Sunday, July 7, 2024

American Gothic Week: You cannot threaten the dead with death, my friend!


Directed by Robert Fuest
Written by Robert Blees and Robert Fuest

Spoilers: moderate

It is in the course of things that the cash-in sequel is to be devalued and dismissed, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again has the added strike against it, to be the follow-up to one of those instant horror classics, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, which earned its classic status by being a very precise blend of senseless, stupid low camp and soaring, sublime high camp, so getting that alchemy right a second time was going to be a serious challenge.  In this, it probably helps that I don't think The Abominable Dr. Phibes necessarily always gets the mixture exactly right itself, but I still love it, and I'm rarely full of anything after a single helping anyway.  This is not to say Rises Again has no problems; it has many.  For absolute starters, Dr. Anton Phibes died in the last movie, as the final victim of a murder-murder-murder-murder-murder-murder-murder-murder-murder-suicide, and he needed to die, as a matter of paramount narrative and also numerological importance.  Now it turns out he didn't, for as Rises Again helpfully explains by way of a downright belligerent-feeling recap montage and a "previously on" narrator, our villain's execution of a whimsical reign of terror, patterned upon the Bible's Ten Plagues of Egypt, actually only went up to nine.*  So I do understand why it has its detractors.  But if this were it, horror fans could probably live with it.  But Rises Again is, furthermore, so much less solid as far as its plotting and character motivation goes, to a rather astonishing degree (for "any less solid" would have to be a little astonishing, as I don't think anyone has ever accused The Abominable Dr. Phibes of being rigorous and sound); and, while I would say reasonable minds could potentially differ on this, I'd agree that, in general, the first film's signature, which was also its structuring element, its hallucinogenic kill sequences, are less good.  I'd aver one is better than anything in the previous film, but the rationale is certainly spongier all around, replacing the logic of insanity which drove those with completely arbitrary whimsy.  Grieving vengeance is, likewise, replaced with what seems like a lot of avoidable, even counter-productive, sadism.

The snarky way to respond to that would be, "Gosh, sorry your slasher villain turned out to be a jerk," but I likewise perceive the shift, and it's not a shift for the better.  Nevertheless, it still gets us more-or-less where we need to go, and you can sort of pretend the story still demands Phibes embark upon a new campaign of evil, because, obviously, the new Dr. Phibes movie does.  The unanswerable problem, however, makes itself plain pretty early on, namely that this sequel was a victim of its franchise's own success: I don't know if you can believe it, but we have in this film that rarity, a Vincent Price horror performance that can get fairly annoying, achieving that state quickly in the scheme of this 94 minute but arguably underplotted movie, and that performance is going to get worse before it, finally, gets better.

But I am, perhaps, conceding too much ground already.  We have returning for the sequel the first film's director, Robert Fuest, and Fuest was undeniably the auteur of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, as well as perhaps the biggest reason, besides Price, that it came off as well as it did, for the histories state that it was his last-minute rewrite of the previous film that gave it its unique and precious horror-comedy sparkle.  On behalf of this Dr. Phibes, Fuest was its very origin, with co-writer Robert Blees contributing the final drafts and apparently not getting along with Fuest at all, or agreeing on many of the places Rises Again ought to have gone; yet while the film feels extremely flimsy, I don't think this particular off-camera war (it wasn't the only one the movie had going on) is visible in the product, simply because it doesn't feel like it's being pulled in two incompatible directions, but more like it's just sort of constantly in a state of disintegration, and more as if that feeling were being deliberately cultivated by its makers than otherwise.  (Especially so since this isn't really that different from the feeling of the first film.)  The cheat that Fuest and Blees use to get Phibes back in action is a brusque one, for sure: when Dr. Phibes laid himself to his rest by the side of his long-dead wife Victoria (still Caroline Munro, and though we definitely see her more, still a pretty inactive member of this cast), he was, actually, just taking a long nap, waiting for the right time to... rise again.  You see, his plan all along has been to take Victoria's body to Egypt, clearly his favorite country, where there lies beneath the sands a temple of such unplumbable antiquity that it's been forgotten by all but the most erudite masters of occult lore like Phibes, and where, once every few millennia, an alignment of the stars brings the waters of the Nile down and the mystic waters of life up, or something to this effect, at which time Victoria's soul can indeed be retrieved from the lands of the dead.  To this end, Phibes wakes up when his astral alarm clock jams his blood back into his body, and pushes all that embalming fluid out, and he activates Vulnavia (now Valli Kemp, replacing the pregnant Virginia North), who heeds his call despite her own significant handicap of likewise being dead, actually far deader than Phibes was.

Unfortunately, in the interim, his house burned, and his map to the temple was stolen.  He figures out who did it very quickly, Darius Biederbeck (Robert Quarry), whose awareness of its value is soon made clear, and, for all we know, the provenance of his knowledge about the ritual of life is that he was actually just around the first time but didn't have any cartography equipment with him, for he seems to be an immortal, or at least extraordinarily long-lived, with his alternative means of preserving his youth having run dry, and the temple being his last hope.  So Biederbeck heads to Egypt with a pack of unwitting archaeologists, as well as his fiancee, Diana Trowbridge (Fiona Lewis), but Phibes and Vulnavia are in pursuit, having already managed to kill Bierderbeck's valet (Milton Reid), just missing the map and their adversary, but alerting the Metropolitan Police, namely Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey again) and Superintendent Waverly (John Cater again, now in a rather expanded role).  By the time Phibes's next victim (Hugh Griffith) turns up, they've realized Phibes has... risen again.  So they'll be on hand to be entirely ineffective as Phibes slaughters the archaeologists one by one out of his base of operations in the temple itselfno I don't know why he needed the Goddamn map, yes you're right to point it out, maybe it was to keep people off his back, man, I really can't sayand he prepares to resurrect his wife.

I kid, but this doesn't even need to be as blatantly ramshackle and dumb as it is, with a conflict between villains or anti-villains that's insultingly clear in how much it only exists for there to be a conflict, thereby serving as our movie's half-assed justification for Phibesian wackadoodle super-murder.  As Phibes will later explicitly remark, they're not so different, he and Biederbeck, and there's never a real reason established why they can't share the gatewaycuriously, this movie turns out to have almost exactly the same plot as Puss In Boots: The Last Wishbecause the gateway doesn't actually seem to be limited in any way.  It's ultimately just a big hole in the basement, which Phibes intends to sail Victoria through on a barge once the water level gets low enough.  This is the literalist nitpicking part; the part that disappoints me more is that Biederbeck, despite his description making him sound like a most fitting antagonist for a supervillain like Phibes, is so bizarrely normal, almost never any more distinctive than the stock "shouty dickhead" figure you'd find in any other movie about plundering tombs.  The film's palpable unwillingness to infodump lore is probably more a strength than a weakness, but his immortality comes up so exceedingly rarely that one wonders if the argument between Fuest and Blees was about whether his supernatural status, or the full depth of his romantic attachment to his new partner, ought to be "twists."  (Each is therefore communicated obliquely, but entirely unmistakably, very early on.)

I don't know which one of them won the argument, or if neither one did, because neither of those facts comes off as a twist, nor are they much used on the movie's behalf; it takes Biederbeck the lion's share of the movie before he realizes he's even in a fight with someone on his level, if he actually is on Phibes's level, which is still a pretty theoretical thing.  The movie seeming to go well out of its way to keep its antagonists apart could even be the result of the other off-camera conflict here, between Price and Quarry, which Quarry reports was never so bad they were unfriendly to one another; but the latter was being pushed hard by AIP as their replacement for the aging Price.  On the evidence of this movie, it is entirely impossible to see how this was ever supposed to have happened.  You might as well have forwarded Nick Adams to replace Vincent Price, for Quarry lives up to his name, given his acting style's resemblance to a collection of rocks (angry rocks, but that's at best), and I suppose I just have to assume he's way better in Count Yorga, Vampire if "replacing Vincent Price" could have been entertained as the remotest prospect, even for a few months.

It's true that Price was, by necessity, winding down, but certainly not here; and yet I did, just a few paragraphs ago, suggest his performance was not entirely efficacious, and that's just as true.  What's clear is that one of the great pleasures of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Price taking on one of the most interesting acting exercises of his career, must have been recognized immediately as one of its great pleasures, and Rises Again was accordingly built to double that pleasure, at least arithmetically.  It doesn't work: the labially-bereft Phibes, speaking through his Vincent Price mask and only with the mediation of his steampunk victrola, indeed amounted to some enormous fun back on the last film, but it was far more judiciously tendered, and as I recall it's actually a fair ways into that movie before he at last breaks his silence.  Whatever the case, here it starts up at once, and for the length of our first proper scene, it's a wonderful and comforting thing.  Then it becomes, for lack of a better word, paddingfairly irritating padding, at thatbecause by the ten minute mark, we're returning to it in every other scene, and Price is already obliged to start repeating plot and emotional information we already know, usually because he just told us, and half the time it seems to be just straight voiceover, rather than his cybernetic victrola, because while there are certainly several charmingly-blocked scenes where Vulnavia is encumbered with a giant horn apparently just so her master can hear himself talk, there's a lot where the source of the voice is completely unknown.  This is not to say it's not a good Price performanceit's the same Price performance!but while I don't ever want to say "less could be more" in the context of Price, the yammering quality that it starts to take on during the film's middle section simply isn't very beneficial to it.

So that's, you know, a lot of negatives, some more salient than others, and 1900 words in is a bad place to start accentuating the positive; but I love this movie anyway, and, despite being annoyed sometimes with the way it has Price spin around in a circle for half an hour, there was basically never a point while watching it that I didn't love it.  There's much chatter regarding how it doesn't live up to its predecessor, but in at least one way it exceeds it, as it's just a better-shot motion picture than The Abominable Dr. Phibes, with Fuest and (new) cinematographer Alex Thompson finding, to my eye, an even more untethered aesthetic than the first film, so while a significant amount of the imagery isn't novel (Phibes's Egyptian base is, more-or-less, a recreation of his London base, animatronic jazzmen included), new and old alike are presented as what feels even more like a violent daydream, or a funny nightmare, than before.  There is, then, the matter of the imagery that is new; production designer Brian Eatwell (obviously a key and maybe the key figure on a Phibes) did return, and has a cheap but interestingly-cheap idea of "Egypt" to play around with.  (I like, for instance, the cyclopean statue, of which we see only the enormous feet; likewise, I much enjoy the pyramid deathtrap that feels like a lethal gameshow.)  But Rises Again grabbed me very early, as Phibes calls to "Vulnavia" and our new sidekick pose-walks through a curtain of glowing beads and down a kaleidoscopic mirrored hallway, and it never let go afterward; this is probably the best image Rises Again ever brings, but it would be hard for what's still, sort of, a narrative film to hit this hard all the time, and it's the most downright unearthly thing between either of the two films, with the new actress, the blunt counterfactuality of Vulnavia's continued existence, and the sheer blank (but somehow self-amused) inhumanness that Kemp is bringing to the "role" as an "actor" all combining to virtually confirm one's wildest fan theories about what the hell Vulnavia is, robot, angel, imaginary friendbut weird as fuck, whatever she might be.  It must also have been recognized immediately that "Vulnavia mutely interpretive dances her way through the movie" was another highlight of the first film, so they doubled-down on that, too; this is triumphant in comparison to Price's obligation to recite auto-generated Phibesian florid monologue.

There's also a pointand that point is easy to identify, it's "when they get to Egypt**"that the movie just more-or-less "clicks": Price is permitted to hold forth on at least somewhat different topics, in different ways; the pace of the kills picks up; and the visual playfulness becomes even more pronounced (I adore, beyond reason, the cutesiness of the gag where Phibes, without his prosthetics, pops his skullface through a hole in the ground, hidden within a pile of actual skeletons, to surreptitiously spy on his enemies).  Or, perhaps, "click" is the wrong word, since this is also the point where the movie falls apart as any sort of logical construct; a lot of that turns out to be "bad," as we've discussed at length, but the anarchic mood it strikes is very cool in its strangeness.  One other thing Rises Again does better than its predecessor is engage with "the 1920s," and between its fetishistic Egyptomania and the sense that we're watching some greatest hits compilation at the Grand Guignol, it's feverishly unreal and gripping, with Phibes becoming a figure of cartoonish vileness, wheeling out giant props from what amounts to the universe's backstage to effect his crimes, making them colorful simply because that is what Dr. Phibeses do.  They lack, in the aggregate, the cod-mythic quality of the first films's kills, but they're still intriguingly confusing, and almost as fun in their effortful desire to be fun.  The really good one, involving a giant scorpion machine and, also, many live scorpions, even gets to be one of the most genuinely scary things in a horror film of this era.***  Our good policemen, meanwhile, are reduced further into what amounts to a vaudevillian duo, in a film that is much happier to tilt toward avowed comedy, till ultimately Cater is standing there doing an unfathomably ancient, but funny, door gag; fittingly, though, Price has the movie's best joke, a quietly hilarious scene in which he confronts his enemy, and keeps badgeringly swiveling his victrola with a stick so it points directly at Quarry as he paces about the chamber.

Then, for its final trick, it retrenches into the grandiose sincerity that  The Abominable Dr. Phibes found in its closing number, and it perhaps does it better, with Phibes vanishing into a black expanse, and suddenly the refusal to explain anything or even make sense almost feels like a deliberate choice, as a mystical experience impossible to film opens up before our hero-villain.  Here, rationality crumbles completely and, of course, we can't follow, because our love could never be as pure and godlike as that of Anton Phibes.  It is, in many respects, not a "good" movie, and it is somehow often not a "good sequel" despite also being a sequel that's slavishly copying its predecessor.  But it achieves a worthiness that its low reputation might not prepare you for.

Score: 7/10

*Or, in fact, eight, because the next-to-last one on that list of the dead was only an attempted murder, but Phibes did consciously give his final victim a difficult challenge, rather than a wholly inescapable death.
**The boat trip there has its moments, but I feel like it flubs one of its more ingenious kills involving stuffing a man inside a giant bottle and throwing him out to sea, and, more egregiously, Peter Cushing wanders into the movie for thirty seconds in what feels like an attempt to deliberately court your disappointment.
***As an arachnophobe, this might be just a "me" thing.

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