Sunday, 5 August 2018


Dr Phibes follows it’s titular character as he seeks retribution for the death of his wife by murdering the nine members of the team who he believed failed her on the operating table. Sounds simple? Did I forget to mention that he kills them in ways relating to the seven plagues of Egypt, has an enigmatic mute assistant called Vulnavia whom he waltz’s with to music played by his clockwork band, talks through a gramophone and wears a mask of his own face?

WHEN HELEN CUSHING passed away in 1971, the effect on Peter was profound. Physically and emotionally devastated, he threw himself into his acting, working as consistently as he could, up to his death in 1994. However several films which were slated to star Cushing surrounding Helens death, quickly had to find alternatives. So Andrew Kier, ended up replacing Cushing in Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb and Joseph Cotton took over his role in one of the subjects of today’s piece, 'The Abominable Dr Phibes'

PHIBES IS A MASTERPIECE  of camp comedy. With a deliciously morbid sense of humour and a tremendous amount of style, the film turned out to be one of the most unique and inventive British Horrors at the point when the death knell was just beginning to sound. However you’d be forgiven for thinking the Cushing connection was only a curious, ‘what if’. A year later, its sequel and the real focus of this article- Dr Phibes Rises Again, managed to go even further than the first in terms of outrageous black comedy and eccentricity. 

NOT ONLY THAT, but Rises Again, features an incredibly small cameo from Peter Cushing, making up (to some extent) for his having to turn down the role of Dr Versailius in the first film. Re-watching the films again however had me pondering…would Cushing’s presence make that much of a difference? And if so would it have improved the film? or perhaps changed it beyond recognition?

DR PHIBES follows it’s titular character as he seeks retribution for the death of his wife by murdering the nine members of the team who he believed failed her on the operating table. Sounds simple? Did I forget to mention that he kills them in ways relating to the seven plagues of Egypt, has an enigmatic mute assistant called Vulnavia whom he waltz’s with to music played by his clockwork band, talks through a gramophone and wears a mask of his own face? Yes, whilst the plot in itself is somewhat simplistic it is these eccentricities that give both Phibes films their flair. And what of Phibes himself? 

THE FILM WAS DESIGNED as a vehicle for Vincent Price and despite having very little dialogue, his immense presence steals the show and works perfectly with the vision for the film created by director Robert Feust. Arguably, at this stage in his career Price had developed a persona as an exaggerated Gothic gentleman, and by the late 60’s one can’t help but  sense Price having a great deal of fun with this image of the ‘merchant of menace’ and sending himself up. Phibes exploits this and the title character draws on many of the tropes associated with Price, the lavish tastes and exaggerated classiness.

WHAT OF JOSEPH COTTEN and Versualias then? The role Cotten role was  to have been taken by Cushing? Admittedly the role itself isn’t particularly rewarding, he’s the staunch stoic hero to Price’s maniacal villain.  True, a Price-Cushing standoff would doubtless of been a highlight of both men’s careers, but let’s not forget that the two characters only come together for the final ten-minutes or so. Not only that but with Price’s voice hampered somewhat by the silted pronunciation needed for the character, one wonders if it really would have lived up to expectations. On the other hand Joseph Cotten is somewhat thought of simply as a replacement for Cushing and I don’t think that’s fair. Let’s remember the kind of world that Feust is trying to create. The film is set in the 1920’s but draws on the 30’s as well, an art-deco world of parties, music and dinner jackets. A tongue in cheek pastiche of old Hollywood glamour. 

NOW LET'S CONSIDER what Joseph Cotten is known for; Citizen Kane, The Third Man, not to mention his work with the Mercury theatre company. True, a little later than Phibes is set but all titans of old Hollywood. Indeed there’s something incredibly anachronistic about Cotton in the film at all, he seems like a man out of time. Could it be, perhaps that he was chosen for this reason?  That in the same way that Phibes exploits Prices’s persona, that the role of Versualias exploits Cotten’s Hollywood image. Certainly he was chosen as a replacement, but I can’t imagine Feust not jumping a little bit with joy when he realised he was going to have one of the stars of Citizen kane in a sequence that involved an operating table and a lot of acid…

SO CUT TO A YEAR LATER and the inevitable sequel. Often given a bad wrap, I must confess to being something of a fan of this one. The eccentricity of the first film is taken to it’s logical conclusion and Feust opts to go bigger and broader. Purposefully sending up the 1920’s obsession with everything Egyptian following in the wake of Tutankhamun, this film features a heavier dose of the mystical, lacking in the first film. Here Phibes embarks on a quest to find the mythical river of life, which he believes will bring resurrection for his wife and eternal life for them both. Of course along the way he encounters a rival team of archaeologists and sets upon dispatching of them in ways equally as eccentric and theatrical as those featured in the first film.

THIS IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST COMPLAINTS lodged against the film, namely why Phibes is going to the trouble of killing these people in these ways when he doesn’t even know them. In the first film there was some level of logic to it, with his motivation being revenge and him therefore wanting them to suffer. In Rises Again however, one can’t help but feel that Feust is spoofing his own work up. Why does Phibes go to all this bother? Well because he can! After all, why does he transport the body of his wife around in what appears to be a carnival attraction? It’s perhaps a case of style over substance, but good god is it stylish.

PRICE HIMSELF also hams it up even further than before, his voice being allowed to flow naturally instead of the stilted style used in the first film. He’s given a great deal more dialogue too, narrating many of his own scenes and getting to state a lot of delightful nonsense about the ancient gods of Egypt and so on and so forth. Not only that but the opportunity for comedy is heightened here, with ‘wonders with the local fish’ and ‘if music be the fruit of love…’ being two favourites of mine.

ROBERT QUARRY appears in the film as Biederbeck, a sort of Man Who Could Cheat Death type figure, also hunting for the river of life. Quarry is something of a personal favourite of mine, with a natural presence and gravitas. Really, it’s nothing short of a crying shame that his career as leading man of horror didn’t take off more. Unfortunately, it’s well known that there was possible tension between he and Vincent Price due to AIP potentially grooming him to step into the ageing Price’s shoes.

WHATEVER THE CASE, this didn’t happen and Quarry got no further than starring in a handful of horror projects in the 1970’s. And Cushing? Well it really is a blink and you’ll miss it performance. A funny and light-hearted moment, it’s not one that allows for much commentary. However since we’re on the topic of possible could-have-beens for Cushing, I have to admit that whilst the idea of him as Versualias in Phibes doesn’t fill me with excitement, there is one role in the Phibes films that does. Now despite my love for Quarry (and really he is fantastic) the idea of Cushing as Biederbeck is one that really does inspire me with the possibilities. 

BIEDERBECK is a far more threatening match and his final confrontation, in which the two characters discuss the merits of eternal life, not for themselves but for love, is a far more intriguing stand-off than anything between Phibes and Versualias. Perhaps some of this dialogue would have been a little much for Cushing, the emotional resonance maybe being a bit strong- however roles in films such as The Ghoul and Tales from the Crypt, show a utilisation of his emotional distress that lead to some of his finest performances. 

WHATEVER THE IMPACT of Cushing may have been, ultimately we will never know. The films as they stand are two of the finest British horror films to emerge during this period and never cease to be endlessly entertaining.

Written by Callum McKelvie
Edited and Images Jamie Somerville
and Marcus Brooks

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