Dr. Phibes Rises Again


dr phibes rises again

“Come, Vulnavia!”

*Here thar be spoilers for The Abominable Dr. Phibes*

Oh dear.  I had such high hopes for this one.  First, if you didn’t already know, I loved the original The Abominable Dr. Phibes.  I love Vincent Price.  I so wanted the sequel to be everything the original was and more.  Now I’m sad.

The plot, such as it is, looks promising.  After Dr. Phibes (Vincent Price ) embalmed himself in the tomb of his beloved wife Virginia, we thought that the good doctor was gone for good and all.  How wrong we were.  He’s back, because apparently you can embalm yourself and then totally put your own blood back into your body three years later.  That definitely works.  Resurrecting his lovely assistant Vulnavia (Valli Kemp)  from her home in a mirrored kaleidoscope, Dr. Phibes sets about the second half of his diabolical plot to reunite with Virginia.  This time he’s off to Egypt to find the River of Life and give himself eternal life … or bring back Virginia … or something.  I wasn’t entirely clear on that.  This naturally involves murdering EVERYONE he comes in contact with.  All righty.

As with the original, the murders are pretty unique.  Hawks go after an under-used John Thaw (TVs Inspector Morse), scorpions get some poor young archeologist, and an elaborate mechanical clamp crushes another fellow to death.  But that’s really the most that can be said about this one.  The plot is all right, with Robert Quarry eating the scenery as Phibes nemesis Darrus Biederbeck, a man who wants to find the River of Life for his own purposes.  Inspector Trout and Superintendent Waverley (Peter Jeffrey and John Cater)  are back too; their scenes are among the best and I found myself wishing that they had appeared in their own series.  Peter Cushing appears all too briefly as a ship’s Captain, as does Terry-Thomas in a scene with Trout and Waverley.  The art-deco style of Phibes’s Egyptian tomb – yes, he does have one – and brief scenes of Phibes and Vulnavia experimenting with interior design are fabulous.  Unfortunately these are only bright lights in an otherwise murky film.

Price bears the brunt of the badness, I’m afraid.  His dialogue was purple in the original; here it’s incandescent violet.  He addresses his dead wife far too much, and there are extensive scenes of him recapping for her corpse what’s happened thus far.  So while he’s still Vincent Price, he’s Vincent Price saddled with an unmanageable script.  What’s more, all the sympathy we felt for Phibes in the original rapidly dissipates as he murders one innocent after another.  His revenge seems natural, if extreme, in the first film; in this one it’s basically tangential.

I’m sorry to say not to bother with this one.  Despite some good points, the film as a whole is by turns boring and confusing and underuses the talents of the very talented people involved.  I was hoping that Phibes would try resurrecting Virginia, perhaps harvesting the organs of his victims to rebuild her a la Frankenstein? That would have been interesting.  In this case, I wish that Dr. Phibes had stayed embalmed.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes


phibes brussel sprouts

“A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.”

The Abominable Dr. Phibes opens with Vincent Price in a latex hood and cape, playing a lite-brite organ and conducting a clockwork band in an art-deco mansion.  And so I thought, “This is going to be AWESOME.”

Which it was.  The Abominable Dr. Phibes is one of those tongue-in-cheek horror movies from the 1970s that is almost – but not quite – meant to be taken seriously.  The plot follows our mad doctor as he and his lovely assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) go around murdering a lot of medical doctors, following the Biblical precedent of the plagues of Egypt.  Sort of.  I’m pretty positive there were no unicorns in the Old Testament.  The reason for this? Well, his dear wife Virginia died on the operating table and he’s really, really pissed off about it.  Anywho, he’s chased by Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey), who is in turn ably assisted by Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten, in a role that Peter Cushing was supposed to take).  The whole weird plot is really an excuse for Price to be very freaky and concoct some pretty nasty and spectacular deaths for his victims.  His victims, by the way, include a hilarious Terry-Thomas as the libidinal Dr. Longstreet;  if you know anything about British film or TV from this period, this will delight you as much as it did me.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes owes most of its value to Vincent Price, who is evidently having the time of his life as he annihilates one doctor after another.  There are some lovely little asides – applauding the death of a pilot, doing a double-take at a painting in Dr. Longstreet’s office, everything that has to do with Vulnavia – that speak to Price’s charisma and humor.  Few actors can do what he did and still seem so classy.  Phibes is a crazy but sympathetic villain, his passionate love for his dead wife more sad than terrible.

What surprised me more, though, was the humor infused into the police investigation.  Peter Jeffrey’s Inspector Trout is delicious, as is Superintendent Waverley (John Cater).  It’s a very British film with very British humor, despite having an American production company behind it.  As with most films of this type, it’s fun because the cast are game for their parts.  They’re more than aware that it’s all a bit of a joke.

As always, though, there are problems.  Price has one of the most recognizable voices on film and here he’s all but silent, save when he ‘speaks’ through a gramophone attached to his neck (Phibes was horribly injured in a car wreck), and then in such purple prose that you wish he would shut up. There are dull patches, a bit too much build up to the murders, and the characters figure out what’s going on long after the audience.

For all that, it’s a grand piece of camp and worth it for Vincent Price alone.  You’ll never look at brussels sprouts the same way again.

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians



Well, ’tis the season.

