Obituary: Hazel Court (1926-2008)

THE RAVEN: a publicity still of Hazel Court, who played Lenore in this ersatz adaptation of Poe's poemAnother Queen has screamed her final scream. Hazel Court, who starred in two of the greatest horror films ever made, died yesterday at the age of 82. The cause of death was not mentioned in the initial announcement, which was made here on the Classic Horror Film Board. 
Court’s contribution to the horror genre was small but significant. Although most of her credits were in episodic television (including a TWILIGHT ZONE episode titled “The Fear”), she also appeared in over half a dozen horror films, including GHOST SHIP (1952), DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS (1954), and DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN (1961). Moving back and forth across the Atlantic, she appeared in two productions for England’s Hammer Films, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1959), and in three for American International Pictures, THE PREMATURE BURIAL (1962), THE RAVEN (1963), and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964). Read More

Witchfinder General (1967) – DVD Review

One of the nicest (if rather long delayed) gifts that American fans of classic horror received last year was this DVD release of the 1967 historical horror film starring Vincent Price as Mathew Hopkins, the titular “Witchfinder General.” The British production had been retitled “The Conqueror Worm” when released stateside by American International Pictures, with Vincent Price reading lines from a poem by Poe to make it sound like part of the company’s long-running series of films based on the author’s work. Thus the film remained for decades, until the home video era began in the 1980s. At that time, WITCHFINDER GENERAL was released on VHS tape, still under the title of THE CONQUEROR WORM, with an additional indignity: the original orchestral score by Paul Ferris had been replaced with sound-alike synthesizer music by Kendal Schmidt.
In 2005, producer Philip Waddilove announced that MGM was planning a DVD release that would restore the film to its original director’s cut, with the title and score intact, but this promise did not become a reality until late last year. Was the result worth the wait? Definitely. Was it everything it should have been? Not quite. Read on to find out why…
MGM’s Midnight Movies disc offers a very good transfer of a restored print, with bright color and a sharp image. The soundtrack is Mono, in English only, with optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
Fans of the film should be happy to see that work has been done to improve deficiencies in the original. The unconvincing day-for-night footage has been darkened. It is still not completely convincing, but it is no longer a glaringly obvious flaw. 
Special features are limited to an audio commentary with actor Ian Ogilvy and producer Philip Waddilove and a featurette, “Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves’ Horror Classic.”
The featurette includes interviews with Richard Squires, Stephen Jones, Kim Newman, and Christopher Wicking. It is as much a biography as a making-of documentary, focusing on director Michael Reeves, who died in his twenties from a drug overdose after completing WITCHFINDER (only this third film). The twenty-five minute video covers Reeves’s early life and career, including the films that lead up to WITCHFINDER, his masterpiece. The interview subjects are speaking from second hand knowledge about subjects such as the famous conflict between the young director and his established horror star; this oral history seems a little too pat (Reeves and Price are described as having fought before ultimately coming to respect each other – something hard to confirm since both are dead), but it does a good job of providing a thumbnail history of the film.
The audio commentary by Waddilove and Ogilvy repeats many stories they have told before (which you can read in our retrospective about the film). The pair joke that Louise M. Heyward, the American producer representing AIP’s interests, showed up on set only for the tavern topless footage shot for the Continental version, for which Heyward took a co-writing credit. Ogilvy mentions that Hilary Dwyer, who made her acting debut in WITCHFINDER, later quit acting to become a producer. He cannot remember any of her producer credits( e.g. 1995’s AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE), perhaps because they were under her real name Hilary Heath.
Fortunately, there are some new tidbits as well. Writer Steve Haberman, who joins Ogilvy and Waddilove on the commentary track, point out scenes that were censored in England. Ogilvy mentions that his on-screen horse, named Captain, was not trained for film work  – he liked to gallop and would not stop on cue.  The actor also reveals that he dislikes the ending, in which his character goes mad with grief when the object of his revenge is stolen from him: “This is my least favorite moment in the film,” he says. “I cant stand it. I think it’s so fake. To me, it’s one of those moments where you go, ‘I don’t really buy that. I’m not sure that’s what he would have done at the time.””
Most interesting are the comments regarding the character of Matthew Hopkins. It is well known that a major source of friction between Reeves and Price was that the director had wanted Donald Pleasence in the lead role, believing he would deliver a more serious performance (Price had a tendency to play his horror characters tongue-in-cheek at this time).
What is not so often discussed is how the character would have been different. According to the audio commentary, Reeves’s conception of Hopkins was as a nervous, insecure man afraid he could not earn respect; he would have been almost a ridiculous figure – except that his position as Witchfinder General gave him a means of taking revenge on the world. As Ogilvy puts it, “Donald would have put in a lot of … angst and neurosis. It would have been a very different film and a very different performance.”
With all this going for it, where does the disc fall short? Although it is satsifying, at long last, to have WITCHFINDER GENERAL in the form that Michael Reeves intended, the DVD should have included the alternate versions of the film or at least a bonus feature offering side-by-side comparisons of them. Basically, there have been four previous editions of WITCHFINDER: the censored British version; the “Continental” version with additional topless footage; the retitled American version; and the rescored American videotape (which included the topless Continental footage). Perhaps these alternate versions do not deserve to be preserved for any artistic reason, but they are part of the film’s history, and DVD is the perfect medium for this kind of thing. 
But for these omissions, the WITCHFINDER GENERAL DVD is a must-have for any fan of Vincent Price, ’60s British horror, or Michael Reeves.
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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

