Late Fees: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Rockie Juarez, a video store junkie, has a lot of cinematic blind spots. While he is surrounded by awe-inspiring cinema, it is impossible to dive into all the world of movies has to offer. Thankfully, he has the incredible Stephanie Crawford to point him in dangerous directions he has overlooked or has been too damn lazy to dive into. Will these recommendations elevate his love for cinema or will these films completely melt his brain, causing it to leak profusely out of his nose? Read along as these two cinephiles break down and dissect each recommendation, hopefully without going for one another's throat.
Stephanie’s recommendation to Rockie this week is 1971’s horror-comedy The Abominable Dr. Phibes, starring Vincent Price as the titular Dr. Phibes. They also discuss the sequel from 1972, Dr. Phibes Rides Again.
Rockie Juarez: Right away, I just want to say Phibes is one of the coolest horror baddies ever. His motives are based around love, and that makes him stand out from the rest of the pack. His appearance, both false and true, make for a memorable villain, and yes, it does not hurt that our lead is the immortal Vincent Price. Here, one could argue, Price plays one of the most romantic leads of his entire career. Phibes is a heavy who is hellbent on justice for his beloved Victoria, whom he felt could have been saved if not for shoddy work during surgery. He spends the remainder of the film killing off all involved one by one in a series of elaborate murders, each kill more creative than the last. When Phibes is NOT murdering fools, he is rocking out with his band The Clockwork Wizards (amazing name, considering they are an animatronic creation) in his huge lair. I had zero problems with this film. It is very creative for the entire run time, and Phibes doing this for love makes him dangerously romantic. A stand-out villain, one you could root for, Phibes is fascinating thanks to the indelible Vincent Price who can do wonders with just a stare. Thanks, Steph for this recommendation. It is something I fell into immediately and when it was finished, I felt silly for having missed this wonderful gem. So, why Phibes? What does this film mean to you?
Stephanie Crawford: Dr. Phibes means quite a bit to me! I discovered Vincent Price for myself in a powerful one-two punch: Around the age of 9, I discovered a little paperback collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories. While I didn’t understand a good, hearty portion of it, I was so hungry for anything spooky that I was still bewitched. I decided to do a book report on ol’ Edgar for my English class, and I convinced my mom that I needed to see The Pit and the Pendulum to really understand the guy. Not too long after, I saw Edward Scissorhands, and I decided I was completely in love with V.P. Sadly, he passed away very soon after all this, and I have a crystal-clear memory of crying in the backseat of my parents’ car because I missed him, and he died right before Halloween, which I felt might have upset him.
Dr. Phibes came about later on, though, after I was about waist-deep in his filmography. I figured it’d be another charming but fairly routine “mad doctor” yarn, and I deserved the slap my soul received when I finally saw it. It immediately joined my top 10 movies ever list, and there it still remains. It’s dripping with style, both dark and silly humor, romance, and, of course, lots of creative deaths. As a rabid fan of Vincent Price, I feel like this is him at his most complete, if not final, form. He was reportedly getting bored with a lot of the violent and mean-spirited characters he was continually getting cast as, and you can almost sense his relief in his performance at the dark humor and creative-deaths-fueled-by-love plot. So, Rock(ie) star, sequels sure can be a minefield! How did Dr. Phibes Rises Again hit you?
RJ: I liked it! Typical statement inbound: I loved the first film more, but the sequel still has some wonderful moments sprinkled throughout that help it stay awesome. Loved the opening death montage because it reminds us of the flavor of the macabre we’ll be served. Another thing I was happy with was the return of Vulnavia, Phibes’ sultry hench lady. Although recast, I love the loyalty in the character. Especially here where she seems to materialize out of some cosmic ether, then proceeds to walk zombie-like towards the camera, fully commanding our full attention. Huge fan of the Scotland Yard cast reprising their roles, too. Consistency helps sell the Phibes films, and it’s a low-key anchor to the whole shebang that these officers are completely baffled and flummoxed by the sheer audacity of the murders. But back to the whole reason Vincent Price is even doing this. The unyielding love for his wife and the extremes he shall go through for her truly make the Phibes films a true joy. This makes him tower over most villains for me because when lined up to say Jason, Freddy, etc, his code is more in tune with a romantic than that of a true killer. Don’t get me wrong: Phibes ends lives in both films in spectacular fashion, but you get the drift.
For me, Darkman and Bram Stoker’s Dracula would pair well with these films. What films, if any, would you screen with Dr. Phibes?
SC: I’d screen just about anything with Dr. Phibes, and I love your darker choices involving different degrees of romantic obsession. That said, for me, The Phantom of the Paradise would be ultra-perfection. I also think Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (the original Italian cut, not the AiP one, specifically. You need that pullback “Dream of me!” ending.) would also be a great complement as it’s just very lightly daffy with its Boris Karloff segments, but it’s just spooky enough to add a bit of dark gravitas to counter Phibes’ unbridled joy of the macabre. That’s one of my very favorite things about Phibes: It’s certainly a grisly horror movie, but it’s very nearly a comic book to the same degree. Hell, the second one puts on some great adventure movie airs, too.
Finally, since it’s a moral imperative to have another Vincent Price picture, Theatre of Blood would be my last screening choice. Price as an avenging actor murdering the theatre critics who didn’t appreciate him enough while living on the fringes of society is not only a hell of a lot of fun, but I think Phibes would also appreciate his Joie de Mort. (Also, the director is Douglas Hickox, father of Anthony Hickox, who directed Waxwork, which would also be a good pairing…)
Thank you so much for actually taking my suggestions, Rockie! I hope you know I’m unselfishly doing this for you. That said, I never knew I wanted to have viewing control over someone who worked at a cool video store, but now that I’ve tasted that power, I hope you’ll keep trying them out and wanting to chat afterward. Next, I think we should go slightly more modern and something with A LOT more dames...