computer-generated imagery.
What is perhaps a little more surprising in the face of the on-going trend is that, since THE GRUDGE, none of these films has become a blockbuster. In 2005, THE RING 2 topped out at $76-million; a year later, THE GRUDGE 2 fared even worse, falling shy of the $40-million mark. At this point, an Asian-inspired horror film that could crack $30-million would be an anamoly, yet Hollywood keeps churning them out ( apparently the rational is that the film can still be profitable because they can be made cheaply).
This is a sad statement about the lack of originality in the American horror genre. One can hardly blame filmmakers for chasing after the big bucks, but when it becomes an accounting game (“After  tallying in DVD sales and ancillary markets, we’re out of the red”), one has to wonder how the mercenary motivation can be strong enough to justify the continuing artistic hackery.
With this preamble in mind, below the fold we offer a rundown of remakes and spin-offs inspired by great Asian horror films. We had originally considered calling this a “Best of” list, until the absurdity of using “best” in this context reduced us to gales of derisive laughter. Read on, if you dare…

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RING (a.k.a. “Ringu,” 1998).

RING (998) proves that television is bad for you: Sadako emerges from the cursed video tape

Our first entry is a bit of a joke: the film that started it all is a remake! Koji Suzuki’s novel had previously been adapted as a 1995 Japanese television mini-series that hewed closer to the source material. The feature film version made several significant changes: the lead character became a single woman with a child (as in Suzuki’s short story “Dark Water”); the virus metaphor (with references to small pox and DNA providing a hint of a scientific explanation for the cursed video) was downplayed in favor of the supernatural; and in a nod to David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME, the memorable conclusion featured the ghostly Sadako emerging from the television set. The rest is horror history.

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RING 2 (a.k.a. “Ringu 2,” 1999).
This sequel to RING is in a sense a remake, although we may be stretching the definition a bit. The first sequel, RASEN (a.k.a. “Spiral,” 1998, based on Suzuki’s novel), was shot simultaneously with RING, but it turned out to be a box office flop. One year later, the producers went back and made a new sequel. Although RING 2 is officially not a remake of RASEN, it does hit many of the same story points: Takano Mai (Nakatanii Miki) is searching to unravel the mystery of math professor Ryuji Takayama’s death in the first film; the parents of Reiko Asakawa (the reporter from the first film) choose to burn the videotape and die rather than spread Sadako’s curse; and Asakawa dies in a car accident. RING 2 is a bit of a rehash (“let’s take what worked before and do it again”), but it captures a little bit of the mood from its predecessor, and fans may find it diverting.

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THE RING VIRUS (2000).
Before the Americans got ahold of RING, South Korea delivered this  remake (which takes its title from a phrase used in Spiral, Susuki’s sci-fi sequel to his original novel). This film contains several elements from the novel that were abandoned in the Japanese film; in his book The Ring Companion, Denis Meikle goes so far as to insist that RING VIRUS is too different to be considered a genuine remake. Nevertheless, this film retains the essential changes wrought by RING: the protagonist is a woman reporter with a child, and the film ends with the evil ghost (here called Eun-Su) crawling out of a television set. RING VIRUS has little to offer that was not done better in RING, but it does feature a few ideas/images that were borrowed in the later American remake, so the Korean film has had an impact on the trend that followed.

*

THE RING (2002).
Here is where the remake trend really took off at the box office. When producers Laurie MacDonald and Walter F. Parkes saw RING, instead of simply purchasing the distribution rights, the opted to remake it for American audiences. Their version borrows not only from its namesake but also from RING 2  and THE RING VIRUS (and possibly even DARK WATER). It is pretty much a soulless, mechanical affair, “distinguished” by the addition of a few gratuitous shocks (a suicide by electrocution in the bath tub and the goring of a horse by a ship’s propeller) and by some crazy foreshadowing (long before Samara [this film’s version of Sadako, played by Daveigh Chase], a fly magically emerges from a TV screen showing the cursed videotape, but our crack reporter does not sense a front page story at this miracle). The film is not exactly bad, but it is lacking in inspiration and atmosphere, creating some dull passages (unlike the original, which was tense even when nothing was happening). In any case, it was a huge hit, with a worldwide gross of nearly $250-million.

*

THE GRUDGE (2004).
Uniquely, this remake of JU-ONE: THE GRUDGE was directed by the same man who helmed the original, Takashi Shimizu; not only that, it is set in Tokyo instead of being relocated to America, and Takako Fuji returns as the malevolent ghost Kayako. The American production company, Ghost House, was created by Sam Raimi (director of SPIDER-MAN) specifically to remake foreign horror films for the American market. Raimi wisely realized that, in the horror genre, execution can be more important than story; hence the hiring of Shimizu. The screenplay by Stephen Susco incorporates elements from all four Japanese JU-ON movies and forefronts the leading lady (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar), turning her into a more traditional protagonist and diminishing the fragmented narrative structure of the original. Despite the changes, this is easily the best of the American remakes, the only one that stands on its own. It’s a bit like hearing a recording artist redo one of his own hits: Working with Hollywood resources, Shimizu not only recreates his patented scares; he sometimes exceeds them. For example, check out the wonderful elevator scene, in which cat-ghost boy Toshio is seen on every floor: unlike the original, which relied on editing to fake the illusion, the American remake achieves the effect in a single, continuous take. The result was another box office hit, with worldwide reveneues of over $188-million.

*

THE RING TWO (2005).

Samara climbs out of the well in THE RING TWO

This time, the American producers followed the example of Sam Raimi and hired the director of the Japanese original to helm their film. Although not officially a remake of RING 2, this American sequel to the 2002 hit takes a similar tack, destroying the cursed videotape right off the bat, instead of following up on the implications of THE RING’s ending (which suggested that copies of the tape would spread like a virus). Having nipped the curse in the bud, the screenplay by Ehren Kruger has to come up with a new story, which it does, but only feebly. Now, Samara seems to want a mother figure to replace the one she lost while alive, and she turns her attention on harassing the son of reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts). With this storyline, and plenty of water imagery, THE RING TWO feels like more of a remake of DARK WATER. Hideo Nagata, director of RING, got a chance to helm this sequel, but he brings little of the atmosphere and intensity he achieved in his Japanese horror films; the film just coasts along, searching for scares like a tourist on a lonely road, desperate for a roadside attraction to break the tedium. The film showed a steep decline at the box office from THE RING, but it was still a big hit worldwide, earning nearly $162-million.

*

DARK WATER (2005).
This is not a particularly bad film, but it succumbs to the all-too-common “it’s not really a horror film” syndrome. Following the plot of the 2001 Japanese film, this remake stars Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly as a woman going through a painful divorce, who moves into a rundown building with her daughter. The dingy, deteriorating setting becomes an externalization of her declining mental state, and to top it all off, the place is haunted by a little ghost girl looking for a surrogate mother. The film was a box office disappointment, perhaps predictably; after all, its basic  had been stolen by THE RING TWO, so audiences were left feeling as if they had seen it all before. Consequently, this is the first evidence that remaking a J-Horror film is not the equivalent of minting gold. Worldwide box office returns fell shy of $50-million.

