Sense of Wonder: Robert Quarry – The Horror Star Who Never Was

The recently deceased actor deserves a place alongside the icons of the genre

Robert Quarry as Count Yorga
I will always think of Robert Quarry as the Greatest Horror Star Who Never Was. The actor – who recently passed away, according to this post at the Classic Horror Move Message Board – earned a small measure of cult stardom from appearing in a handful of horror films in the early 1970s: COUNT YORGA – VAMPIRE; THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA; DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN; MADHOUSE; and SUGAR HILL. Several of these, produced at American International Pictures, co-starred him with Vincent Price, whom Quarry seemed poised to replace as AIP’s reigning horror star. That, alas, never came to be, and I have always considered that a shame.
Born in 1925, Quarry had been appearing in movies and television shows for nearly twenty years* when he landed the title role in COUNT YORGA -VAMPIRE. Allegedly conceived as a soft-core porn film titled THE LOVES OF COUNT IORGA, the movie became a cult hit after Quarry signed on – under the stipulation that it be filmed as straight horror.
“They asked me to read the script,” Quarry recalled. “I said why don’t you just make a regular horror film out of it? They said will you do it? Of course I said yes, if it’s going to be a straight horror film. So you notice several places in the movie — in case it didn’t sell as a horror film — they left places where they could add whatever was necessary — two more breasts, or whatever.”
This was at the end of the era when Britain’s Hammer Films dominated the horror market with Gothic period pieces, like their Dracula series starring Christopher Lee, which were done in a serious elegant style. COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, by contrast was hip and modern, with a sly sense of humor to help get the audience past the implausibilities of the script.
Quarry is one of the film’s major strengths, instantly establishing himself as a master of the horror genre. Looking (as author John Brosnan has noted) like America’s shorter and more compact version of Christopher Lee, Quarry delivered Yorga’s dialogue with ill-concealed disdain for mere mortals opposing the vampire. Without descending into camp, Quarry gives the proceedings a darkly comic feel as Yorga pretends to engage in polite dinner conversation with guests who ask him pointed questions about stakes, crosses, and daylight. In these clever cat-and-mouse exchanges, Quarry conveys a unique personality, establishing Yorga as very much his own vampire, even though he is obviously derived from Lee’s more famous Count Dracula.
“I figured Christopher Lee never had as much dialogue in his first three vampire movies as I had in one scene!” Quarry joked, pointing out an obvious distinction between the two characters. The actor was also insistent on avoiding comparisons to the silver screen’s other famous interpreter of the undead Dracula, Bela Lugosi.
“When we first discussed the picture, I asked if they wanted” – shifting to a Lugosi imitation – ‘Ah, the Children of the Night…” he related. “I didn’t want to do that, but I could get some kind of European thing going. So I learned the whole part with an accent, with a dialect, and then just took it out. As a kid from California I had worked very hard with a good voice coach to learn that ‘transatlantic’ accent, so I could play something besides Kansas City or Brooklyn. I started with a voice in a register up [high], and I had to get it lower to work on the thing. Christopher Lee is still working on it!”
Quarry was justifiable proud of his voice training, after having missed out on a role early in his life because of his accent. “One of the first jobs I ever lost was because I pronounced by name wrong,” Quarry related. “I auditioned for an actor named Alfred White, and said ‘I’m Robert QWAY-RY. he said, ‘Mr. QWAR-Y, your name is spelled Q-U-A-R-R-Y. How can I hire an actor who can’t even pronounce his own name?’ Years later, while I was in a play, I was sitting next to Ethyl Barrymore [the respected stage and screen star from the 1930s, whose family acting tradition continues in Drew Barrymore today], and Albert White showed up. This was at the time of [mumbling method actors like Marlon] Brandon and [James] Dean, when you couldn’t understand some of the language. White came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Quarry, I just want to say it’s a joy to see a young American actor who can speak good theatrical speech.’ So I told the story of ‘QWAR-Y/QWAY-RY,’ and Ethyl Barrymore said, “Alfred, you always were the most pompous prick. That’s P-R-I-G.’”
Back in the days of drive-ins and grindhouse theatres, the independently financed COUNT YORGA – VAMPIRE became a sleeper hit in 1970. Quarry executive produced an unofficial follow-up, THE DEATHMASTER, which cast him as Khorda, a Manson-like vampire-guru. Both films were distributed by American International Pictures, which had been churning out modest but entertaining horror films starring Vincent Price.  Price’s box office returns were declining; looking for some new blood, AIP honchos James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff put Quarry under contract.