Sense of Wonder: Watching Wax in 3-D

They say you can’t go home again – meaning either that the place has changed in your absence or, perhaps more profoundly, that reality can never live up to nostalgic memories of how good it used to be. Sadly, this sometimes seems true of movies, especially horror movies: those great fright flicks of your impressionable youth turn out to be not so scary when seen as an adult; in fact, many are outright ludicrous. Fortunately, there are rare exceptions, films that failed to shock you as a child but which reveal perhaps more subtle chills to your more mature mind. For me, personally, this has happened a few times. THE BLACK CAT (1934) seemed dull when I was an avid young monster-movie fan (it has Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but no monsters); only later did the aura of perversity reveal itself in its full glory. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) was watchable, but only later did the profound nature of its clash of faith (between Christianity and Satanism) reach out of the screen with a force that made me release I was seeing a truly great film. Another good example is HOUSE OF WAX, the 1953 3-D classic starring Vincent Price.
This was a film I knew by reputation long before I had a chance to see it, and when I finally did see it – on television, sans the third dimension – it was a monumental disappointment. I found it colorful but boring; the costumes and production design seemed to belong in a romantic-comedy period piece, and the directing style seemed flat and uninvolving. The horror scenes did not strike me as particularly memorable, and the character scenes seemed even worse. I was particularly befuddled by a lengthy dialogue between leading ladies Phyllis Kirk and Caroline Jones, whose continual giggling  made me want to toss the television set out the window.
Years later, while working on a retrospective article on the career of Vincent Price for Cinefantastique magazine, I had the opportunity to see a 16mm print of the film, still without stereoscopic vision. Uninterrupted by commercials and on a somewhat larger screen, HOUSE OF WAX seemed adequate – a watchable effort that might be considered a classic, because of its historic place as the first 3-D horror film, but which was far from being a truly good movie. Yes, it had Price and a wax museum and all the machinery one expects to see in a horror film, but it just didn’t seem to have any life – not the old-fashioned atmospherics of Universal classics like FRANKENSTEIN, nor the robust gusto of the boldly bloody Hammer horror films of the ’50s and ’60s.

The Mysterious Killer searches for the body of his victim in the morgue.

