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Dr. Phibes Rises Again

Vincent Prices returns (as if you had any doubt) in this 1972 sequel to 1971's campy kind-of-classic, The Abominable Dr. Phibes. It's always grand to see Price skulking about in his distinctively refined horror mode, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again has moments of good fun for Phibes phans. The bad news is that the second time around falls prey to the familiar Curse of the Sequel — it's a noticeably lesser, lazier work. Instead of following the rules of horror sequels and offering us (1) more of the good doctor's ingenious murders via (2) even more clever and inventive means, we get fewer murders (scorpions, a squishing in a giant vice, a skull-piercing gold spike jutting out of a telephone receiver, and mechanical vipers among them), and those don't carry the same ghoulish panache that helped make The Abominable Dr. Phibes so much fun. Like its predecessor, the sequel was directed by Robert Fuest, though his heart doesn't seem to be in it this time around.

When we last left Dr. Anton Phibes, he had entombed himself with his dead wife and replaced his blood with embalming fluid, all to foil his would-be captors and, we discover here, to await the next stage of a master plan. Three years later, when the moon and planets align just so, his mechanisms revive him and he returns to the work at hand. That work is to take his wife's preserved body to Egypt, where years ago he prepared a shrine beneath a Pharaoh's tomb. The celestial signs point toward the rare return of the River of Life that will flood the shrine and, Phibes hopes, carry him and his wife toward eternal togetherness in the mystical afterlife that exists at the river's end. (One of the problems with Rises Again is that it's all built on a bucketload of backstory — including a long-standing opponent — that was never considered in the first movie. So not only are we asked to retrofit all this new material into the story we were given before, but all this new backstory forces us to rethink The Abominable Dr. Phibes as being actually the second of a three-part story, the first part of which we'll never see.)

In the original, Phibes' murder spree is fortified by its own internal consistency and pattern. His modus operandi is part of what makes The Abominable Dr. Phibes work so well. Here, he just blithely dispatches anyone who gets in his way. The killings are less focused and clever and are sometimes too contrived even for this material. How did he install that sand-blasting skeletonizer into Hugh Griffiths' dashboard? This tips the delicate balance more into the Batman supervillain mode, a flaw the first movie skirted so well.

Along for the adventure in Egypt are Scotland Yard Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey), who recognizes Phibes' return thanks to his experiences in the first movie, and Phibes' foe Biederbeck (Robert Quarry), who has stolen the doctor's sacred scrolls because he has his own mysterious reasons for finding the River of Life. In the first movie, Phibes was the clear Bad Guy even if we quietly cheer for him because, like Hannibal Lecter, he really is the most interesting person in the show. Rises Again forces us to split our attention between Phibes and Biederbeck during a plot that amounts to little more than a desert-based runaround. Although Phibes' relationship with Biederbeck is never explored, or even explained, both characters are listed as "The Protagonists" in the closing credits.

Also on hand is Phibes' trusted aide and dance partner, the lovely Vulnavia. Yes, Vulnavia was drenched in acid at the end of the first movie. Now it's a different actress, so maybe this is a new Vulnavia. After all, we still don't find out who she is or where she came from. The actress here (Valli Kemp, Miss Australia 1970) doesn't possess one ounce of the original's otherworldly presence, so she comes across as little more than a cute sorority girl in dire need of therapy. She's also upstaged in the sexy-woman department by Fiona Lewis as Biederbeck's lover, Diana. Look quick to see Peter Cushing wasted in a cameo as a ship's captain.

The good news is that Phibes' clockwork musicians are back, Vincent Price gets to deliver lines like "Nothing can stop me now!" and "So, we meet at last, Biederbeck!," and we see Vulnavia in a Pharaoh's tomb holding a tuba for no reason other than it's wonderfully absurd for her to do so. We close with Phibes singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" as he rafts, Huck Finn-like, down the River of Life, presumably on his way to elysian marital bliss — one of the greatest closing moments since Casablanca.

For all its flaws, Dr. Phibes Rises Again is recommended for fans of the first if only for completion's sake, and it leaves us wishing that the talked-about third movie had actually materialized.

*          *          *

MGM's DVD release, part of the "Midnite Movies" series, offers a clean, vivid transfer (1.85:1 anamorphic) with audio in perfectly acceptable Dolby 2.0 monaural. A scratchy copy of the theatrical trailer is the sole extra. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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