“Vincent didn’t care to work any more at AIP,” Quarry recalled when I interviewed him for Cinefantastique’s cover story on Vincent Price (January 1989, 19:1-2). “His contract was up; they were not going to re-option it. They wanted to get rid of him because his salary was going up and up and up, and his last two pictures had not done that well. They didn’t know where the horror thing was going, and I was being brought in. They had somebody new they thought they could build into the horror thing. I was told that I was going to be set up to take Vincent’s place at AIP, but that was between us. And it was not that I was ever gonna be as big a star as Vincent – it would have taken seven more years of good horror films – which they did not do – to have gotten me up to a position where I might have an established name as a horror star.”
AIP put Quarry into a handful of horror films, including a Yorga sequel and two Vincent Price vehicles, which should have spring-boarded the actor into stardom, “but then the horror thing all fell apart,” Quarry lamented.
I have always shared that lament. Quarry may have been limited in range, but what he did, he did well, especially when the material was tailored to his own special talents. For example, RETURN OF COUNT YORGA emphasizes the sarcasm that Quarry so ably displayed in the previous film, giving the actor even more amusing dialogue and pushing the film closer to the edge of camp. (When a grungy-haired musician banging away on a piano ask the sardonic Count whether he likes that kind of music, Quarry dead-pans, “Only when it’s played well.”)
DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN, Quarry’s first opportunity to co-star opposite Price, is even more overtly campy, but Price’s Dr. Phibes gets all the humor, while Quarry, as his adversary, plays the straight man. The important thing is that Quarry holds his own as a worthy antagonist, proving that he could have aquired the stature (given proper handling) to assume Vincent Price’s mantel.
Unfortunately, Quarry role as potential usurper destroyed any chance for a friendship with the older actor. “An English publicist came up to him and asked, ‘How do you feel about Mr. Quarry coming in as your replacement?’ Vincent told me what had happened; he wasn’t happy about it. It was as if I was a ‘threat’ to his career – to this man with this long, distinguished career that nobody could repalce. After that happened, Vincent was never the same. That made a rift between us. I never some him socially after that, not ever.”
Quarry’s next appearance with Price was in MADHOUSE, which was also the last film Price made with AIP. Although far from a satisfying effort, the film once again showcases Quarry’s talent for delivering disdainful, mocking dialogue. If the results were enjoyable, Quarry insisted it was not because of the script, which he termed “crap.”
Quarry explained, “Originally, I was to play the role of Peter Cushing, but age-wise that didn’t work out, so they manufactured a part for me to play. It was nothing, and the dialogue was unbelievable. So I would change the dialogue around so it was speakble, and then leave the last line – the cue line – in. They never knew what hit them. At least it gave me something to play.”
Completed in 1974, MADHOUSE was barely released, and it did nothing to further Quarry’s career. With Vincent Price’s contract up, horror was not the same at AIP, especially after James Nicholson parted from the company to produce THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, leaving Sam Arkoff in sole charge.
“Once Nicholson and [business manager Paul Zimmerman] left, I was just a piece of meat on a rack, to be used,” said Quarry. “I was under contract, but it was the beginning of the end of AIP – though it lingered on, doing one ghastly film after another. It was like everybody pulled the plug, and the ark sank – or the Arkoff sank, I should have said. That was the end of the horror cycle. After that came the black exploitation pictures.”
Still under contract, Quarry found himself cast in SUGAR HILL, a weird combination of horror and blaxploitation.  “If Sam went out and had his cleaning lady write a movie, it coldn’t have been any worse than this piece of junk they dumped on me. And everything was judged by Mrs. Arkoff, who sat home and ate chocoaltes and read paperbacks all her life.”
Quarry plays a cut-throat mobster who rubs out the owner of a night club he wants to take over, but the dead owner’s girlfriend uses voodoo to turn the tables. The actor brings his patented superscilious disdain to the dialogue.
Casting a white actor trying to take over a black man’s business lent a racist vibe to the proceedings (at one point Quarry slurs the word “negro” when addressing a black underling so that it almost sounds like “nigger”). The role had apparently been intended for a black actor, but Arkoff wanted to get his money’s worth out of Quarry and no other project was available.
“Sam [Arkoff] would have you do anything rather than pay you and not play you,” explained Quarry, whose pay-or-play contract guaranteed him a salary whether or not he appeared in a film for AIP that year.
SUGAR HILL was Quarry’s swan song with AIP. He dipped low on the radar for several years, and the rest of his career consisted of gueast appearances on TV shows and roles in low-budget horror films, usually direct-to-video. His last completed credit was on FUGITIVE MIND, directed by Fred Olen Ray, whose cast also included such genre names as Heather Langenkamp (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), David Hedison (THE FLY, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA), and Ian Ogilvy (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, a.k.a. THE CONQUEROR WORM).
The actor had been in declining health since moving to the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital last year. At that time, we conducted Robert Quarry Appreciation Week here at Cinefantastique Online, which provided an opportunity for me to offer a few personal recollections that seem appropriate in the context of this obituary:

