Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) **
Sometimes nothing makes you appreciate a movie quite as much as sitting through its inferior, unnecessary sequel. When I first saw The Abominable Dr. Phibes, my reaction was something to the effect of, “Yeah, this is pretty cool, but it’s nothing to get all that excited about.” But now that I’ve seen Dr. Phibes Rises Again, the original movie is looking a lot better.
The way I see it, the first rule of sequels is a fairly simple one: Whatever else you may do, under no circumstances is it permissible to rewrite the backstory of the first film. Dr. Phibes Rises Again breaks that rule less than a minute in, before the movie proper has even started. In an ill-conceived and worse-executed introductory montage, a breathlessly excited voiceover narrator tells us that Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) has spent the three years since his diabolical campaign of revenge in a state of suspended animation in a hidden crypt beside his wife, “like her, neither alive nor truly dead.” Now, those of you who have seen The Abominable Dr. Phibes probably remember that the entire point of the movie was Phibes’s wrath against the doctors whom he blamed for his wife’s death. Not her descent into suspended animation, mind you— her death. It’s not quite the same thing, and the distinction is an important one. Then, in an even more destructive re-jiggering of the story, we are told that the movement of the moon into some kind of special alignment has triggered the machinery that will revive Phibes so that he may get started on his real mission, the resurrection of the neither-alive-nor-dead Victoria Phibes.
Apparently, Phibes has in his possession an ancient papyrus, inscribed with a map showing how to find the River of Life, on which the Egyptian pharaohs sailed to the next world. Its waters have the power to bestow greatly extended, if not exactly eternal, life, and to resurrect the dead as well. The only reason Phibes hasn’t already availed himself of its benefits is that mere mortals have access to the river only once every 2000 years, when the moon is in the position to which Phibes’s resurrection clock was set, and thus the doctor has had to content himself with laying the groundwork for his visit, building a lair in the mountain above the magical underground stream that reproduces all the conveniences to which he is accustomed in his current home.
The only problem here is that some jackass has demolished Phibes’s London mansion while he was asleep/dead/whatever, and now the map is nowhere to be found. And that can mean only one thing— archeologist Darius Biderbeck (Robert Quarry, from Count Yorga, Vampire and Sugar Hill)! That son of a bitch is the only other man alive who would know what the map was for, so there can be little question but that it is in his hands that it is now to be found. With this unforeseen complication, Phibes is going to require some assistance, so he summons his loyal sidekick, Vulnavia (now played by Valli Kemp, about whom I’ll have much to say in a later paragraph), from whatever paranormal cold storage he keeps her in, and sets about plotting new deviltry.
Getting the map back proves surprisingly easy. While he and his wife, Diana (Fiona Lewis, from Tintorera and The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, but Your Teeth Are in My Neck), are out on the town, Biderbeck has left his prize in the care of his beefy but slow-witted bodyguard, who is dispatched by a combination of clockwork snakes, the real thing (note that the supposedly poisonous reptile is actually a constricting reticulated python), and a telephone receiver that has been equipped with a spring-loaded stiletto (not unlike the binoculars in Horrors of the Black Museum, come to think of it). Biderbeck has one piece of luck on his side, though, in that the policemen assigned to the case are Inspector Trout, of Scotland Yard, and his superior, Waverley (Peter Jeffrey and John Cater, both revisiting their roles from The Abominable Dr. Phibes), who had handled the original Phibes affair three years before. And the demented, Rube Goldberg complexity of the crime certainly rings a couple of bells in Trout’s head, though he doesn’t initially know why.
He’ll figure it out soon enough. Map or no map, Biderbeck is hell-bent on making the same trip to Egypt that Phibes wants to make, and murder or no murder, he books passage for himself, his wife, and a colleague of his named Ambrose (Hugh Griffith, from the original TV version of “Quatermass II,” who also played the rabbi in The Abominable Dr. Phibes), on the first available ship. (Allow me to interrupt the narrative for a moment to ask, if Biderbeck is familiar enough with his destination that he doesn’t mind embarking mapless, and Phibes has actually gone to the trouble to build himself a secret lair in the river’s environs, why the fuck is everybody so concerned about having the map in the first place?!?!) Wouldn’t you know it, Phibes and Vulnavia are on the same vessel, and the two parties cross paths before the ship has even left British territorial waters. One night, while Ambrose is poking around in the hold looking for something, he stumbles upon Victoria Phibes’s glass coffin (you know, right out in the open doesn’t seem to me like the best place to hide a thing like that...), sealing his fate. (By the way, the method of his death is an incredibly nasty joke at actor Hugh Griffith’s expense. He ends up stuffed into a huge bottle that was part of an advertising display for some brand of gin or other. The punch line is that Griffith was a floundering lush whose drinking had pretty much destroyed his career by the time this movie was made.) When Ambrose’s body washes ashore and comes to the attention of Scotland Yard (it isn’t often that one finds dead archaeologists in gin bottles washed up on the beach, you know), Trout reaches the inescapable conclusion. Phibes is definitely back.
