Vincent Price is a person that I feel is sorely underrated in terms of his acting ability. Every time you see Vincent Price, he is never bad regardless of how bad the movie itself may be. You could have Vincent Price reading the back of a can of tomato soup and it’d still be entertaining, simply because of Vincent Price. There’s just something about him that is really appealing, probably because he is consistently entertaining.
Take, for example, “Dr. Phibes Rises Again.” There are really three stars in this movie, if you don’t count Peter Cushing in a cameo. You’ve got Dr. Phibes (Vincent Price) himself, the incredible and lavish set pieces of set designer Brian Eatwell and cinematographer Alex Thomson, and then there are the death scenes. The hallmark of the Phibes films would be these spectacularly creative, incredibly inventive, and overall amazingly interesting death scenes.
Notice I didn’t say realistic. Not this movie and certainly not “The Abominable Dr. Phibes.” These movies are not meant to be realistic. They are meant to be weird, gothic, and borderline psychotronic fun, with just enough irony, campiness, and cheesiness to make them a delightful antidote to the dreaded curse of realism. Sometimes you don’t want real. “Saw” had realistic (and impressive, I’ll be honest) scenes of torture and gore, but “Saw” also has some excremental acting and an oppressive feeling of ‘no-funism’ that accompanies it that really detracts from what it could have been.
Three years after the events of “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (told to us lovingly by “Laugh-In” regular Gary Owens), Phibes emerges from his waking death to once again search for eternal life for himself and a return to life for his zombified wife (Caroline Munroe, also uncredited, but still hot). However, there’s a little problem. It seems that someone thought it’d be fun to bulldoze his house and rummage through his stuff, taking the secret to eternal life but leaving behind Phibes’ beloved organ, weird glass circus wife tomb, clockwork jazz band, and Vulnavia (Valli Kemp).
It just so happens that a rival, Darius Biederbeck (Robert Quarry) is also searching for the elusive River of Life and made no secret about his purchase of a certain ancient scroll. Needless to say, we can all figure out what that means. When you take a homicidal super-genius and start screwing with his stuff and getting in his way, then people are going to start dying, and when people start dying in creative ways, Scotland Yard’s finest Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey, very funny) and Sir Wayne Waverly (John Cater, just as funny) get involved. They know it is Phibes, and they are… well, let’s just say they’re not itching to follow him to Egypt.
At some point, in a movie like this with a cast as strong as this one is, you stop asking how Phibes pulls this stuff off and you start enjoying the hell out of Phibes and his giant vise and clockwork snakes. You stop asking “How the hell did he do that?” and start asking “When?” as in “When’s the next kill coming?!” That, in all honesty, should be the goal of every horror filmmaker. A “by-the-numbers” slasher story and a weak script can be totally elevated by a sense of excited unsettlement in the audience and a great deal if ingenuity. If you want to know what’s going to happen next, or how Phibes is going to dispatch his next victim, the sheer impossibility of the kills doesn’t really matter. When you see Phibes taking tea in a sheer white tent in the middle of the desert, your mind just explodes! When you see Phibes in full-length, flowing velvet robes in the middle of the desert talking to his guard-birds who just ripped a guy’s face off, you’re totally gone. Some things you just need to lay back and enjoy.
There’s a certain point where this movie becomes simply too weird and incredible not to be great, and the top-notch direction and editing make sure the weirdness of the film itself isn’t lost within a poor and muddled exhibition, with nice point-counterpoint cuts between scenes with Biederbeck and scenes with Phibes.
Vincent Price really shines in this film, taking on the Phibes role with a sense of fun that elevates him past everything else to establish himself firmly as the focus of the picture. Then again, Vincent Price is typically the best thing in every movie he’s in, simply because, well, that’s how he does things. Look at “Thriller.” Vincent Price is the sun around which that video revolves. Without Vincent Price in that video, there IS no Michael Jackson, just another failed boy-band solo album.
Just remember that as you watch your daily dose of the Michael Jackson Child Molestation Spectacular, kids.