THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES and its sequel DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN come to 2-disc blu-ray, courtesy of our pals at Arrow Films Video.
In the 1971 original, Phibes (Vincent Price) resides in an opaque five-storey mansion lair. There, he divides his time between playing the organ with his jazz band, Clockwork Wizards - all of whom look like prototype Frank Sidebottoms - pining over photographs of his dead wife (Caroline Munro), and plotting his revenge against the nine medical professionals he believes were responsible for her demise.
With the help of his pretty assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North), he sets about putting his devious plans into action.
The first to bite the bullet is a noted surgeon whose bedroom is infested with vampire bats. Trout (Peter Jeffrey), the VERY British copper leading the investigation, is baffled. Even more so, when another esteemed doctor - "a head-shrinker" - has his skull crushed inside a mechanical frog mask at a fancy dress ball.
Meanwhile, back at his lair, Phibes melts the casts of the men he's slain as if to tick them off his shitlist, carefully placing a Hebrew amulet around the neck of each one.
But he slips up while draining the blood of frisky Dr Longstreet (Terry Thomas), and accidentally drops his amulet at the scene of the crime. Trout later discovers this and learns from a Rabbi (Hugh Griffith) that it is one of 10: together they represent the vengeful curses brought against the Pharaohs. Already having witnessed curses of bats, frogs and blood, Trout now anticipates that he can expect further episodes.
Linking the victims to Dr Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), Trout sets about trying to uncover the culprit before any more murders occur. But Phibes has a dark secret of his own.
Rich with colour and steeped in 20s-style detail, DR PHIBES is an aesthetic marvel of Art Decor sets and beautiful costumes. Its grisly murders adopt a comic book Grand Guignol style, while the script often relies on wry humour to maintain interest between set-pieces. These factors, along with the revenge plot and episodic nature of the murder sequences, help the film recall THEATRE OF BLOOD.
It's almost as much fun. North is beautiful as the silent but deadly assistant; Jeffrey provides a lot of fun as the incredulous lawman. But this is Price's show, the aging actor is back on British soil and clearly enjoying his role despite the fact that his character can only speak through a vocal manipulator applied to his throat (presumably Price recorded his dialogue in post-production).
Fast-paced, camp, but never as daft as it sounds, DR PHIBES has a near-perfect balance of humour and the macabre, and a great tragi-horror scenario that lends ambiguity to the lead character's evil deeds.
It's enormous fun, and the fact that it spawned a sequel just one year later suggests that audiences of the time felt that way too.
DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN came quickly afterwards but doesn't feel anything like a rush job. If anything, it's an extension of ideas and styles laid down in the predecessor: the surreal art design, gaudy colour schemes, theatrical Price monologues and creative death scenes are all upped.
Here, three years have passed since the original film's events and Phibes has finally awoken from his slumber with a mind to retrieve the papyrus scrolls stolen from his home and take them to Egypt where he hopes he can locate the River of Life and re-animate his dead wife. His adversary this time around is fellow explorer Darrus (Robert Quarry).
Trout is back for the sequel too, as is Vulnavia. Best of all, so are the ludicrous kills: snakes, scorpions and even sausage-making machines are employed with imagination.
As camp, gruesome and darkly humorous as the first instalment, DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN is perhaps a little over-ambitious but nevertheless still very, very entertaining in its own right.
Arrow's presentations of the films are, as you can most likely predict, beautiful. Both films arrive on their own blu-ray disc as handsomely sized MPEG4-AVC files with full 1080p resolution. Both uncut, the transfers come from exceptionally clean and bright prints. Minor natural grain exists to delight purists, while fine detail, rich colours and deep blacks ensure everyone else will be ecstatic with how perfect and filmic these movies look.
Lossless English 1.0 mono audio graces both films, along with optional English subtitles. There's not much to say about these, other than they're flawless across the board.
Bonus features on disc 1 begin with two audio commentary tracks on THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES.
Marcus Hearne moderates director Robert Fuest on the first. They speak about the unusual nature of the film, how Price could take a small idea and develop it into something much greater, backgrounds of the cast, the make-up design and so much more. It does sag in places and Fuest is clearly struggling to recall finer points at times, but overall it's a valid accompaniment piece.
Screenwriter William Goldstein's chat track with his son Damon is a little less formal, though still packed with fun details between the odd pregnant pause.
"Dr Phibes and the Gentlemen" sees Mark Gattiss, Reece Shearsmith, Jeremy Dyson and Steve Pemberton sat at a semi-circular table discussing their individual discoveries of the films on television and how it influenced their own dark comedy. They hint at the films' influence on SAW, as well how they fitted into the mood of their era. Interestingly, they reveal the bad blood between Quarry and Price on the set of the sequel. This enjoyable piece runs for 13 minutes.
THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES's original trailer runs for an entertaining 2-and-a-half minutes.
Over on disc 2, DR PHIBES is treated to an excellent, typically thorough and involving commentary track from Tim Lucas. He's always value for money and there's no change in that here.
"Daughter of Phibes" finds Victoria Price sharing her father's disdain for gory horror films, remarking on the surrealism of the PHIBES pictures and wondering what the psychological damage of making such films may have been. This 13-minute featurette seems to fly by.
"The Doctor Will See You Now" is an 8-minute interview with Price's pal David Del Valle. He goes some way to revealing the actor's motivations for making horror films in the UK during the early 1970s.
The original 2-minute theatrical trailer for DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN looks quite worn but is no less fun for it.
Both discs open to animated main menus and contain pop-up menus including scene selections allowing access to each film via 12 chapters apiece.
Also included in this lavish set, along with custom packaging, is a superlative 100-page colour collectors' booklet.
Truly a thing of beauty in itself, this booklet contains a number of excellent essays, all furnished with attractive stills and artwork reproduction. Choice cuts include Julian Upton's retrospective on American International's British productions during the 70s; Caroline Munro's personal recollections (reprinted from an original 2005 article); a brilliant 2012 interview of Price conducted by filmmaker Tim Burton.
There's loads more in the book, including tantalising artwork for future releases THE HAUNTED PALACE and THE COMEDY OF TERRORS. Brilliant.
THE COMPLETE DR PHIBES feels like a labour of love and reeks of high quality in every aspect. The films are deserving of this treatment, which makes this set particularly satisfying.
Well done, Arrow, another fine job.
Review by Stuart Willis
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