I have sat through Death Bed: The Bed That EatsHell Comes To Frogtown, Space is the Place, Plan 9 From Outer Space and countless lesser Ed Wood films.  I have watched The Room.  I thought I was proof against the truly dreadful.  I was wrong.

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is probably the worst “Santa Claus gets kidnapped by Martians” movie ever made … and as far as I know, it’s the only one.  Basically, the Martians – who are dudes in green underwear and flight helmets – are all upset because their kids keep watching Earth’s TV programmes and have become despondent.  Why? Well, they don’t have Santa Claus.  And they eat pills instead of food.  And their parents speak in stilted sentences.  And their planet is made of cardboard.  Right.  So, naturally, being concerned parents, the leader of the Martians Kimar (Leonard Hicks) and his rag-tag team of fellow Martians, Voldar, Dropo, Gomar and … someone else, head to Earth to kidnap Santa Claus (John Call) and bring him back to Mars to make the Martian children happy again.  On the way, they pick up Billy and Betty, earth children in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There’s also a robot made of cardboard.  And elves.  And guns that are definitely hair-dryers.

The production values of this film are worse than a high school stage musical.  In fact, I’m pretty positive that the films my friends and I made when we were 15 had better sets and more realistic performances.  But let me give you a run down of some of what is awesomely awful in this movie:

  • Santa winds up running what is tantamount to a sweatshop on Mars.
  • The villain Voldar is defeated by an onslaught of wooden toys, despite being in possession of a gun that can disintegrate people.
  • The robot is made of a cardboard box and a coffee can.
  • There’s a dude in a polar bear outfit at the North Pole.
  • Santa laughs like a cartoon villain and/or pedophile.
  • The Martians can’t quite decide if they’re supposed to be all green or not, so they all just have a smear of green make-up on their faces.
  • Earth apparently has one TV broadcaster.
  • The extensive Defense Department footage of rockets and planes taking off that you’ve seen in every 1960s movie ever.
  • Santa’s workshop consists of 3 elves and Mrs. Claus.  Mrs. Claus is the best actor among ’em.
  • You can tell the villain is a villain because he’s the only one with a mustache.

And so forth.  Honestly, I didn’t watch the MST3K version of this because I wanted to experience it in all its unadulterated glory.  This movie is so bad that I laughed all the way through it.

Oh, there’s also the theme song:

You’re welcome.

martian mustache

Frankenstein Created Woman


frankenstein cw poster

*Well, not quite last night.  But close enough.*

I cannot put into words how much I love 1) Hammer Studios and 2) Peter Cushing.  So there is absolutely no reason for me not to love this movie.

Frankenstein Created Woman is a later entry in Cushing’s extended tenure at Hammer; a 1967 film coming after The Curse of FrankensteinThe Revenge of Frankenstein and The Evil of Frankenstein, making it the fourth (but not the last) time he played the mad doctor.  And while I admit to preferring Cushing’s work as Van Helsing in the Dracula films, the Frankenstein movies have their own deliciously lurid cache, not least because the kindly blue-eyed gent transforms into one cold, evil sonofabitch.

Frankenstein Created Woman takes up about half its running time with the build-up: Hans (Robert Morris), the son of a convicted murderer who watched his father go to the guillotine, has grown up very good-looking but very angry.  He’s Baron Frankenstein’s assistant and in love with the innkeeper’s daughter Christina (Susan Denberg), a lame young lady disfigured by a large mark on one side of her face.  The opening scenes depicting Hans’s nasty temper, Christina’s gentleness, and the cruelty of three dandies, are all well and good, but I admit to waiting for the blood and sewing together of dead bodies.

frankenstein cw
This … never happened.

I should not have worried.  Despite being slow-burning at the beginning, the second half of this one erupts when Hans is wrongfully executed for the murder of Christina’s father – the dandies did it – and Christina kills herself. Enter the Baron, who has been wandering in the background talking about capturing the immortal soul of man and putting it into another body, a latter day expositionist.  With the help of his faithful doctor friend Hertz (Thorley Walters), Frankenstein rebuilds Christina’s body, captures Hans’s soul and presto! We’ve got a dual-personality, bi-gendered and buxom monster!

Frankenstein Created Woman is not quite so lurid as even Horror of Dracula or the original (and best) Curse of Frankenstein.  But it is a satisfying revenge story with the typical combination of very good actors speaking very bad lines that one comes to expect from a Hammer product.  The rest of the film proceeds much as you’d think.  While there are not buckets of blood, there are several shocking and grotesque moments as the new Christina sets about taking revenge for Hans’s death.  The theology and philosophy espoused by the Baron especially and the film in general gets to be quite weird, as the soul of Hans apparently possesses some residual memory that turns Christina into a split personality.  The Baron even begins paraphrasing the Bible, as we should have expected he would.  Much is left unexplained, but if you came for cohesive philosophical constructs, you should really have read the plot synopsis first.

My one real quibble with the film is how long it takes to get going, and how little Cushing is utilized.  Of the handful of British thespians who graced Hammer films – Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Herbert Lom, Oliver Reed – Cushing stands at the top. It seems criminal to give him so little to do in a film that proclaims our Franky as the creator of life.

That aside, Frankenstein Created Woman is good fun.  I’m sometimes bothered by how much I enjoy Hammer films.  Probably shouldn’t think too deeply about that one.