The Bad Movie Report

Dr. Phibes Rises Again

Own It!

My God, how I hate this movie.

Would that I could leave it at that. But no, one should not consider one without the other, so let us progress on to The Abominable Dr. Phibes' sequel, released a mere year later: Dr. Phibes Rises Again, although it will, to employ the parlance of the stoner, "Harsh my Phibes buzz."

The movie begins with a recap of the previous movie, narrated by none other than announcer icon Gary Owens, which gives us hope (in announcer terms, Paul Frees = serious, Gary Owens = comedy). But the first spot of trouble, for me, occurs when Gary tells us of Phibes' wife enshrined, "not alive, nor completely dead."

First of all, I despise sequels that start off by telling me that everything I learned in the first movie is a lie. Highlander II did that to me, and I bitterly washed my hands of the franchise, and never looked back. Now, according to the timeline established in the first movie, the death of Victoria Phibes on the operating table preceded the events of the movie by about five years. During that time, Phibes recovered from his car wreck, stole Victoria's body from the family mausoleum, planned his revenge and tinkered together his infernal devices. Now, given that Phibes was ostensibly in Switzerland when his car went off a cliff, it's very hard to make the leap that Victoria moldered in a coffin "not alive, nor completely dead" for the time it would have taken Phibes, battered, bloody, faceless and probably still smoldering from that crash, to get to London to steal her body... no matter how inept Phibes felt the surgical team.

Oh, great. Now we're doing Zardoz.Andrew has a theory that Phibes is some variety of the undead, and his animation may be the result of some dreadful Satanic pact; witness that, in the opening of this movie, after the machinery in his crypt-for-two reverses itself and replaces the embalming fluid with blood, the resurrected Phibes flourishes, "I summon you again, Vulnavia!" and his silent female assistant appears, dancing down some brightly-lit 2001 tunnel of mirrors. This is a different Vulnavia - Valli Kemp, to be precise - which is unsurprising, as we saw the last Vulnavia walking under an acid bath at the end of the last movie. Andrew posits that Vulnavia is actually a demonic entity, sent to assist Phibes in his worldly depravations.

I, too, have a theory, but I'll save it for later. No, wait, I have another theory, and I'll tell it to you right now: Andrew and I have just spent more time thinking about this movie and its plot than director/screenwright Robert Fuest ever did.

Oh, let's get on with it. It's been three years since the events of the first movie. The planetary conjunction that set Phibes' resurrection equipment into motion precedes another astronomical event which will open the gates to the legendary Egyptian River of Life, which Phibes feels will revivify Victoria and grant them both eternal life. Fortunately, he has an ancient papyrus map in his safe upstairs which will take them to this location. So Phibes plays the tune that causes his organ to rise to the ground floor of his mansion.

Only to find that someone has demolished the house and taken the papyrus (shouldn't something that important have been in the crypt with him? I know, I know, hindsight is always 20/20, but...). Fortunately for Phibes (and the length of the movie) he knows that only someone who knows the value of the artifact could be responsible...Biederbeck!

"Who?  Me?"Who? Biederbeck (Robert Quarry) is an archeologist who has other portions of the papyrus map and is quite pleased to have found this last, largest piece. He's also something of a prick about wanting to go to Egypt, as in right now. The reason is that Biederbeck is also looking for the River of Life. He is so old that he has forgotten his age, and is secretly taking an Elixir of Life© to maintain his youth, but he just about run out of the stuff, and his HMO won't cover the refills anymore.

I'm sorry, that was supposed to be a surprise revelation at the end of the movie. Yeah, it's about as surprising as finding out that Citizen Kane is about some guy named Kane.

Anyway, Biederbeck goes to a soiree with his fiancee Diana (Fiona Lewis) and partner Ambrose (Hugh Griffeth, who was, curiously enough, the Rabbi who illuminated Inspector Trout as to the Plagues of Pharaoh in the first movie), leaving the papyrus in a wall safe, guarded by his hulking brute of a butler (Milton Reid). Not that this sort of frippery will stop Phibes, of course.

As the butler plays a round of snooker, he becomes aware of strange whirring sounds. These he tracks to the enormous snakes slithering across the floor toward him. Well, Brute + Stick in hand + snake = flattened snake, if you get my drift. And that whirring sound? Turns out the snakes are merely cunning clockwork replicas, as evidenced by the gears in their guts and the big windup key in their side. The butler is quite impressed with the workmanship, and when he picks up a third snake to admire it, notices too late that the whirring is coming from a device taped to a very real snake. As evidenced by the way it bites him (although it's a reticulated python and I had no idea they were poisonous).

Unfortunately, the movie already makes the "In one ear, out the other" joke.After playing Mash The Snake and cutting open his wound, the butler grabs a phone to call for help, but the wily Vulnavia has substituted a fake hand set, and a gush of compressed air drives a golden snake completely through the butler's head, killing him, and leaving Phibes all the time in the world to crack the safe and make off with the map.

Enter once more Inspector Trout (again, Peter Jeffrey), who is more than a bit nonplussed that Biederbeck is more concerned about his stolen map than his dead manservant. Upshot of it all: Biederbeck, Diana and Ambrose board an ocean liner for Egypt the next day, and if you presume that Phibes has already loaded the glass case with dead wife and some new clockwork musicians on the very same liner, then you get an "A" in Movie Coincidences 101.

For extra credit, you may write a report on why Ambrose was rummaging around in the ship's hold, allowing him to discover the case holding Victoria, which immediately earns him the wrath of Phibes - although anybody could see the damned thing, propped up as it is against a wall in the hold of the ship - and the poor fellow's corpse is stuffed into a six foot tall gin bottle (don't ask) and tossed overboard.

Look!  Somebody else is back from the dead!Which puts things back in Trout's court. Interviewing the shipping agent for the cruiser (Terry-Thomas, who was exsanguinated by Phibes in the first movie - I mean, here he's playing another character entirely, but still... what, are there only four or five actors available in England on any given day?) (where was I? Oh, yes...) interviewing the shipping agent, it is revealed by accident that one passenger demanded an organ in his room... and he was accompanied by a beautiful young lady... and some clockwork musicians....

Trout demonstrates the brilliant deductive reasoning that has been his hallmark throughout the series and realizes that Phibes is back, and the body count is only just beginning. Trout's superior, Waverly (John Cater) upon learning that Phibes purchased a one-way ticket, theorizes brightly, "Maybe he won't come back!" Wishful thinking on the part of Scotland Yard aside, Trout and Waverly prepare for the dogged (and rather unbelievable) pursuit of Phibes.

Meantime, Phibes arrives at the mountain everyone is converging upon and sets up shop. Years ago, it seems, he "prepared a palace" for this occasion, meaning he has an organ and art deco furnishings, his robot "Alexandrian Quartet", and obviously a whacking great generator for all this stuff. Please don't ask me when the hell he did all this, I have a headache as it is.

Biederbeck arrives at his camp and is angered to find that the younger archeologists got tired of waiting for him and went searching on their own. This is quite unfortunate for one, who gets too close to Victoria's resting place and runs afoul of the eagle left to protect her. Yeah. An eagle. I know, you were expecting a pneumatic jackal or a clockwork crocodile or somesuch - I know I was - but no, he gets jumped by a bird. And we find out, once more, that facial lacerations are fatal.

Hey, I guess facial lacerations ARE fatal!While Biederbeck is bitching at the other diggers for mucking about in "his mountain", Diana notices something unusual on the floor of her tent. Brushing away the sand, she does a bit of excavation on her own, using her hairbrush, until she reveals - the ruined face of the eagle victim, buried in the sand underneath her tent. Wha? Waitaminnit!! when did he...? How did he....? Oh, never mind. All I can report with any certainty is that this is the point where my Willing Suspension of Disbelief announced it was going to do something easier, like teach advanced calculus to the indigenous tribes of the Amazon jungle, and left, slamming the door behind it.

Well, too bad about that fellow, pip pip and all that, there's still a mountain to expedite, or something. Phibes finds a "secret" door (imagine "secret" said with big David Spade-style air quotes) leading to an ornate golden sarcophagus. Pulling back a lever in the shape of a cobra opens the case, revealing the dust and pitiful bandages, all that remain of some long-forgotten ruler. Pulling it back further reveals a secret compartment beneath the mummy case. Phibes immediately surmises that this would be an excellent place to conceal Victoria. (What? Did he give the watch-eagle the night off? Or perhaps, in the three years he spent in his own little crypt, some of his stored blood evaporated and he now doesn't have enough to reach his brain.) Just to prove that last parenthetical point, Phibes discovers that pressing the lever forward causes the cobra to stick out its tongue: the key to the gates of the River of Life! But then Phibes puts it back in the snake, instead of keeping it close for safekeeping. Or giving it to Vulnavia, since everybody who comes within five feet of her tends to wind up dead.

If Phibes were still operating today, this would be a scene from his "Key To Financial Independence" infomercial.And just to prove that point, one of the other diggers (who has been eyeing Diana's silhouette as she changes in her tent) is enticed away from camp by the winsome Vulnavia, and into a tent of her own, where she seats him in a golden throne in the shape of a scorpion. Well, the appearance of Phibes (in a sheik outfit, no less) insures that the claws will close on the fellow's arms, trapping him (as the claws are lined with spikes, ouchie!) and places the key that will unlock the contraption in a porcelain dog at his feet (why a dog? There's a gramophone nearby, and he's just made the RCA Victor logo. The lack of a close-up providing the punchline makes me believe the product placement money did not come through.)

The trapped man (do I care enough to note his name? Hardly) smashes the decorative dog, and.... well, it's never that simple with Phibes, is it? The dog is full of scorpions, and they must have really loved that dog a lot, because they proceed to swarm all over the poor bastard and sting him to death. Maybe they were on loan from Lucio Fulci. No, wait, they're not making any sounds, so never mind. Forget I said anything. Phibes sits nearby, quoting Shakespeare and listening to Vulnavia play the violin. And the guy screaming. Man, how far from his own camp did he follow Vulnavia?

This chess game goes back and forth: Biederbeck's party breaks through a wall and finds the sarcophagus, meaning that they now have Victoria and the key (though they do not know it). No sooner does Biederbeck discover the key, however, than Trout and Waverly finally manage to find the camp, along with what they found in the middle of the desert: no, not Priscilla, but the scorpion throne with a very dead and very swollen victim guy still trapped within.

Nothing I can say could possibly improve this picture.  Enjoy.With the news that they're dealing with no less than Anton Phibes, it is decided that everyone will head for civilization the next morning, except, of course, for Biederbeck, who still won't tell anybody why he's really there. He tells the last digger to spend the night in the tent with the sarcophagus, though really, he might as well have asked the guy to commit hara-kiri on the spot. The results would have been the same.

That night, Phibes whips up a sand storm with an enormous fan (where did he get that, you might ask? I say a better question is what's powering it, but these questions pale in comparison to the next bit). The Bad Doctor then proceeds to crush the guard slowly in an enormous vise - this victim somehow managed to sleep through Vulnavia strapping him to his cot - and makes off with the sarcophagus.

But! Biederbeck was smart enough to pocket the all-important key! Which means when, the next morning, when Hackett, the camp Foreman tries to take Diana to safety, they will stop their car when they hear bagpipes and see the Union Jack over the next dune. Why, it must be the Scottish Fusiliers, on desert patrol! Hackett walks over the dune to inform the soldiers of the Phibes Menace, only to find that the music is playing on a gramophone, the flag held by a clockwork musician (in full regalia, though). And returning to car, discovering that in his absence, the fiend has made off with Diana! Sadly, he starts the car - and the gasBeing an archeologist, Biederbeck immediately recognizes the skull as Hackett. gauge erupts in a stream of sand, endlessly directed at him as he screams in pain. You might ask when Phibes might have had time to install this new infernal device. You might, because I was too busy paging my Willing Suspension of Disbelief, trying to find out if there was another seat on that plane to the Amazon.

After the truck containing the sand-blasted skeleton of Hackett crashes into the camp, Biederbeck runs off to confront Phibes, Trout and Waverly in lukewarm pursuit (meaning they wind up on the wrong side of a secret door). Phibes has placed Diana on a wooden platform in a room that slowly floods with water. As the water rises, she will rise on the floating platform toward the ceiling, where golden snakes with spiked tongues wait to impale her. Only the key, which will open the gates to the River of Life and send the water flowing into it, will save her. Biederbeck's love for her is stronger than his will to survive, ultimately, and he surrenders the key to Phibes.