Well, all that changed when I finally got to see the film in a real theatre – in 3-D. This was courtesy of a 3-D festival at the Egyptian theatre in Hollywood last year, which was a real treat. The stereoscopic vision completely sucked me into the film’s waxwork world, and scenes that had previously seemed flat and uninvolving now shimmered with atmosphere and suspense. The film still did not strike me as perfect (as John Brosnan noted in his book The Horror People, the killer’s pigeon-toed style of walking is  a bit bizarre), but the strengths were more than enough to compensate for the weaknesses. So, even if HOUSE OF WAX is not a masterpiece, it does deserve its designation as a classic, and I regret the somewhat dismissive tone I adopted in the pages of the Vincent Price article I co-wrote with David Del Valle.
Not only was this screening my first opportunity to enjoy the HOUSE OF WAX as it was meant to be scene, but also actor Paul Picerni, who played the hero, was on hand to speak before the film, delivering several amusing anecdotes about the behind-the-scenes antics. Picerni began by joking, “It’s hard to believe I played the young male lead – it’s fifty years later, and I’m old and fat!: He added with a laugh, “But jolly!”
Phyllis Kirk and Paul Picerni in HOUSE OF WAXPicerni recalled that the film – the first 3-D feature from a major studio – was a huge box office success when it was released. In the days before simultaneous release in thousands of theatres nationwide, HOUSE OF WAX had a series of premiers in major cities around the country. Picerni, a New York native, missed the Hollywood opening but was present for one in New York.
In those days, the big movie palaces employed orchestras to perform before the movies on special occasions. In this case, Eddie Fisher was singing, and afterward he dedicated his performance to the man who gave him his break in the business, Eddie Kantor. Then the stars of the movie were introduced: Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy, Phyllis Kirk, and finally Picerni. Picerni told the audience that, since Fisher had thanked the man who gave him his break, he himself wanted to thank the woman to whom he owed everything and asked his mother to stand and take a bow. After he left the stage, a studio publicist came up to Picerni and said, “That was a wonderful moment! Not a dry eye in the house! Do you think you could get your mother to come to the second show, too?”
As for filming the movie, Picerni recalled no specific technical difficulties arising from the 3-D process, which required a large rig consisting of two cameras strapped together (one to film an image for the right eye to see, one to film an image for the left eye to see). But he did say that director Andre de Toth’s visual style caused him some headaches.
In order to exploit the 3-D element to maximum effect, DeToth shot most of the movie with wide-angle lenses and deep focus, emphasizing the depth of the screen. This meant that most of the action had to be performed by the actual actors, even when the scenes called for fights or dangerous stunts that should have been performed by stunt man – the actors faces were going to be clearly visible, preventing any kind of substitution..
Picerni’s big scene near the end involved a fight with Igor, the malevolent manservant played by Charles Bronsosn (then using the name Charles Bushinksi).
“He was not a weight-lifter, but he was well-built from working in the coal mines,” Picerni recalled. “And he was ugly! Perfect for the role. DeToth had him picking me up and slamming me on the floor; we were throwing chairs and axes at each other.”
In the scene, Igor eventually knocks Picerni’s character out and puts his head in a guillotine that is part of the wax museum’s chamber of horrors. Director DeToth wanted to film the following action in a single take: the police rush in, fight with Igor, subdue him, and remove Picerni’s head from the guillotine – just before the blade falls.


According to Picerni, he was concerned about the safety of the scene, because the guillotine was a real one. “I went to the cameraman and said, ‘This is a gag, right? He doesn’t plan to film all that in a single take.’ But he was. I asked DeToth, ‘How are you going to control the blade?’ He said the property master was going to sit on top of the guillotine, holding the blade between his legs, then let it drop after my head was removed. I said that sounded dangerous, and DeToth said to me, ‘What are you – a chickenshit?”
While the shot was being set up, Picerni spoke to a stunt man, asking what he thought of the safety question. “He said the only way he would do it – and even then he would have to think about it – was if he had control of the blade. So I just stood there. I was under contract to Warner Brothers. I couldn’t fight with the director, or I’d be fired and lose my contract, and I had a wife with a baby on the way. When they called ‘places,’ the other actors took their places, but I didn’t move. DeToth said, “Picerni, put your head in the guillotine.’ I said I wouldn’t do it the way he was planning. He yelled at me, “Picerni, put your head in the guillotine, you god-damned coward!’ I said to him, in a way that Brando might have, ‘If you ever call me a coward again, I’ll kill you!’ That was the New York Dago in me coming out.”
Picerni found himself suspended, but a few days later a representative from the studio came to ask him to return. The only condition was that Andre DeToth wanted Picerni to agree to film the scene as planned. Picerni again refused. Then the studio contacted him again. This time, DeToth agreed to have a metal bar, suspended like a parallel bar, inserted beneath the guillotine blade. After Picerni’s head was removed from the wooden block, the bar would slide out, allowing the blade to drop.
The epilogue to the story is that, a year later, Picerni was offered a small part in a Randolph Scott Western. Much to his surprised, the film was being directed by DeToth. Picerni read the script and saw that his character was riding shotgun on a stage coach that – on page 3 – went over a cliff! “That was Andre De Toth’s revenge,” Picerni quipped.

Vincent Price (seated) as Henry Jarrod, the role the launched him into horror stardom.

As for the film’s star, Picerni recalled that Vincent Price was a wonderful, charming man. During the promotional tour, the two actors found themselves dining at a restaurant in New York frequented by Broadway actors, many of whom they recognized even if they could not recall their names. When Picerni said he felt awkward meeting people he felt he should know, Price volunteered that he had found the perfect solution:

“When I see someone approaching whose name I don’t remember,” Price explained, “I just extend my hand and say, ‘Vincent Price.’ Inevitably, the other person takes my hand, and says his own name.”
Picerni recalled that, as if on cue, Price saw a familiar face approaching him. Price stood, extended his hand, and said, “Vincent Price.” The other man – apparently an actor – said, “You don’t need to tell me your name – I’ve killed you in three films.” To this day, Picerni says he has never learned the name of that other actor.
RELATED ARTICLES: House of Wax Retrospective

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

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

Theatre of Blood (1973) – A Retrospective

This is generally regarded as one of the highlight’s of Vincent Price’s later career, a film that fused his reputation as a horror star with his penchant for self-parody, casting him as Edward Lionheart, a hammy Shakespearean actor killing off the critics who denied him a prestigious award. Besides being wickedly inventive in terms of concocting a series of imaginative demises, the screenplay is unorthodox in structure. The victims walk on like a series of targets in a shooting gallery, doing little to elicit sympathy. The police are on hand to investigate, but they achieve little (except for interrogating an alcoholic who finally breaks under pressure and spills the beans just in time for a climactic race to save the final victim). The nominal protagonist, Peregrine Devlin (played by Ian Hendry), has little to recommend him; motivated mostly by self-interest (in his own survival), he engenders audience identification mostly by virtue of being onscreen long enough to become a familiar presence. The leading lady, instead of a love interest, turns out to be complicit in the crimes. And the villain of the piece, who is the real focus of the story’s attention, remains mostly an enigma. 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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Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) – A Retrospective

This is one of the best films from the end of Vincent Price’s career at American International Pictures (where he made a series of classic cult horror films during the 1960s). In fact, Price himself ranked it as one of his personal favorites; even though the acting challenge was a relatively modest one for him, the film played to the tongue-in-cheek style he had adopted in many of his later horror films, in which his hammy, over-the-top performances signaled to the audience that he wasn’t always taking the material seriously. Price plays Dr. Anton Phibes, a mad doctor (his Ph.D is in music!) who was horribly disfigured in an automobile accident while racing to see his wife in the hospital, where she was undergoing unsuccessful surgery that left her dead. His face immobilized by the accident, Phibes speaks without moving his lips by means of a gramophone attached to his neck. Director Robert Fuest uses Price more as an icon in a tableau than as a performer, emphasizing the lush art deco production design (courtesy of Brian Eatwell). The director’s deadpan camera style accentuates the campy approach, as Phibes gets away with one murder after another, each gruesome enough to make anyone cringe if taken seriously, all while being pursued by hapless Scotland Yard inspectors who seem to be always just one step behind him.

Set in 1925, the plot follows the mad musician as he kills off the surgical team behind the failed operation, using grimly imaginative methods (bees, rats, bats) inspired by the Old Testament plagues Moses called down upon Egypt (it seems Phibes also studied theology while getting his musical degree). Respected character actor Joseph Cotten (CITIZEN KANE) stars as the head of the surgical team, adding a touch of class to the modestly budgeted horror film and providing a solid, serious protagonist to balance Price’s tongue-in-cheek mugging as the villain.


The film is filled with marvelous visual touches: Phibes playing an organ that rises up out of the floor, then silently conducting a performance by a band of clockwork musicians; detectives trying to ‘unscrew’ a victim who has been impaled to a wall by a statue in the shape of a unicorn head; Vulnavia (Virginia North), the beautiful woman who silently assists Phibes in all his atrocities; and of course, the final-reel unmasking of Phibes’ burned features, followed by his embalming himself beside the preserved corpse of his wife (Caroline Munro), while the melody from ‘Over the Rainbow’ swells majestically on the soundtrack.
In a way, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is the perfect combination of horror and humor, and during his later years Price said Mel Brooks had admitted to him that the film was the inspiration for YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Unfortunately, Price was not necessarily pleased by the homage, saying he found Brooks about as funny ‘as an open grave’ because he overdid the humor at the expense of the horror. ‘I think the ones like YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN become so comic that there is no fright,’ the actor complained. ‘It’s a delicate balance.’

Phibes (Vincent Price) gazes upon a photograph of his late wife Victoria (Caroline Munro).

BEHIND THE SCENES

THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES almost did not get made. Vincent Price’s more recent films for American International Pictures. (e.g., 1969’s THE OBLONG BOX) had not been up to the high standards of his early films for the company (ranging from THE HOUSE OF USHER in 1960 to THE CONQUEROR WORM in 1968). Also, the actor had been having disputes with the company’s owners, Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, who were reluctant to pay him a higher salary to renew his contract after the old one lapsed with CRY OF THE BANSHEE in 1970.
Fortunately, Price settled his contractual differences with Arkoff and Nicholson and returned to AIP to do the PHIBES film. According to executive producer Louis M. Heyward, ‘A tennis player named Ron Dunas came to Jim Nicholson with a script [by James Whiton and William Goldstein, called “The Curse of Dr. Pibe”]. It was very ambitious but very strange.’
Dunas went on to co-produce the film with Heyward, who claims to have done an uncredited re-write to turn the script into a parody: ‘I did a re-working of it. When I was head writer for Ernie Kovaks [a star of early live television], Ernie used to do a take-off of Vincent Price. I did a re-write, which is Vincent playing Ernie Kovaks playing Vincent, which is what this film turned out to be.’
Apparently, several writers had a hand in the final draft, including Brian Clemens (creator of the tongue-in-cheek British spy series THE AVENGERS). But whoever was responsible for the script, the man most often given credit for the finished product is director Robert Fuest, a cult figure whose reputation rests on this film, its sequel, and the sci-fi opus THE LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH. Fuest was a former art director who had turned to directing, learning his craft on several episodes of THE AVENGERS.
Fuest brought to the film both the lavish visual sense he had had learned from set design and the outrageous tone of THE AVENGERS, which asked audiences to laugh even though the programs were not, strictly speaking, comedies. In the director’s hands, the humor was the result not so much of content as of style: there are not that many punch lines; audiences laugh not at what happens but at how it happens, the deadpan style of the camera at odds with the tongue-in-cheek approach of the star – which is, in turn, at odds with gruesome murders featured in the plot.
Price, normally one to avoid auteurist praise in favor of crediting creative collaboration, gave high marks to his director: ‘I think Bob Fuest was one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with in my life because he was making a mad films and he’s a mad man!’
Thanks to Fuest, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES works because it exploited Price natural tendency toward self-mockery. Whereas earlier Price horror comedies like THE RAVEN (1963) had let Price get away with something not quite intended in the script, and whereas THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (1963) and the two DR GOLDFOOT films int he mid-1960s were straight out comedies, PHIBES had a story that could have been straight horror. It was the style and the handling that created the humor, and at last Price had a director capable of matching him note for note and getting the rest of the cast to do the same. A talented gallery of supporting players, including Terry-Thomas and Hugh Griffith, aided and abetted the insanity.
‘It was a total delight,’ says Heyward of working on PHIBES and its sequel. ‘The creativity was flowing around like crazy! Everybody contributed because Fuest encouraged that. You’d do a funny little shtick during the walk-trough, and he’d say, “Keep that in.” The business of Phibes having a drink [through an unseen hole in the side of his neck] – that was Vincent’s. All of the ticks and character pieces that these guys were playing with in their heads became part of those two pictures. I love that picture, and I love the sequel.’
Price made a point of playing the role relatively straight in front of the camera, knowing that it would come across as amusing on screen, thanks to the bemused twinkle in his eye as he successfully complete each murder. In this regard, he was helped by makeup man Trevor Crole-Rees, who developed Phibes’ appearance. Although Phibes briefly glimpsed skull-like face was achieved with a simple mask that took only two minutes to apply, the makeup the character wears throughout most of the film n order to look normal was more interesting.
Said Price, ‘We invented a wonderful makeup for it. They covered my face with colodium, which is like new skin, so that I really couldn’t move. The character spoke out of a voice box on his neck, so I learned the lines but never had to speak them, which made Joe [Cotten] very angry. He used to come up to me and say, “It’s not fair. You’re not speaking the lines, and I’m having to remember all mine and say them.’ I said, “Well, I remember them, Joe.”‘
Made for approximately half a million dollars, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES was a commercial success when AIP released it theatrically, earning $1.5-million. That was enough to ensure a sequel, which came out next year: DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN.
The first PHIBES film also earned its share of critical accolades. Alan Frank (in his book HORROR FILMS) called it a “meticulous combination of fantasy/horror and humor.” Others disagreed. The OVERLOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FILM: HORROR accused the film of a “crassly undergraduate approach, going for easy laughs rather than exploring the potential of the grotesque variations on generic cliches which the script and casting seem to promise.”
Price himself was quite fond of the film and its sequel. “I loved them,” he said. “They were brilliantly witty and cleverly thought out.”

Phibes pumps a swarm of locusts into a victim's room.

TRIVIA

The introduction to a ROLLING STONE magazine interview with Anton Szandor LaVey credited the founder of the Church of Satan with being a “consultant” on THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, although his name appears nowhere on the credits and the story has nothing to do with Satanism. Director Robert Fuest, however, did at least meet (and probably hang out with) LaVey, and there are a few trivial similarities between the Anton LaVey and Anton Phibes, beginning with their first names. LeVay (whose real name was Howard Stanton Levy) was, like Phibes, an organist , and he supposedly had a set of clockwork musicians like the ones seen in the film. Rather bizarrely, LaVey claimed that the heavy metal music feared by many Christian fundamentalist was not the music of the Devil; rather, innocuous, upbeat tunes like “Telstar” (covered by The Ventures, among many others) were truly Satanic. So perhaps we are supposed to fear that “Elmer’s Tune,” “Close Your Eyes,” and the other songs whose melodies are heard on the film’s soundtrack are exerting some kind of subliminal Satanic influence on the audience.
As mentioned above, the music score for THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES incorporates melodies from famous popular songs. Although these tunes are supposed to suggest the era in which the film is set (the 1920s), “Over the Rainbow” (from THE WIZARD OF OZ) was not written until 1938. Foreign language versions of the film apparently include different musical choices. Also, as with many American International Pictures releases from that era (e.g., THE CONQUEROR WORM, SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN), new music was substituted on the soundtrack when the film was released on videotape. (Fortunately, theatrical prints and television airings continued to show the film with its original soundtrack.)
Attempting to cash in on the film’s use of music, American Interantional Pictures released a soundtrack album. Strangely, the album does not consist of the actual soundtrack music, nor did it include original recordings the songs that were incorporated into it. Instead, voice over artist Paul Frees (heard at the beginning of 1953’s WAR OF THE WORLDS) sang new interpretations of the songs, each featuring his imitating the voices of a famous movie star (Humphrey Bogart, etc). Weird.

SEEN TODAY

One danger to aging horror films is that one generation’s terror has a way of turning into the next generation’s camp. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES avoids this danger, because it was always, intentionally camp. Seen today, the film’s horrific impact may have somewhat diminished, but the humor – subtle and not so subtle – still works, and the extravagant stylistic flourishes are as impressive as ever. ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES remains a favorite among fans of Vincent Price – an extremely entertaining piece of ear-and-eye candy that plays to the horror star’s often overlooked penchant to send up his malevolent image.
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES(AIP, 1971). Directed by Robert Fuest. Written by James Whiton and William Goldstein. Cast: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Terry-Thomas, Hugh Griffith, Virginia North.

Copyright 2007 Steve Biodrowski