*

THE GRUDGE 2 (2006).
After the success of THE GRUDGE, this sequel turned out to be a massive disappointment. Like THE RING TWO, this is not an official remake of its Japanese namesake, JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2; instead, we get an original story that finds screenwriter Stephen Susco (like Ehren Kruger before him) fumbling about when he does not have a pre-written story to copy. Judgin from the behind-the-scenes features on the DVD, there were major disagreements between the American production company and the Japanese filmmakers over what direction to take; the result is a compromised effort that plays out like a weak duplication of its predecessor. Director Takashi Shimizu utilizes his patented scare techniques, but they are undermined by a convoluted structure that delays the pay-offs past the point of audience patience. The film is also hampered by a rather obvious studio injunction to get the story headed toward America, presumably so that subsequent sequels can abandon the Tokyo connection altogether. One gets the feeling that the strategy was to set the franchise up to make less expensive sequels, possibly for the DVD market (a suspicion enhanced by the “Tales from the Grudge” Internet webisodes released before the film, which looked like resume builders for a potential future director). The box office result was a big drop from THE GRUDGE, with worldwide total not quite reaching $69-million.

*

PULSE (2006).
This remake of the enigmatic KAIRO (2001) sat on a shelf for a long time while the Hollywood filmmakers re-tooled it. They might as well have not bothered: when it finally came out, it barely earned $20-million in the U.S., with overseas totals boosting the worldwide total to a meagre $29.8-million.

*

ONE MISSED CALL (2008).
Arriving earlier this year, this remake proved once and for all that Hollywood just does not get it. The 2004 Japanese original (directed by Takasha Miike) was a virtual parody of the cliches that had proliferated in the six years since RING. Ingoring the satirical intent of the original, the American remake treats the material with a straight face, as if it had never been seen before, and the result is decidedly dull, even though the running time is nearly a half-hour shorter. Not only that, director Eric Valette botches the two big set pieces: the death of one victim in a television recording studio, and the resurrection of a corpse in a hospital. As of this writing, the film’s U.S. gross stands at $26.2-million, with overseas revenues yet to kick in. Final tallies should be somewhere in the neighborhood of DARK WATER.

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When a horror sub-genre is so depleted that it cannot deliver even basic scares, it is time to call it quits. Unfortunately, Hollywood refuses to learn its lesson. Not only is THE EYE opening today; A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (remade from the well regarded Korean film) is scheduled for later this year. Oh well, at least the continuing trend of Asian remakes is no worse than TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, THE HITCHER, and FRIDAY THE 13TH.

House of Wax (1953) – A Retrospective

The enduring reputation of this 3-D horror film almost seems designed to illustrate the distinction between a “classic” and a masterpiece. Colorful production values, slick entertainment, and nostalgia earn the former designation; however, HOUSE OF WAX is not quite a masterpiece – its glossy beauty dazzles the eye but tends to undermine the horror. A reasonably close remake of 1933’s MYSTERY IN THE WAX MUSEUM (starring Lionel Atwill), the film is less creaky than its source, but less atmospheric as well, lacking the old-fashioned aura of mystery and suspense that suffuse the original.
On the plus side, Vincent Price delivers a good performance in the starring role, both sympathetic and scary. He etches a moving portrait of his character’s transition: in the beginning he is an optimistic artist, dedicated to creating beauty; after the fire that leaves him crippled, he becomes a cynical purveyor of horrors, pandering to the public’s apetite for shock and sensationalism. Read More

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) – A Retrospective Review

This silent film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel is one of the classics in the history of the horror genre, although it actually predates the widespread use of the term “horror film.” With its static camera style and sometimes slow pace, this old-fashioned gothic-mystery-romance about a deformed madman-musician, who haunts the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House, is from perfect; the film’s chief strengths lay in the elaborate, atmospheric production design and the catacombs of the Phantom’s lair that reside underneath, and in Lon Chaney’s makeup and performance for the title role. Combined, these are more than enough to ensure the classic status, in spite of dated storytelling and rather stagy cinematic technique.

THE NOVEL

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA tells the tale of Christine, a young understudy in the Paris Opera house, who receives musical instruction from a mysterious, unseen voice, whom she believes to be the “Spirit of Music.” The Opera House is reputed to be haunted by a Phantom with a skull-like face, but it never occurs to Christine that her “Spirit” and the “Phantom” may be one and the same. Tired of dealing with the troublesome Opera Ghost, the owners sell the building to some new proprietors, who –thinking the whole thing a hoax — refuse to acknowledge the Phantom’s existence or bow to his demands, inviting disaster. One of these demands regards the opera diva Carlotta, whom the Phantom wants replaced by Christine. When both the new owners and Carlotta refuse, the Phantom drops a chandelier on the audience during Carlotta’s latest performance in FAUST. Soon thereafter, the masked Phantom appears in Christine’s dressing room and escorts her through a secret passage to his lair, an elaborate underground labyrinth beneath the opera. Bedeviled by curiosity, Christine dares to sneak up behind the Phantom while he is playing an organ; pulling back his mask, she reveals his hideously ugly face. The Phantom, of course, is no ghost but an ingenious, deformed man named Erik who has kept himself hidden from the outside world, but now he demands Christine’s love in return for the musical instruction he has given her.
Eventually, Christine’s young lover Raoul descends to the Phantom’s lair, guided by a mysterious man known only as the Persian, who seems to know the Phantom’s secrets. He and Raoul become ensnared in one of the Phantom’s lethal traps, but Erik relents and rescues them when Christine offers to stay with him. Much later, a dying Erik appears at the Persian’s door and tells him that he has allowed Christine to run away with Raoul. Christine was finally able to look past Erik’s ugly countenance and show him some measure of the love he sought; this, in turn, transformed his own obsessive possessiveness regarding her into a true love, and he realized that he no longer wished to hold her against her will. The novel ends with a newspaper announcement of Erik’s death, followed by a chapter that details his history and explains how he managed to achieve his many apparently supernatural effects.
This 1911 novel is squarely a part of the Gothic tradition, which often featured breathless virginal heroines being pursed by dark twisted madmen in ancient, crumbling edifices. Although there are exceptions (such as 1897’s DRACULA), the Gothic novel frequently presented apparently supernatural phenomena, only to explain it all away at the conclusion. In the case of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, readers familiar with the film versions will be surprised at the extent to which Leroux keeps his title character off-screen and presents him in terms that do indeed make him appear to be some kind of supernatural, even demonic being, until near the ending.
The book is generally regarded as something of a sub-classic — a novel remembered only because it has been the source of numerous films and plays. There is some truth to this assessment: the text is frequently thin on characterization; some of the plotting is hokey and overly sentimental; there are dubious interludes of comic relief that interrupt the drama of the main narrative; and Leroux shows absolutely no guilt about trotting out whatever writer’s device he needs to make a scene or a chapter work. (Besides the Phantom, and a rat catcher, there is also another mysterious figure lurking beneath the Opera House, but Leroux simply tells us that circumstances prevent him from revealing the identity of this character, who disappears almost as promptly as he shows up.)
What makes the book worth reading is that, in spite of its sloppy storytelling and simple characters, it generates considerable power thanks to its setting and to the conception of the titular character. There is a lyrical quality to the novel’s finer passages, which take on the aura of a dark fairy tale. Leroux may not have been able to refine his writing process to create high-quality literature, but he struck upon a story whose basic elements worked well even without a sophisticated elaboration. Christine and Raoul are little more than archetypal young lovers, with little to distinguish them, yet their plight is indeed moving when they are menaced by an apparently all-seeing demon, who lurks in the shadows, overhearing their every word.
Erik himself is a monster in the classic mold, like the nameless creation in Mary Shelly’s FRANKENSTEIN: a man despised for his ugliness, and thus doomed to a life of sexual frustration, who years for love and acceptance, even while he vents his anger in lethal displays of destruction. He is a compelling, fascinating character — all the more so for being kept off screen for so much of the story.
Curiously, the most compelling relationship in the book is not the one between Christine and Raoul (or even between Christine and Erik) but the one between Erik and the Persian. This unnamed character is to some extent a plot device (Leroux needs someone who can help the hapless Raoul), but his awareness of the Phantom’s true identity, combined with a service he rendered in the past that saved Erik’s life, creates a bond between the two that sparks interest. Each knows and is aware of the other, but their shared past prevents them from taking decisive action against each other, so they are caught in a sort of dysfunctional two-step, crossing paths and tripping each other up on several occasions.
In the end, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA may not be a genuine literary masterpiece, but it is an entertain classic whose best passages more than compensate for the occasional lapse. It is a book that still deserves to be read for its own sake, not just as a source for moving adaptations. Unlike Victor Hugo’s HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (which seems to have been a major influence on Leroux, with its ugly title character living in a famous French edifice), PHANTOM OF THE OPERA lacks the sort of literary richness, depth and texture that elude filmic translations. If anything, its simple, vivid story seems tailor made for the movie screen.