After making certain that Diana is alright, Biederbeck returns to the flood room too late, as Phibes' funeral barge with Victoria in her bier has passed through the gates, which slam shut behind him. Biederbeck bangs at the gates, begging Phibes to return for him. Diana, rescued from her cage by Trout and Waverly, tells him, "It's not the end of the world." Which shows how much she knows, as Biederbeck's true age manifests itself in the twinkling of an eye. Oh, and Vincent Price sings "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The end*.

Alot of people like this movie. Most of them will still admit that it's not as good as the first, but there are also those who think it's better. People in the latter camp will kindly go away and leave me alone.

It's not just the playing fast and loose with the previous film, though the knowledge that Phibes was just planning on an extended vacation when he embalmed himself at the end of the first movie really spoils the rather artful symmetry of that climax. It's not just the new Vulnavia. It's not just the jazzier organ music or the larger range of facial expression that Price allows himself in this campier outing. No - it's everything.

Alright, perhaps not everything - John Gale's film score, for instance, is simply magnificent. But few things sadden and anger me as much as squandered potential, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again takes a character full of rich possibilities and proceeds to squander it. I also really like the word squander. Squander squander squander....

By and large it is the lack of the revenge motif that eventually torpedoes this movie for me. Without the backdrop of a perceived wrong driving his actions, Anton Phibes becomes merely another screen psycho, killing people simply because they get in the way. Only the clockwork snakes and the fake telephone show the old Phibes style - everything else is leadenly overblown, as if it were some graceless imitator putting on the fake Vincent Price face (the eagle attack especially reeks of desperation on the part of the filmmakers - "What? We've gone ten minutes without a murder? Do something! Incidentally, you've already spent the art budget, so don't build anything").

It's better you don't ask.Though the first movie poked at the "Oh, Come on!" area of your brain with a pointed stick, it was playful enough that the outlandishness of the murders just added to the entertainment value. It was also put forth that Phibes had years to plan his Byzantine revenge, to cobble together the devices necessary. It was ghoulish fun to see what he was going to pull next, how he would exploit the Ten Plagues, how he would accomplish the Curse of Beasts. Deprived of that structure, we are left to wonder just where the hell Phibes is getting all this equipment in the middle of nowhere.

Especially since almost everything in the dismal script seems simply to be filler between murders. The first movie's script was a ferociously lean affair, propelling us from murder to murder with hardly an ounce of fat. It doesn't seem like a movie that lasts 95 minutes. Dr. Phibes Rises Again, on the other hand, seems to go on far longer than its briefer 89 minute running time. Not helping is some confusing camerawork, moments where we're left unsure what we're looking at: the face of the eagle victim, buried in the sand (with much more of his face consumed than we saw - were we supposed to recognize him?). And we are supposed to assume that Trout and Waverly somehow lifted the scorpion throne and its victim to the top of their car to motor it into Biederbeck's camp, since we never see it and the car in the same shot - just a picture of the throne apparently floating in space. Some of this can chalked up to the film's budget, some to draconian editing to speed up its leaden pace - but some of it's just sloppy filmmaking.

I've pretty much already sniped at everything I found tedious or annoying; Price is still great fun to watch, at least. Robert Quarry plays a*holes with a lot of conviction, it must be said. The poor guy's really been wasted in just about every movie in which I've seen him . "I say, I'm quite glad I wasn't in more of this picture."Most puzzling of all is the cameo by Peter Cushing as the ship's Captain, who expresses surprise that Biederbeck is not more concerned about Ambrose's disappearance; likely AIP could only afford him for the day, but the movie would have been a far different creature had it been able to employ more Cushing. Sigh.

Yhere was a third film planned: Brides of Dr. Phibes. But having sat through this sequel for the fourth time - and that's twice more than I ever intended to - I can only say that I am happy I didn't have to endure that one. Unless Fuest wasn't slated to have anything to do with it. In that case, I'm really pissed off that it was never made.

Oh, yeah, I said I had a theory about Vulnavia, didn't I? It's a highly unlikely one, but it would explain a couple of things. It all hinges on the fact that Phibes is a mechanical genius; I think that Vulnavia is his ultimate creation. Um hm. She's a robot.

Discuss. and myself are reviewing both Phibes films as Phibes-A-Poppin' (well, that's what I'm calling it, anyway). Andrew's review lies here. Go there. Enjoy. I, in the meantime, need to go watch the first movie again so this weakly-made dross doesn't remain my last memory of Vincent.


"Maybe he won't come back."

- June 3, 2001