A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #11: “Dr. Phibes Rises Again” (1972)
by A.J. Hakari
The worst thing that the creators of The Abominable Dr. Phibes could have done is make another one. It was such a one-of-a-kind experience, a pulsating slice of uniquely retro macabre, any stab at a follow-up would never escape its shadow. Thus, it comes to pass that Dr. Phibes Rises Again just doesn’t cut it, with the weak plotting, death scenes, and humor all evidence of an obviously-rushed production schedule. Some may have no issue embracing this sequel’s weirdness, but in 90 minutes, it doesn’t quite carve out its own identity or find new ways to liven up its old tricks.
When we last saw the demented and disfigured Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price), he had himself put into suspended animation, presumably to sleep forever beside his ailing wife. But three years later, the moon has shimmied into the right position, waking Phibes once more to carry on the next step in resurrecting his beloved. His sights are firmly set on the River of Life, a bubbling brook whose waters may cure the missus for good. It’s set to flow through Egypt in a matter of days, but there’s one hitch in the plan: Phibes’s map has been stolen by Biederbeck (Robert Quarry), a hundred-year-old rival who wishes to prolong his own life even further. The race to immortality is on, and Phibes isn’t about to give up, ready and willing to wreak violent vengeance on anyone who gets in his way.
Dr. Phibes Rises Again is the yin to its predecessor’s yang, extremely similar in tone and story, yet maddening where the other was entertaining. At the forefront is the eponymous character’s flamboyant nature, which at least made a little sense in the first movie’s abominable hands. Phibes’s game wasn’t merely to punish those he held responsible for his wife’s fate, but to make them suffer on a biblical scale. He had a goal and a reason for us to root on his rampage, but there’s no such motivation to be found in Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Not only are the majority of his victims random henchmen who didn’t know Phibes even existed — let alone harbor a grudge against the guy — the entire River of Life subplot makes his scheme beyond convoluted. Why would he have killed all those people in the last film if a few short years is all he needed to wait before bringing his bride back to life? And if Phibes is prepared to the point of concocting insanely elaborate murders for people he barely knows on the fly, then how did he let the map slip away so easily to begin with?
Even for quickie cash-in excuses for sequels, Dr. Phibes Rises Again is thin stuff. You can tell the filmmakers hadn’t a moment to think before the studio whip cracked them into production, especially in how lackluster the killings are in comparison to the original’s. One guy gets pecked to death by crows, another is sand-blasted down to his skeleton, and one guy’s ornate demise is executed with the help of — I kid you not — a gigantic fan. Combined with the fact that most of these poor souls are nobodies who did nothing to directly earn the doctor’s ire, this really stretches Vincent Price’s ability to charm you into sympathizing with villainous ilk. Price’s gaunt features and disembodied voice still make an unsettling impression, but the film never gets you in the mood to cheer him on. The remaining actors don’t fare any better; Quarry is a boring antagonist (who, despite apparently having a past history with Phibes, only meets him for the first time at the end), the inspectors chasing Phibes contribute groan-worthy comic relief, and split-second cameos from Terry-Thomas and Peter Cushing amount to nothing but head-scratching distractions.
Where The Abominable Dr. Phibes was distinctive, stylish, and funky, Dr. Phibes Rises Again is a dumb bore. Although we do see a couple deserving baddies get a grimly-creative nudge into the grave, the flick’s heart just isn’t in it, often coming across as unwilling and unprepared to follow in its predecessor’s footsteps. And when you have someone as colorful and over-the-top as Dr. Phibes Rises Again‘s titular madman, any sign of hesitance is tantamount to Kryptonite.