THE 1925 PRODUCTION

Despite the inherent difficult in making a silent movie with an opera setting, this 1925 film version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the source material. The screenplay retains many of the highlights from the book, such as the chandelier scene and the unmasking, plus an elaborate masquerade ball where the Phantom appears in the guise of the Red death (an homage to Edgar Allan Poe’s tale “The Masque of the Red Death”). The main differences, besides the inevitable excisions to fit the story into a 90-minute running time, are that, in the film, it is clear from the beginning that the Phantom is a man, not a ghost, and the film dispenses with Leroux’s low-key tragic ending in favor a slam-bang Hollywood climax, including a chase scene: the backstage crew at the opera, up in arms over the murder of a stagehand who knew the Phantom’s secret, descend on the Erik’s lair, but he escapes to the streets above and leads them on a wild chase past Notre Dame (the setting for a previous Lon Chaney film) before they finally corner him at a river and kill him, tossing his body into the black waters. One last-minute change (made by altering the subtitles in post-production) creates an unanswered mystery in the film. The character of the Persian (who knew Erik back in the Middle East, where he helped him escape a death sentence) is here called Ledoux — supposedly a member of the secret Parisian police who has figured out the Phantom’s identify. No explanation is given for why this alleged Parisian wears a fez and makeup intended to suggest a Middle Eastern appearance. (One should perhaps note that the name seems to be an intentional nod to the author of the book.)


Although a bit hokey, the story has a fairy tale quality that is endearing as well as frightening, and Erick is a compelling screen villain — an evil genius who years from love and acceptance from a beautiful woman, an ambiguous character who incites both repugnance and pathos. In the lead role, Lon Chaney excels in a way that makes the film captivating decades after its original release. Throughout much of the running time, his face his masked, so he relies on body language and mime to convey the character’s moods to the audience. Chaney also devised the makeup for Erik’s hideous countenance and the mask that veils it from view. There were actually several different masks, each subtly different from the other, so that Chaney could use them to suggest Erik’s different emotional states even when his face wad hidden. The makeup itself is justifiably famous, although much of what is “known” about it is actually studio propaganda. Chaney claimed he created the impression of skull-like cheekbones by pushing cotton up between his gums and cheeks. As Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker pointed out in a lecture in the 1990s, this would not work unless you used a scalpel to slice away some tissue, allowing the cotton to be pushed higher than it would normally go. More likely, Chaney built up his cheeks with putty. Wires were used to make his eyes wide and to pull back his nostrils, giving the impression that the character had a fleshless nub of a nose. And of course, greasepaint created the lines and shading that gave the impression of a skeletal pallor.
Unfortunately, for an acknowledged classic, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is often lacking in visual style. Director Rupert Julian seems to have taken the opera setting to heart, staging the majority of action in static long shots that show off the sets but leave the audience feeling curiously removed from the action. For instance, when the Phantom takes Christine to his lair, the camera watches from a distance as Erick leads horse carrying Christine down a series of ramps. We get no close-ups from Christine’s point of view and no close-ups of her reacting to her predicament. In effect, we are not along for the ride with her; we are just passive observers.

Christine (Mary Philbin) unmasks the Phantom (Lon Chaney)
Christine (Mary Philbin) unmasks the Phantom (Lon Chaney)

The camera does come alive during some key sequences. The unmasking is brilliantly done and cleverly staged in a way that doubles the shock. When Christine first removes the mask, we see the Phantom’s face but she does not, because his back is to her; as he slowly turns away from the camera, we feel an extra twinge of dread, because we know the horrible sight that is about to greet her eyes. When she does finally see him, we get a nice montage of close-ups intercutting between her and Erik, including some slightly out-of-focus shots that imply she is light-headed with fear.
Later, during the climactic chase scene, the camera again comes to life, with a variety of angles that put the viewer into the action as the Phantom’s carriage races down cobblestone streets and wheels around corners, pursued by a mad mob that nearly tramples Christine when she falls out. The sequence has an energy, lacking in the rest of the film, which comes not just from the action but from knowing how to capture it in a way that plays out well on screen.
No doubt, much of the inconsistent visual style is due to the fact that Universal Pictures, the company that produced the movie, was unhappy with Rupert Julian’s original cut. After the film’s preview, several sequences were trimmed or deleted, and new footage was added, including the new ending (the original had stuck closer to the book, with the Phantom perishing underground — literally from heart failure but, figuratively speaking, from a broken heart).
After that, the film had a “premier” engagement that was equally ill received. The new cut added much tedious romantic comedy nonsense that took place away from the Opera House, slowing down the story and destroying the mood and atmosphere. These new sequences were then deleted; the chase scene was the only major addition that survived when the film was finally officially released. But that was not the last time studio scissors would cleave THE PHANTOM to pieces.

1929 SOUND RE-ISSUE

In 1929, Universal was considering the possibility of a sequel, which never came to pass. Instead, with the emergence of new technology that allowed for synchronized soundtracks, the studio opted to re-release the 1925 film in a “sound” version. The film was edited to speed up the pace; several sequences had dialogue overdubbed onto them (but subtitles were retained); and there were a handful of new scenes shot with synchronous sound, including dialogue and a couple of arias delivered by Carlotta.
These revisions had some strange results. The footage of Carlotta on stage was shot with opera singer Mary Fabian doing the vocal chores, but the old silent footage of Virginia Pearson as Carlotta was retained for scenes of the character arguing with the owners backstage. New subtitles glossed over this discrepancy by depicting Pearson as Carlotta’s mother.

Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin
Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin

Other weirdness included the odd combination of sound and subtitles, often on screen simultaneously. Usually, this occurs during group scenes where several frightened characters are chattering at once, making it easy for the dubbing to get away without precise lip-synch. The voices tend to be slow and ponderous, as if striving for recording clarity were more important than dramatic intonation. Particularly egregious is the voice overdubbed when the shadow of the unseen Phantom is lurking nearby – the attempt to sound ominous is woefully inadequate. (Technically, contractual obligations prevented Universal from dubbing a voice for Chaney, so “officially” this voice is supposed to belong to some unknown assistant of the Phantom — although a viewer would be hard-pressed to figure this out from watching the film.)

In a bizarre twist of fate, this sound re-edit of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA became the de-fact official cut of the film for decades. Long after the soundtrack had been forgotten, whenever revival theatres or film schools requested a print of the film, inevitably it was the 1929 cut that was sent (minus the audio track, of course). This shorter version may be faster-paced, but it omits some crucial elements that diminish the characters. For example, Christine no longer has a scene in which she expresses her belief that the mysterious voice tutoring her is the “Spirit of Music.” This belief helped explain why she would overcome her fear and remove the Phantom’s mask in his underground lair: she had reason to expect that she would be revealing the face of an angel, not a monster. This truncated cut of the film was immortalized on DVD, thanks to Kino Entertainment; fortunately, Image Entertainment’s 2003 DVD presents both cuts of the film.)

AFTERMATH

Despite its painful gestation, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA ultimately emerged as a huge success for Universal Pictures; in fact, the film can be seen as a sort of missing link between the old-fashioned silent thrillers of the ’20s and the horror films that would emerge in the early years of sound filmmaking. PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was an obvious successor to THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME: both films gave Lon Chaney the opportunity to play a hideously deformed character hiding within the walls of a famous building. During this era, there was a market for movies that delivered scares, but the term “horror film” had not yet been invented. Such pictures, which inevitably explained away their apparently supernatural phenomena as machinations achieved with sliding doors and secret passages, were thought of as mysteries or thrillers.
Universal purchased the rights to DRACULA with the hope of creating another starring vehicle for Lon Chaney. The actor was, at the time, working for rival studio MGM, where he and director Tod Browning had fashioned LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (a 1927 mystery about a detective who poses as a vampire) as a way of cashing in on the popularity of the Broadway stage version of DRACULA — which they had tried to interest Universal in purchasing.
The parallels between Bram Stoker’s famous vampire and Gaston Leroux’s mad musician were superficial but obvious: both novels offered frightening, exotic villains in foreign locations, replete with Gothic architecture that supplied plenty of spooky atmosphere. As an added bonus, the stage version of the blood-drinking count (unlike his literary predecessor) was fashionably dressed in tuxedo and cape, very much as Chaney’s Phantom had appeared in many scenes.
Unfortunately, Chaney died from throat cancer before DRACULA could be filmed. The title role went to Bela Lugosi, who had played the role on Broadway. The film version became a huge success when released in 1931, which led Universal to embark on a series of horror hits, including FRANKENSTEIN, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, and THE MUMMY.

FOLLOW-UPS

Despite Universal’s intentions, announced in the Hollywood trade press, a sequel entitled RETURN OF THE PHANTOM never materialized. Instead, the company waited until 1943, when they released a Technicolor sound remake, starring Claude Rains in the title role. Essentially a musical, the film featured lavish production values but little in the way of actual horror. In 1960, Britain’s Hammer Films (which had previous revived the Baron in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and the Count in HORROR OF DRACULA) were licensed by Universal to produce a remake of the Phantom of the Opera, which took a more softhearted approach to the titular character, de-emphasizing menace in favor of the tragedy.
Curiously, both of these versions abandoned the idea that the Phantom was born ugly, instead presenting the character as a normal-looking musician who descended into the darkness of the catacombs only after his face was scarred by acid (an idea re-used by writer-director Brian DePalma in his rock opera variation, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE). This left an obvious question unanswered: How did the Phantom manage to construct his secret lair and move his heavy piano/organ beneath the opera house?
In Gaston Leroux’s novel, the Phantom is actually an architect named Erik, deformed from birth, who fled from his native land after a sultan ordered his execution (in order to keep secret the details of a palace that Erik designed for him). In his capacity as an architect, Erik contributed to the construction of the Paris Opera house, sometimes working alone (official work was called off during times of strife and warfare). This gave Erik an opportunity to prepare his lair beneath the opera and to arrange all the secret passages that allowed him to make his mysterious appearances and disappearances. (It is also worth noting that even the 1925 Universal film, at least in the development stage, toyed with the idea of explaining the Phantom’s appearance as a development from adulthood. The script offered the explanation that Erik had been tied to an anthill, where his face had been eaten away.)
Since then, there have been made-for-television versions starring Maximillian Schell and Burt Lancaster, a ridiculous Italian version directed by Dario Argento (with Julian Sands playing a handsome phantom), and of course the monumental Broadway musical hit by Andrew Lloyd Webber in the 1980s, which was eventually filmed by director Joel Schumacher in 2004.
Almost all of these versions have something to recommend them. Several feature production values and stylish direction far superior to the 1925 film, and the Andrew Lloyd Webber film even restores some elements from the novel that were cut from the Chaney film (such as Christine’s visit to her father’s grave in a snowbound cemetery — a memorably lyrical chapter in the book). But none of them is good enough to replace the original as the definitive film version of the tale.

HOME VIDEO/DVD DETAILS

The Lon Chaney version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA has been released in several home video presentations: on tape, laserdisc, and DVD. Perhaps the strangest version was the so-called “1990 Version of the 1925 Production of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.”
This video release, with its somewhat lumbering title, is symptomatic of what could happen to a public domain film in the video era: a distributor would go to the trouble of restoring a film and then try to prevent piracy by making some alterations that allowed a new copyright to be established on the “revised” version.
The result, which was never widely distributed, features color tinting, a new musical score, and introductory material written and directed by Michael Armstrong, starring horror film icon Christopher Lee, who also supplies a brief narration over the opening scene (which was in fact created more or less for that purpose for the 1929 sound re-issue of the film, so that different countries could dub a narration in their own language).
None of these features is enough to make this version stand out. The prologue is brief, with Lee giving a few details about the Paris Opera house and even fewer about Gaston Leroux and his novel. The tinting (not a complete colorization) is subtle — and seems to have been inspired by the tinting done to the original release prints of the film, keyed certain colors to certain settings or moods (for instance, blue for underground or night scenes).
Unfortunately, Wakeman’s score is a major disappointment. The former keyboard player for Yes may have seemed like a perfect choice: his rock compositions have always betrayed a classical influence; THE BURNING and CRIMES OF PASSION showed he could provide good suspenseful and dramatic background music; and his live solos even used to mimic silent movie accompaniments. But for some reason (probably the success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage version), his score consists almost entirely of inappropriate rock songs that barely relate to the on-screen imagery and seldom enhance the atmosphere. This major miscalculation turns the entire endeavor into a feature-length music video.

click to purchase
click to purchase

Of the many DVD releases of the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, two stand out. Kino’s 2001 disc features the 1929 cut, but at least it acknowledges this in the liner notes, so buyers know what they are getting. Far better is Image Entertainment’s 2003 “Ultimate Edition” DVD (labeled “The Milestone Collection”), which contains both the 1925 cut (with a new score by Carl Davis) and the 1929 sound re-issue (with the original Vitaphone soundtrack’s music, dialogue and effects). This makes it the must-have collector’s item for fans of classic horror, preserving the film in a way that allows the viewer to see it both with and without the additions and deletions that were made to the sound re-issue.
By far, the preferable cut is the 1925 version, which is more complete; unfortunately, the picture quality is not as impressive as that seen in the 1929 cut. This print is so pristine that the film almost looks as if it had been shot yesterday. This version also includes color tinting and the old two-color Technicolor process for the famous masquerade scene, which makes the Phantom’s “Red Death” costume stand out with a marvelous sense of macabre flair.
The DVD features several extras, including video and audio interviews, an audio commentary, a stills gallery, and film excerpts from the opera FAUST (which is the opera being performed within the film). The audio commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen, which plays over the 1929 version, is one of the most informative you will ever hear. He does a good job of breaking down the various cuts of the movie, and he is more than willing to point out both the strengths and weaknesses of the movie as it unreels before our eyes, using occasional doses of humor to keep things lively. For example, he compares the film’s primitive color to a talking dog: what it says isn’t important; we’re just impressed that it talks at all.
The stills galleries are not just a random collection of publicity photographs and behind-the-scenes images; instead, they seek to recreate the editing continuity of the lost “premier” and preview” cuts of the films, showing us numerous scenes that no longer exist in the cuts of the film that have survived. On camera, Carla Laemmle (the studio owner’s daughter, who played a ballerina in the film) gives a few recollections of working on the production. In an audio-only interview, the cinematographer lets us know how little regard he had for director Rupert Julian.
Perhaps fortunately, the dialogue scenes that were filmed for the 1929 reissue have been lost. The audio track for these scenes is available on the DVD, so that you can hear just how stilted and tedious they were. Apparently, this footage was not inserted into prints of the film that were distributed to foreign-language territories, so the 1929 sound re-edit included on this DVD (and others) is actually the cut prepared to be exported to countries that did not speak English.

MODERN PERSPECTIVE

Seen today, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA has lost much of its power to terrorize, but it remains a classic, thanks to Chaney’s innovative makeup and impressive performance. There have been many subsequent films based on Gaston Leroux’s novel, but none has surpassed this silent classic. Even with the passage of time, the loose story structure and the unremarkable directing are not enough to diminish luster of the atmospheric black-and-white photography, and Lon Chaney – as an actor and a makeup artist – still towers over the cinematic shortcomings. His silent movie gestures and expressions of despair win us over, even when his makeup makes us cringe, and the unmasking of his memorably monstrous countenance remains one of the great moments of cinematic horror ever recorded on film.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925, sound re-issue 1929). Directed by Rupert Julian (and Ernst Laemmle and Edward Sedgwick, uncredited). Screenplay by Frank M. McCormack, adaptation by Elliot J. Clawson and Raymond L. Schrock, based on the novel by Gaston Leroux. Cast: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland, John St. Polis, Snitz Edwards, Virginia Pearson, Mary Fabian (1929 re-edited version only).

Masque of the Red Death (1964) – A Retrospective

This film features Vincent Price (the Merchant of Menace) in one of his finest roles—as Prince Prospero. Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, producer-director Roger Corman’s film mostly eschews shock tactics and formulaic suspense, instead emphasizing the moral aspect of horror, as the Devil-worshipping Prince tries to win over an innocent Christian (Jane Asher) to his satanic beliefs. Prospero’s efforts are interrupted, however, by the intrusion of a titular plague, embodied in the form of a red-cloaked reaper who intones philosophic aphorisms like “Each man creates his own Gods from within himself—his own Heaven, and his own Hell.” In one of his best villainous performances, Price displays admirable restraint, avoiding the over-the-top ham that typified his horror roles at this time, instead putting his tongue-in-cheek style in the service of his bemused character (instead of using it as a sarcastic comment on the character), and the script is sophisticated in a way that few horror films are. Corman does the best work of his career, aided by the wonderful cinematography of Nicolas Roeg. Read More

Dawn of the Dead (1979) – A Retrospective

[EDITOR’S NOTE: DAWN OF THE DEAD makes another appearance on home video today, this time in the Blu-ray format, so we took this opportunity to post a retrospective-review of the film, including an interview with writer-director George Romero.]
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) billed itself as “the most intensely shocking motion picture experience for all times,” and this was a rare instance of a film that lived up to its advertising hyperbole. This sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) abandoned the shadowy black-and-white creepiness of its progenitor in favor of a brightly lit color canvas that was bigger, broader, and bloodier. The film established a new record for explicit on-screen carnage, but it also extended the scope of the original film, taking the living dead phenomenon out of the farmhouse and unleashing it upon the world at large. This time out, the production values are superior; the acting performances are uniformly strong; and the script develops its themes more explicitly, with obvious satirical jabs at modern consumer society, as epitomized by the indoor shopping mall where a small band of human survivors take shelter from the zombie plague sweeping the country.
Read More

Evil Dead 2 (1987) – Film & DVD Review

[EDITOR’S NOTE: EVIL DEAD 2 makes another appearance on home video today, this time in the Blu-ray format, so we took this opportunity to post a retrospective-review of the film, including an interview with director Sam Raimi.
Hands down absolutely one of the greatest achievements in the horror genre—ever. This is literally one of those films that have to be seen to be believed—it’s outrageous, over-the-top, and beyond what you could possibly imagine, if you haven’t already seen it. It’s a high-octane visual assault on the senses that starts fast and keeps accelerating, slowing down only enough to change gears from scene to scene. If you’re one of those people hung up on literary values like characterization and narrative coherence (and by the way, why are you even reading this?), then this film is not for you; if, however, you really appreciate good cinema—filmmaking pushed to the limits of what can be achieved with camera techniques and editing—then you’re guaranteed to enjoy this mind-blowing roller-coaster ride. Read More

Madhouse (1974) – A Retrospective

Vincent Price as horror actor Paul Toombes in MADHOUSE.This 1974 effort is Vincent Price’s last starring role in a horror film and the last film he made for American International Pictures, the company responsible for the vast majority of his later big screen appearances. Appropriately enough, MADHOUSE feels a bit like a requiem, with Price playing aging horror star Paul Toombs, who attempts to revive his famous Dr. Death character on television, decades after an unsolved murder destroyed his film career and his sanity. Unfortunately, people begin dying hideous deaths inspired by scenes from the Dr. Death movies, and the police naturally suspect Toombs. The actor himself is unable to speak in his own defense, afraid that he may be committing the murders in a black-out and not remembering them. Eventually consumed with guilt over the deaths his character is committing, he locks himself into the studio, turns on the cameras, and sets fire to the set, dying a spectacular death in a fire. Or does he?
A weak genre effort, MADHOUSE makes little if any effort to transcend the horror label, instead offering up familiar elements for the benefit of undemanding viewers. Nevertheless, it is amusing for Price fans, who get to see him playing, in a sense, a fictionalized version of himself, a point underlined by using numerous clips from Price’s old AIP horror films to represent Toombs’s career. One is almost tempted to label MADHOUSE Price’s version of SUNSET BOULEVARD, though the film scarcely merits comparison to Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece.
Director Jim Clark (a former editor) stages the action competently, but he does not have the sophisticated sensibility to create a post-modern meta-movie – that is, not just a standard horror film but a self-reflexive film about horror films. Instead, we get a by-the-numbers approach, enlivened mostly by the presence of Price and his two co-stars, Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry, whose verbal sparring provides an opportunity to add a little panache to an otherwise prosaic effort. Though the dialogue is seldom more than adequate, the acting trio makes the most out of it, particularly in two show business party scenes, wherein they exchange amusingly snide witticisms.
The result falls far short of being a masterpiece, but it is more than enough to enough to please cult enthusiasts eager to see the horror stars on screen together.

BEHIND THE SCENES

A co-production between AIP and the English company Amicus (responsible for numerous horror films such as 1967’s TORTURE GARDEN), MADHOUSE was based on a bad novel by Angus Hall called Devilday.  The book wallowed in sleazy sex and scandal: we first meet Toombs shacked up with a sixteen-year-old, acne-scarred groupie (do aging horror stars really have groupies?), and his big scene consists of appearing naked at a Black Mass, so that the congregation can (literally) kiss his ass. Little happens, making the short novel feel longer than it is, and what does happen is deliberately left unexplained. The reader assumes that Toombs is up to something, but his guilt is never clearly established. At the climax, he is impaled by a falling rock, and a swarm of fans rifles his body for souveniers, but years later the novel’s narrator catches a glimpse of Toombs in a car, leading him to suspect that murder and mayhem will resume. Overall, despite the (then) modern English setting, the story seems inspired less by the Gothic Horror tradition than by scandalous legends from the early days of Hollywood. (Toombs’ career meltdown – after being suspected of shoving an icicle up a woman’s vagina – vaguely parallels that of silent film comic Fatty Arbuckle, who fell out of favor after being tried for literally raping a woman to death – even though the jury emphatically aquitted him of any and all wrong-doing.)


Fortunately, little of the novel remains in the screenplay, except the basic premise of a former film actor making a comeback on television, years after a bloody scandal. The script turns Toombs into a more sympathetic character, with whom the audience identifies even while uncertain of his guilt. Also added were the murders inspired by the Dr. Death movies – which lead us to suspect Toombes, even though we guess that someone may be setting him up. Unfortunately, the film feels a bit like a last gasp attempt to capitalize on the “Creative Deaths” formula used in Price’s previous efforts THE ABOMIMABLE DR. PHIBES, DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN, and THEATRE OF BLOOD, lacking the wit and imagination of those films.
Price had been working for American International Pictures since THE HOUSE OF USHER in 1960, but he had grown unhappy churning out low-budget, unimaginative horror films. “My contract had finished and I hoped it would be my last,” he told Cinefantastique for the career retrospective that ran in the January 1989 issues (Volume 19, No 2).
Actor Robert Quarry, who had co-starred with Price on the far superior DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN, was being groomed to replace the horror star after this film – a strategy that never came to fruition. He recalled that MADHOUSE was ill-fated from the start, thanks to Price’s shaky status at American International Pictures after year’s of contract disputes.
“What could we do?” Quarry asks rhetorically. “It ws Vincent’s last movie with AIP. His contract was up. We never got a script until Sunday morning, and we were to start shooting the next day. That gave us no time to bitch and scream. They knew if they’d sent it to us two weeks before, we’d have called them up and said, ‘Hey, work this over – it’s terrible!’ So they were very smart there.
“Jim Clark may have been a good film editor, but he was ill-prepared to direct a movie – he was just gonna shoot what was there,” Quarry continues. “So I would change the dialogue around so it was speakable and then leave the last line, the cue line, in. They never knew what hit them: when I finished talking and gave the cue line, the other actor spoke. About the second day, I told Vincent I had made some changes, so I wouldn’t have to speak this shit. He said, ‘God, help me with my stuff – could you rewrite some of this?’ I was flattered that Vincent trusted me enought to let me rewrite some of the scenes. I couldn’t change the scenes, but at least we put a little edge on some of them. That was probably the only serious work we did together, trying to find ways to do this dreadful movie.”
At the time of filming, Prices was in the process of breaking up with his second wife, who remained in the States with their daughter, while he was on the set in England (where all of Price’s later horror films were shot, for budgetary reasons). Quarry recalls that Price played fast and loose with his expense account.
“Vincent told me, in case anybody asked if Victoria and Mary were there, I was to say yes, because he wrote it in on his expenses. All that expense money for two weeks: first class air fare, food. I said, ‘Oh, I love it, I love it. Can’t you get anybody else on there?’ After all, he made a great deal of money for AIP. He was their only superstar. And they should have been damn grateful to him, and they should have paid him more money. Frankly, anything he could steal out of that studio – I said, ‘Baby, steal!‘”
When completed, MADHOUSE was barely released and never found much of an audience. Tentative plans for another Price vehicle at AIP, THE NAKED EYE, were dropped. It was the end of an era. Although Price would continue to remain busy as an actor, never again would he dominate the screen as the King of Horror. Partly this was due to the blockbuster success of THE EXORCIST: the lavish, major-studio production ushered in a new brand of horror, which helped contribute to the downfall of genre-friendly companies like Hammer Films, Amicus, and AIP, whose modestly budgeted efforts seemed low-key and quaint by comparison.
Viewed today, MADHOUSE is fun for fans, despite its flaws, and it does hold a place of some historical importance as Price’s last starring role in a horror film designed specifically as a vehicle for his talents. The film is available on DVD as part of MGM’s Midnight Movies Double Features, packaged with the far more enjoyable THEATRE OF BLOOD. The bare-bones presentation offers good transfers of both films but no bonus features except for trailers.

TRIVIA

The credits for MADHOUSE somewhat misleadingly include the names of horror stars Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone, both of whom died long before MADHOUSE was filmed. They appear only in clips from films in which one or both of them co-starred with Price, THE RAVEN (1963) and TALES OF TERROR (1962).
MADHOUSE (American International Pictures and Amicus Films, 1974). Directed by Jim Clark. Screenplay by Ken Levison, Greg Morrison, based on the novel Devilday by Angus Hall. Cast: Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Robert Quarry, Adrienne Corri, Linda Hayden, Natasha Pyne.

Witchfinder General (1968) – A Retrospective

Director Michael Reeves’ historical horror film features Vincent Price in one of the most grim and serious of his many performances, as Matthew Hopkins, a real-life figure who earned the title “Witchfinder General” for his efforts during the Cromwell era. Reeves threw out historical accuracy and turned the plot into a revenge story that is all the more powerful for not condoning vengeance. Despite a misleading title (THE CONQUEROR WORM) grafted on for American distribution, WITCHFINDER GENERAL is a mini-masterpiece of the horror genre—albeit a much more grim and realistic kind of horror than that seen in most films of the era—and the film stands up well when seen today at revival screenings or on television and home video.

Read below the fold for an in-depth retrospective on the film. Read More

Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) – A Retrospective

By Steve Biodrowski 

This is a delightful sequel that many (though not all) fans and critics rate higher than THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971). Vincent Price returns as the titular mad doctor, this time on a quest to find the River of Eternal life in Egypt, so that he can revive his dead wife (Caroline Munro). Structured as a long race to see whether he will achieve his goal, the story is less episodic, and the character is placed at center stage and speaks more often (rather than being the mysterious, mostly silent figure seen in ABOMINABLE). This time, Phibes is opposed by Professor Biederbeck (Robert Quarry), who in some ways is a better adversary than was Joseph Cotten’s surgeon in the original film. A more ambiguous character, Biederbeck has extended his own life with a magical elixir, and now that it is running out, he is as ruthless and amoral as Phibes in his pursuit of the River of Life. Thus, the two characters come across as more evenly matched, competing super villains; consequently, the outcome of the story is less of a forgone conclusion, actually allowing Phibes to triumph, sailing down the river while singing (in Price’s real voice) “Over the Rainbow”!
Like any good sequel, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN builds on the first film, recycling what worked while adding some new elements. Again, Phibes disposes of a series of hapless victims in gruesomely inventive ways (one is sandblasted to death, another crushed into the shape of a cube, etc). Again, he is aided and abetted by a silent, beautiful female assistant named Vulnavia, who lures men into Phibes’ devious traps. Again, Scotland Yard detectives relentlessly pursue Phibes, who inevitably eludes them (“Every time we built a better mouse trap, Phibes build a better mouse.) And once again, scenes are filled with beautiful sets, costumes, and music that make the film seem quite elaborate, despite its relatively modest budget.
Several elements from the first film were brought back in different guises. Actors Hugh Griffith and Terry-Thomas returned in supporting roles, but playing different characters. Valli Kemp (Miss Australia 1970) replaced Virginia North as Phibes mysterious and unexplained assistant Vulnavia. This created a bit of an unacknowledged continuity problem, because Vulnavia was clearly killed in a rain of acid in the first film; Fuest wrote the role as a new character in the second film, but AIP wanted name continuity, apparently. Also ignored was the promise at the end of the first film that Phibes would return to menace his opponents with a Biblical “Plague of Darkness.”

