Monday, October 29, 2012

'Dr. Phibes Rises Again' is an unnecessary sequel

Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972)
Starring: Vincent Price, Robert Quarry, Valli Kemp, Peter Jeffrey, John Cater, and Fiona Lewis
Director: Robert Fuerst
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Three years after confounding Police Detective Trout (Jeffrey), the stars fall into a once-in-a-five-thousand-year alignment, allowing access to the River of the Dead. Dr. Phibes (Price) has been waiting for this opportunity to bring his beloved wife back from the dead--but first he has to prevent adventurer Darrus Beiderbeck from gaining access to the River first. Phibes being Phibes, he sets about doing that by killing anyone who stands in his way in the most brutal and bizarre fashions he can think of.

In the annals of unneeded and pointless sequels, "Dr. Phibes Rises Again" is among the most unneeded and pointless. The film it follows, "The Abominable Dr. Phibes", was a weird, self-contained black comedy that didn't even leave room for a sequel... at least not until they ret-conned Phibes's motivation from just avenging the death of his wife and then joining her in death (albeit in a very creative and elaborate way) to instead engaging in the first part of an elaborate magical ritual. Throwing magic into the mix--particularly re-inventing his female assistant (played in the sequel by Valli Kemp, who replaces Virginia North as Vulnavia) some sort of supernatural creature that he summons from Elsewhere--helps remove some of the complaints I had with the first film. Of course Phibes is able to subdue his victims in order to kill them in complicated ways that they could escape by simply leaving the room, because Vulnavia ensorcels them.

But the ret-con undermines one of the very cool things about the first film--that Phibes was somehow pulling his murderous stunts with just careful planning, guile, and mechanical genius. They fixed a problem that didn't need fixing and in doing so FUBARed the big picture. They even undermined the very cool ending of the original film, and the fact that the Tenth Curse that everyone was fearing was actually the first curse that had been enacted (in Phibes' mind) and which was brought to a full circle/close in the film's airtight finale.

Phibes's murders in this film are also less interesting, not just because we now know that he's going to be doing them, but because they are even more impossible than in the first film. Somehow, he moves immense props and machinery through the desert without anyone noticing, and one occasion the only reason the death trap works is because of Stupid Character Syndrome. But, if you go with the magic theory, it's explained. But that's then undermined by him needed a giant fan to create the illusion of a windstorm to cover one of his killings. His murder spree is made even less interesting by the fact that Dr. Phibes has none of the menace that he carried in the first film--the character here is almost a parody of the one we were treated to previously. Vincent Price cannot help but be excellent, but he tasked with delivering far more schtick than drama this time out and the film suffers for it.

The menace that SHOULD have belonged to Dr. Phibes instead goes to the mysterious Beiderbeck, an utterly unpleasant man who is this film's rival to Phibes. That's another misstep the film makes--Beiderbeck would have been far more effective if he had been a more traditional hero with touches of darkness and a mysterious motivation than a nasty character with a thin heroic streak. We're left with no one to root for or care about in this film... and their activities are really just an excuse to get us to the next death scene and to the predictable showdown between Phibes and Beiderbeck.

When that showdown does occur, the filmmakers do manage to pull a couple of surprises and turn what would otherwise have been a fairly disappointing experience into a passable one. Thanks to an incredibly strong cast--even the bit parts are played by amazing actors like Peter Cushing--and the fact that Robert Quarry gives perhaps the best performance of his entire career, the film is never unwatchable. I frequently found myself wishing that all these great actors had been working with better material, however. (The only misstep in casting was Valli Kemp. Kemp was just a generic big-breasted 1970s pin-up girl who had none of the mysterious air of Virginia North--so even though they remade the character of Vulnavia into a being of magic, they cast an actress unfit for the part.)

I cannot recommend "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" highly enough to fans of Vincent Price and off-beat horror films. I cannot, however, express the same enthusiasm for this misbegotten sequel. It's not entirely awful, but it is nowhere near as good as the film it follows. Unless you've set yourself the goal of seeing every Price film, just pretend this one doesn't exist and let the first movie stand intact in its singular, bizarre glory.

(Actually... there's another set of viewers who should watch this movie. If you're a fan of the "Saw" series, it might be of interest. Not that there's a lot of Torture Porn to be had here,. but I think Phibes might be a thematic ancestor to Jigsaw.)

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