I”ve been lucky enough to meet Quarry a few times. The first was when I interviewed him for the cover story on Vincent Price in the January 1989 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 19, Numbers 1 & 2). Over the phone, the actor expressed some reservations about rehashing old news, but ultimately he agreed to meet with me, and he gave a hilarious interview in which no punches were pulled and no insult went un-uttered. Although understandably disappointed that his career did not turn out as it should have, he did not strike me as particularly bitter while dishing dirt; he simply refused to sugar-coat the truth, and he didn’t stand in such reverent awe of people that he regarded them as hallowed icon not to be impugned under any circumstances.
Later, I happened to run into him outside the Vista Theatre in Hollywood (where Sunset and Hollywood Blvd meet), where Luc Besson’s THE BIG BLUE was playing. He recognized me, and we chatted about how the Price article. He was happy with the way it turned out, because it included both his positive and negative comments. I recall that he also like the Besson film, although it was a rather vague and pseudo-mystical piece – the kind of thing that might appeal to a (then) young cineaste like me but not, I thought, to an actor with an appreciation for in-depth characters and insightful drama.
The last time I saw Quarry was in 2004, when the American Cinematheque hosted a double bill of the two YORGA films, with Tim Sullivan (2001 MANAICS) and Frank Darabont (THE MIST) interviewing the actor in between. He told the old stories again, with his usual gusto, and afterwards I finally got him to sign a copy of the CFQ issue with the Price cover story.

Quarry had a sharp – one might say “acid” – tongue, but he put it in the service of being a great raconteur, regaling listeners with outrageous behind-the-scenes tales, and to be fair, he was not adverse to taking himself down a peg or two. I always thought he deserved better from the industry than he got. In his later years, it seemed as if only low-budget filmmakers like Fred Olen Ray would employ him. I could understand that Quarry did not have the stature that would land him in mega-million dollar Hollywood productions, but you have to wonder why film-buffs-turned-filmmakers like Joe Dante and Quentin Tarantino never gave the man the comeback roll he deserved. (I don’t want to trash Tarantino here: I just wish he had done for Quarry what he did for Robert Forster in JACKIE BROWN.)
Looking back on the role that brought him cult fame, in 2004 Quarry said, “I enjoyed playing Yorga. The fun of making movies is the fun of getting outside yourself. I had been playing heavies all my life, but they were more real – just with or without a mustache. So it was fun to use some of the — what I hope were — skills I had developed by this time.”
Quarry’s hope was well founded. He displayed impressive skills in the handful of films that allowed him to shine in the horror genre. Given more and bigger opportunities, he could have ranked alongside Price, Lee, and Cushing as part of the next generation of horror stars that replaced Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Chaney Jr. And that is why I will always think of Quarry as the Greatest Horror Star Who Never Was.