Phibes (Vincent Price) with the new Vulnavia (Valli Kemp)

Other new faces include the lovely Fiona Lewis (Roman Polanski’s DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES, Brian DePalma’s THE FURY), as Biederbeck’s love interest, and veteran horror star Peter Cushing, who lent his presence to one scene, as a ship’s captain suitably appalled when Biederbeck doesn’t want to bother trying to rescue a colleague who has been thrown overboard by Phibes. Though brief, Cushing’s appearance (along with those of Thomas and Griffith) lends a touch of class and professionalism to the production, making even relatively small roles stand out with some distinction.
If there is a weakness, it is that the sequel tends to emphasize the campy humor at the expense of the horror. With Phibes now nominally the hero, the audience is not really expected to be frightened by him; instead, we are invited to identify and laugh along with him as he polishes off everyone in his way. Still, this is a small price to pay for the faster-paced plot and many imaginative and amusing touches that make this an extremely entertaining fantasy adventure, if not a very scary horror film.

BEHIND THE SCENES

After THE ABMONINABLE DR. PHIBES became a commercial success, American International Pictures rushed to repeat the formula. This time, director Robert Fuest collaborated on the screenplay with Robert Blees, an old friend of executive producer Louis M. Heyward, who brought him in to balance Fuest’s off-the-wall approach. “Bob Fuest has a wild sense of humor,” Heyward explains. “Bob [Blees] I knew from [20th Century] Fox. Bob had done MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, for which he got an Oscar nomination. He’s a singular craftsman with a sly sense of humor.”
Shot in England, the film was modestly budgeted but relatively lavish, thanks to economics of the British film industry, which could achieve much more with less money than was possible in America. The film is filled with clever and eccentric visual touches that make it seem more expensive than it is, such as the Rolls Royce grill that adorns Mrs. Phibes’ coffin.
“That was genius,” says Heyward. “We had a rolls Royce grill which we couldn’t afford to buy—it was something like a thousand pounds, front and rear. So we had the temerity to say to the Rolls Royce company, ‘You’re getting a free plug—we’ll leave the Rolls plate on, if you’ll loan the grills to us for free.”


Robert Quarry was chose to play Phibes antagonist on the basis of his success in the title role of COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, a campy, low-budget, modern-day vampire film. Shot independently, YORGA had been picked up for distribution by AIP, which signed Quarry to a contract and turned out a slightly bigger-budget sequel, THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA. With their tongue-in-cheek attitude (Yorga is a notably sarcastic vampire count), the films were good warm-up for participating in Robert Fuest’s campy approach to horror, although Quarry is one of those who think the director over-emphasized the comedy in DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN.
“I thought the first picture was terrific because it was a combination of horror and satire,” says Quarry, whereas in the sequel, “I didn’t think anything was ever that scary, because Fuest was looking for the big joke all the time.”
Like Joseph Cotton before him, Quarry found it difficult to act opposite Price in his Phibes role. Because doctor is supposed to be horribly disfigured beneath the makeup he wears to look normal, he is unable to speak with his lips, relying on a voice that emerges from a gramophone attached by a wire to his neck. On set, Price would mime the facial expressions while a script girl read his lines off screen; then he would dub the voice in post-production. This left Quarry playing his scenes who was merely staring back at him.
“I can’t describe what it’s like to work with Vincent as an actor from PHBIES. I mean, Phibes is a silly role. How do you know how good an actor you worked with? God knows you couldn’t tell anything from [the silent facial expressions]. The hardest acting I ever did in my life were those scenes—keeping a straight face and playing it with anger while Vincent’s mugging. I’d say, ‘Vincent, I’m never going to get it; it’s like working with a goldfish.’ I’d look at him and think, ‘You look just like that goldfish in the Disney movie!’”
Quarry adds that Price enjoyed exaggerating his expressions in order to make his co-star blow takes. “He’s a funny man; he’s also a hard worker. He had to learn the scenes so his [expression] matched the dialogue. That isn’t easy to do, either; it looks easy, but trust me, it is not. He knew that I was gonna go crazy. He said, ‘Just wait till you do the scene. Joe Cotton couldn’t stand it.’ After the first take, which I blew—and Vincent’s loving every minute of it, because he knows what he’s doing to me—I thought I’d just relate it to somebody I really hate, in real life, and just look at his ear. Vincent said, ‘You did better than Joe Cotton did!’”
Although an American International Picture, with two Americans in the lead roles, PHIBES RISES AGAIN, like its predecessor was shot in England in order to keep costs down. This also allowed for the casting of strong British actors in the supporting roles, at a time when many American actors felt that horror films were disreputable.
Heyward takes credit for much of the casting. “Terry-Thomas was one of my favorites—he and Hugh Griffith I used in every picture I could.” However, Heyward’s boss, American International Pictures executive Samuel Z. Arkoff, had some concerns regarding Griffith’s reliability. “Arkoff said, ‘He’s a drunk.’ Everybody knew he was an alcoholic. I said, ‘Leave him to me, and it will be all right. I promise we won’t lose a day’s work; we won’t lose a half-day’s work.’ I had a long talk with Hugh: ‘Whatever you do at night’s your problem; in the day, you belong to me.’ People were afraid of him, and I wanted to prove they didn’t have to be.”
Heyward also takes credit for the casting of Quarry in the lead role opposite Price. “The casting of Robert Quarry was placed on me; we had a contract that had to be used up. In my opinion he was the weakest thing in the film. He didn’t integrate, and he didn’t have the fun that such a picture demands.”
However, this version of events seems unlikely, as Quarry was not only under contract with American International Pictures; the company also was clearly grooming him as a new horror star to step in as a replacement for Price, whose contract with the company was running out.
“I was told I was going to be set up to take Vincent’s place, but that was between us,” Quarry recalled. “Vincent didn’t care to work anymore at AIP. And they wanted to get rid of him because his salary was going up and up and his last two pictures had not done that well. He had an exclusive contract with AIP to do horror films; he had the same contract I had, except mine started down here in salary and his was already up there, with a much bigger per diem. His contract was up, and they were not going to re-option it. In me, they thought they had somebody new they could build into the horror thing.”
According to Quarry, a gaffe by a British publicity flack made Price aware that AIP was getting ready to dump him in favor of new blood. “We had an unfortunate incident that did create a schism between us,” Quarry recalled. “We’d been shooting about a week. They had a big cocktail reception. An English publicist came up to him and asked, ‘How do you feel about Mr. Quarry coming in as your replacement at AIP?’
“Vincent told me about what happened. He wasn’t happy about it; he was hurt. It was as if I was a ‘threat’ to Vincent’s career—to this man with this long, distinguished career that nobody could replace. This publicist made it sound as if I were out to de-throne the king. It was the wrong thing for that man to say—that man should have been fired. So I went to the producer and told him what had happened. Well, it was too late; the damage was done.
“After that, Vincent was never the same. That made a rift between us. Not our working together. As far as our working together, it was extremely pleasant. Our sense of humor was the one bond that made working with him a pleasure. We had an awful lot of laughs on the movie. When we worked in those scenes, it was hard, because Vincent never had any dialogue. Here I had to play these serious lines like ‘Phibes, you demon from hell!’ and Vincent sat there going”—Quarry finishes his sentence by shifting into an imitation of the silent throat-bulging Price used to convey Phibes liplessly speaking through his gramophone. “God, it was hysterical,” Quarry adds. “We enjoyed that; it was fun. But I never saw him socially after that incident, not ever.”
Apparently, the personal rift did not prevent a little conspiratorial skullduggery between the two actors, regarding Price’s expense account for his wife and daughter. “He told me, in case anybody asked if Victoria and Mary were there, I was to say yes. They hadn’t shown up, but Vincent wrote all it into his expenses—all that money for two weeks: first class air fair, food, per diem. Frankly, anything he could steal out of that studio—I said, ‘Baby, steal!’ When he said not to say anything about Mary and Victoria not coming, I said, ‘Oh, I love it! Can you get anybody else on there?”
Recalling the experience leads Quarry to wax philosophical about what it takes to perform well in the genre. “People think it isn’t tough to act in horror films,” he says. “It’s the toughest acting in the world. That’s why I have nothing but admiration for all those years Vincent played those horror films. They’re all peak emotions; they’re all phony. And you have to create a characterization out of something that doesn’t exist. There’s a great difference between that and being able to play scenes with real situations where emotions come honestly.”

Phibes finds the key that will lead him to eternal life.

UNMADE SEQUELS AND ILLEGITIMATE PROGENY

Unfortunately, with Price on his way out of American International Pictures, the company was not interested in continuing series of films featuring the actor in a recurring role. Price finished up his AIP contract by doing one more film with Quarry, 1973’s MADHOUSE, but Dr. Phibes’ career was over, even though RISES AGAIN, according to Louis Heyward, “did better than the first.”
Contrary to Heyward’s assessment, American International Pictures declared the film a box office failure at the time of its release, and a proposed third film never materialized. A big contributing factor in sinking a potential sequel was the departure of James H. Nicholson from AIP. (He went on to produce the excellent LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, scripted by renowned fantasy author Richard Matheson.) With Nicholson gone, Samuel Z. Arkoff was left solely in charge. Generally regarded as the more business-minded of the AIP duo, Arkoff was less enthusiastic about continuing AIP’s traditional horror formula than in moving into black exploitation genre, with titles like BLACULA and SUGAR HILL
“If Sam went out and had his cleaning lady write a movie, it couldn’t have been any worse than this piece of junk they dumped on me,” said Quarry, who was given the part of the lead villain, originally written for a black actor, because he owed Arkoff one more picture on his pay-or-play contract (that is, an exclusive contract that stipulates an actor will be paid even if the producer doesn’t put him in a movie, because the “exclusivity” clause prevents him from accepting other work). “Sam would have you do anything rather than pay you and not play you,” Quarry explained. “That was the end of the horror cycle; after that, came the blaxploitation pictures. It was the beginning of the end of AIP, although it lingered on, doing one ghastly film after another.”
Louis Heyward also blames the company’s circumstances for ending the Phibes series. “I left AIP; Jim [Nicholson] was gone,” recalled Louis Heyward. “You couldn’t do the pictures here [in the U.S.]. Plus, they lost the production team they had. Bob [Fuest] knew design, and I’d say [production designer Brian] Eatwell was very important. You need someone like Bob and Brian, who have lovely pictures in their head and understand the beauty of what they want to construct, and you need someone like myself—who controls the dollars with compassion, not a bread knife but a scalpel—to say, ‘Hey, it’s great, but for the dollars we have to do this; without emasculating, let’s take it here, and save.’”
These assessments from Quarry and Heyward probably include a good deal of hindsight. Whatever the contractual concerns and company upheavals, scripts were written for a third PHIBES film, so clearly someone at the time thought the idea might be viable.
Vincent Price always insisted that it was Fuest’s reluctance to direct further installments that ended the series. “One [script] was called DR. PHIBES IN THE HOLY LAND,” Price recalled for Cinefantastique magazine. “Remember at the end of the last one, we were in Egypt and I sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ It’s a marvelous script, a very funny script. I wanted Bob Fuest to direct it. He’s the only person in the world who is made enough to direct the Dr. Phibes films. He’s a genuine, registered nut! He even looks like a madman. He’s all over the place, like unmade bed. What an imagination he has! They were all his ideas.”
Long after AIP had closed shop, interest in a third PHIBES film remained. At one time or another, other talents were linked to a third installment to be called PHIBES RESURRECTUS, including ROBOCOP producer Jon Davison and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD director George Romero. However, Price was uncertain about pursuing the project without Fuest. “I don’t think so,” he replied when asked about playing the character for Romero. “I might do it. I’d have to see the script and talk to him.”
Sadly, the film never came to be. However, the Phibes formula did yield further progeny. Price’s next film (made for United Artists instead of American International Pictures) was 1973’s THEATRE OF BLOOD, a wonderful black comedy clearly derived from the premise of the first Phibes film. This time, the script had Price as a Shakespearian actor literally skewering critics who had figuratively skewered him, but the parallels were obvious, with Price once again playing a vengeful madman killing off victims in imaginatively horrible ways that made the audience both scream and laugh.
Appropriately enough, the script was also offered to director Robert Fuest, who turned it down. “They all get frightened that they’re going to get stuck in” the horror genre, Price explained of Fuest’s interesting in pursuing other projects (including AIP’s brief flirtation with “serious” filmmaking, an adaptation of WUTHERING HEIGHTS starring future 007 Timothy Dalton). “Bob has never done anything that was nearly as good as DR. PHIBES, though.”
With its contemporary theatrical setting and R-rated bloodletting, THEATRE OF BLOOD is considerably different in look and tone from the PHIBES films, but it equals (and some would say, surpasses) them. The role also gave Price a wider range to play as an actor, allowing him not only to speak again but also giving him the deliver dialogue from more than half a dozen Shakespearian scenes with unrestrained gusto.

SEEN TODAY

As a camp classic, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN holds up, thanks to the inventive humor. Some elements ring false, but not enough to undermine the film. (For example, when Phibes discovers the Pharaoh’s tomb, the soundtrack supplies a Gregorian chant—an anachronism off by one continent and several thousand years.) Perhaps the campy tone undermines the horror, making the sequel seem like a more frivolous trifle than its predecessor, but more often than not PHIBES RISES AGAIN plays like a sumptuous confection that avoids many of the clichés of the genre. After all, most horror films, whether intentionally or not, end up asking the audience to identify with the villain or monster; finally, here’s one that embraces the concept fully and plays it out to its logical conclusion, allowing him to win in the end.
One unfortunate side note to seeing the film today is that the release on home videotape was marred, apparently because of rights problems relating to the use of the song “Over the Rainbow.” The ending of the theatrical version of the film derived much of its effectiveness from the song (an echo of the first film’s conclusion) because the visual was relatively unimpressive: a simple, dimly lit shot of Phibes raft floating away down a tunnel. It was the swelling soundtrack, with Price’s own voice singing, that gave the punch line some punch. On videotape, however, the song was removed and replaced with a simple piece of dramatic music lifted from elsewhere in the film. The result was a flat ending with no kick, which left viewers feeling as if something was missing (as indeed it was).
This glitch aside, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN remains one of the best camp horror films ever made—a stylish, fun-filled movie and a worthy sequel to the fine original.
DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (American International Pictures, 1972). Directed by Robert Fuest. Written by Fuest and Robert Blees. Cast: Vincent Price, Robert Quarry, Peter Jeffrey, Fiona Lewis, Hugh Griffith, john Cater, Gerald Sim, Lewis Fiander, Peter Cushing, Beryl Reid, Terry-Thomas.
Copyright 2007 Steve Biodrowski
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