The sad thing is that the movie is scarcely half over, and it’s already peaked. What happens when the characters reach Egypt plays like a desperate, half-baked reprise of the first movie. Biderbeck and Phibes try to outmaneuver each other for possession of the silver key that gives access to the River of Life, while Phibes creatively eliminates the members of Biderbeck’s archeological team one by one, and Trout and Waverly bumble their way across the desert in a miserably inept bid to save the day. The one halfway decent thing that happens after the death of Ambrose is the ending, wherein we finally learn why Biderbeck is so hot to reach the River of Life, and which implicitly acknowledges the fact that, really, we’ve all been rooting for Dr. Phibes since about two thirds of the way through the last movie.
Looked at in isolation, without reference to its predecessor, Dr. Phibes Rises Again isn’t such a bad movie. But the inconvenient truth is that The Abominable Dr. Phibes was, in fact, made, and this movie is, in fact, its sequel. And what makes Dr. Phibes Rises Again so infuriating is that it isn’t just a major step down in quality, but actually undermines the earlier movie. It would be one thing if this film merely lacked (as it does) the thematic unity given to the original by the conceit that Phibes takes the inspiration behind his absurdly complex crimes from the biblical Plagues of the Pharaohs (with a few wholly non-biblical plagues substituted to make the whole business a bit more fun). But the story here goes so far as to destroy that unity! In the first film, Dr. Phibes inflicts the first nine plagues on the doctors who “killed” his wife, and then visits the last— the Plague of Darkness— on himself when he returns to death in the crypt beside Victoria. But now we are told that Phibes’s second death was just a timeout, a ruse to throw the authorities off his track until such time as the astronomical conditions were right for him to set his true master plan in motion. And of equal importance, if Phibes could just dip his wife’s body in the River of Life and have her back good as new, what the hell was the point of the revenge he made such a big production of in the last movie?
And let’s talk about what a big production Phibes makes of his killings, because it points directly to another problem I have with Dr. Phibes Rises Again. The methods the doctor uses to dispatch his victims are, in a word, ridiculous. That’s part of the charm of the first movie, and in that film, it makes a twisted kind of sense, given that Phibes has been stewing over his revenge plot for years, and has had plenty of time to work it all out. This time around, though, Phibes is just pulling mechanical snakes and booby-trapped telephones and scorpion-shaped chairs with working, spring-loaded claws and such out of his ass. And we’re asked to believe that he just happened to have all this shit lying around in his secret lair in the Egyptian desert, on the off-chance that he might someday have to take some more preposterously elaborate revenge against as yet unimagined foes. What seemed to have its own demented logic in The Abominable Dr. Phibes here just looks like the context-deprived results of a mad rush to get a sequel into the theaters as quickly as possible. Which, of course, is exactly what it is.
Then there’s the way the script misuses the movie’s cast. Nobody but Phibes, Biderbeck, and Vulnavia really has anything much to do in this movie. Granted, on the basis of the first film, you’d expect a certain percentage of a cast this large to be Expendable Meat, but even the theoretically important characters are mostly wasted. The script goes through a lot of trouble to set up a kind of professional rivalry between Biderbeck and his second-in-command at the dig, and then does absolutely nothing with it. Diana, who supposedly motivates Biderbeck’s quest for the River of Life in a way not too dissimilar to that in which Victoria motivates Phibes, is actually almost totally ornamental, serving little real purpose in the film beyond looking pretty. And Trout and Waverley, who were the heroes of the first film, have been reduced here to the level of comic relief.
Finally, there’s the little matter of the new Vulnavia, Valli Kemp. This probably shouldn’t bother me anywhere near as much as it does, but nevertheless, it’s actually the facet of the movie that annoys me most. To begin with, Virginia North (who played Vulnavia last time) is easily one of the five sexiest women the British Isles have ever produced, and Valli Kemp isn’t. Not that she’s a hag or anything, but she’s drastically outclassed by her predecessor, and given that Vulnavia’s biggest role in both movies is to act as the bait in Phibes’s traps, the degree of her sexual magnetism is really a fairly major issue. And more importantly, North had real chemistry with Vincent Price, and was a good enough actress to bring life to a role in which she had not a single word of dialogue. Not only does Kemp never click with Price in the same way, the girl clearly just has no business being in front of a movie camera. Her acting is mechanical, perfunctory, and utterly lifeless, and nowhere is this more apparent than in those scenes where she seduces one or another of the male characters to his doom. When Vulnavia comes into one of her victims’ flats in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and ties the poor son of a bitch to a chair without eliciting even a word of protest, you scarcely think to question the victim’s quiescence— hell, Virginia North can tie me up and stick me with syringes any time she wants! But try as she might, Valli Kemp just can’t sell the scenes in which her Vulnavia does something comparable. There’s enough wrong with this movie besides Kemp that North’s presence probably wouldn’t have helped it all that much, but Dr. Phibes Rises Again definitely suffers from the lack of her.