Robert Quarry as Count Yorga
Count Yorga attacks!

FOOTNOTE:

  • Quarry claimed to have been seen as a child actor in Hitchock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT, but he is not credited and the Internet Movie Databas lists his role as “Undetermined.”

Sense of Wonder: Robert Quarry Appreciation Week

quarry.jpgOver at the Classic Horror Film Message Board, it’s “Robert Quarry Appreciation Week.” Quarry is the fine actor who appeared in a handful of entertaining cult films in the early ’70s: COUNT YORGA – VAMPIRE, THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN, and MADHOUSE. Quarry seemed poised on the verge of cult stardom when the bottom dropped out of the low-budget horror film market and companies like American International Pictures turned to making blaxploitation pictures. (Quarry was in one of those, too, the zombie-gangster flick, SUGAR HILL.) The post at the Classic Horror Board contains information for fans who want to express their appreciation, including an address where you can purchase autographed photos from the actor. Read More

Count Yorga Speaks!

Robert Quarry as Count YorgaCount Yorga is a minor but amusing cult character, the subject of two low-budget exploitation films in the early 1970s entitled COUNT YORGA – VAMPIRE and THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA. Although obviously patterned after Count Dracula, Yorga is very much his own bloodsucker, a rather sarcastic and condescending vampire. The two Yorga titles are notable for being among the best early attempts at transferring the vampire theme into a (then-contemporary) 20th Century setting. This they achieve (while avoiding the potential for audience derision) by adopting a certain tongue-in-cheek attitude, which at times (especially in the second film) approaches camp. Much of the success of the films belongs to actor Robert Quarry, who brought the modern day vampire to life with utterly condescending conviction, coupled with a ruthless sarcasm. Read More

The Return of Count Yorga (1971) – Horror Film Review

returnofcountyorga.jpgThis sequel to COUNTY YORGA, VAMPIRE benefits from a slightly bigger budget and a considerably glossier look to the cinematography. Other than that, it recreates the formula of the first film, transplanted to the San Francisco Bay area, while emphasizing the campy humor and adding a love story.
Despite its title, the script does not’ bother to explain the return of the Count (or of his henchman Brudha either, both of whom were dispatched at the end of the previous film). Yorga simply shows up, taking residence in an old house near an orphanage on the isolated outskirts of San Francisco. At a costume party (where Yorga loses the “most convincing costume” award to someone in a goofy vampire outfit), Read More

Count Yorga – Vampire! Horror Film Review

COUNT YORGA – VAMPIRE (originally conceived as a soft-core porn film entitled THE LOVES OF COUNT IORGA) is a nifty little low-budget exploitation effort that uses its resources to good effect. The shocks are crude but effective. Although relatively tame by later standards, the gore has a nasty edge to it, underlining the film’s cynical sensibility and downbeat ending.
After a brief prologue showing a coffin being transferred from ship to shore and arriving in Los Angeles (with a voice-over narration informing us about the nature of vampires), the story begins with a seance presided over by recent immigrant Count Yorga (Quarry), who is trying to contact the dead mother of one of the participants. Afterwards, Yorga gets a ride home from one couple, who get stuck in the mud after leaving him off. Yorga knocks out the man and attacks the girl, who later begins to show vampire proclivities (which include eating her pet cat). 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.

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
RELATED ARTICLES: