The Eternal Vibes of Dr. Phibes: Resurrecting a Horror Icon

2021 marked the 50th anniversary of Robert Fuest’s comedy horror film, The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Starring the legendary Vincent Price as a half-dead madman bent on retribution. The film is a decadent entry in early 70’s gothic horror with nostalgia for the roaring 20’s. Where elegance meets the preposterous, played straight. Cultivating a massive cult following for over 5 decades, the vibes of Phibes have left a dramatic influence on the horror genre.  

Revenge is the Best Medicine

In an art deco ballroom stylized with shades of pink and lavender, a cloaked organist rises to the stage. Accompanied by a mechanical jazz band, The Clockwork Wizards, he is Dr. Anton Phibes. The famous concert musician, mechanically gifted and educated in theology. With the assistance of his robotic protégé, Vulnavia, he creates a masterpiece of revenge.   

His noble wife, Victoria Regina Phibes, was taken too quickly and too cruelly from this world. Requiring immediate resection, a surgical team of 9 lead by Dr. Vesalius were too late to save her. Dr. Phibes rushed to her side only to arrive in a fiery car crash. He rises from the ashes disfigured and seeking justice for those that failed Victoria. A specter obsessed with aesthetic, Phibes smites each surgeon from existence with a biblical plague. The 10 curses of the pharaohs from the Book of Exodus are executed with precision. 9 killed Victoria and 9 shall die, 9 eternities in doom.  

Our villain remains silent more than half an hour into the film before plugging himself into a modified gramophone. Addressing a photo of his departed wife, Phibes regularly grieves her passing by reciting poetry in his lair. A sort of shrine to her memory with images papering the walls. A false and unflinching face promises to join their two hearts together in time. The scene feels like a bizarre fever dream, watching Price pantomiming to his own voiceover dialog. Hammer Horror royalty, Caroline Munro, is uncredited as the beloved Victoria Regina. Her preserved remains lie in state, awaiting her husband to join her in the Elysian fields of the afterlife. 

The Genesis of Phibes

Shortly after William Goldstein was widowed in 1961, he had a vivid dream about a man bringing his wife back to life. Developing his nocturnal idea into a 17-page story, he pitched it to Jim Whiton. A longtime friend of Goldstein, who had some success as a television writer. Sparking interest, the two men collaborated on a screenplay. American International Pictures loved Dr. Phibes but the script was drastically altered by story editor, Robert Blees, and director Robert Fuest. The more dramatic elements of the original were maintained by Goldstein, having authored the official novelization for Award Books

Following the success of the first Dr. Phibes film, AIP hastily commissioned Goldstein and Whiton to write a sequel, with a third planned. Their script stuck close to the original, following a similar story arc but was again overhauled by Blees and Fuest. Dr. Phibes Rises Again was released in 1972, lacking the humor and flair from the first movie. Price returns as the murderous doctor, traveling to Egypt in search of immortality. Accompanied by his mechanical assistant and Victoria’s remains encased in a calliope with The Clockwork Wizards.

Goldstein and Whiton had also written a third script for the planned franchise, but it never saw the light of day. Laurel Entertainment would propose two different Dr. Phibes films in the 80s and Price himself expressed interest in a treatment entitled The Seven Fates of Dr. Phibes by Paul Clemens. All would resurrect original characters but shape them into something more reformed. Various plot ideas surfaced of Phibes battling art thieves and occultist Nazis. The revenge of Dr. Vesalius’ son and an undead Victoria becoming something worse than her husband. Even a small screen revival was proposed with a tv series featuring Dr. Phibes fighting crime.

Though nothing materialized, the horror icon would live on through literature. Not only writing the official novelizations for both Dr. Phibes films, William Goldstein would also create a series of books. Authoring a prequel to the events of the first movie, Dr. Phibes: In The Beginning. Followed by Vulnavia’s Secret in 2013 and The Androbots in 2019. BlueWater Comics (now TidalWave Productions) introduced the characters to a new medium in their horror comic anthology series, Vincent Price Presents. Running 37 issues from 2008 to 2011, the stories featured retellings of Price’s films and original tales. Including new adventures of Dr. Anton Phibes dolling out his genius wrath. The collected stories were released in 2012 as a graphic novel, Vincent Price Presents: The Seven Lives of Dr. Phibes.

The Kind of Fiend That Wins

Most noted influence the Dr. Phibes films had on the horror genre is the Saw franchise. The fiend would construct intricate skill tests and speed traps for rivals to save loved ones in both movies. These deadly games were expanded on with the Jigsaw killer, giving way to 9 entries in the series. The biblical themed murders would add a different flavor to religious horror. Directly inspiring 1995’s Se7en, the themed murders were reimagined as the 7 deadly sins. Just as Phibes succumbs to his own work as the 10th plague of darkness, John Doe is consumed by his own as the sin of envy. Though revenge driven, these executions are part of a spiritual quest. The stark pageantry of the murder rituals looks like something out of a Jodorowsky film. Dr. Phibes expresses his passion with an altar of wax heads molded after the offending surgeons. Each bust is adorned with a Hebrew medallion and melted, a surreal act resembling scenes from The Holy Mountain. In an early scene, Phibes assembles his face with crude features and make-up to pass without detection as the living dead. This off-screen emphasis was also seen in 1990’s horror comedy, Nothing But Trouble. The 106-year-old Judge Alvin Valkenheiser is caught in a candid moment applying his face with similar repurposed prosthetics. Both lovable villains reside in mansions filled with automated engineering and hold multiple degrees of education. There have also been some comparisons between Dr. Phibes and Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Both sophisticated men that could be regarded as a Robin Hood among serial killers. A grim underdog that the audience roots for just like in Sam Raimi’s Darkman

Love Means Never Having To Say You’re Ugly 

The surreal elegance of the Dr. Phibes films has yet to be matched in the horror genre. Paying tribute to cabaret floor shows with musical interludes dripping with 70’s camp. This horror comedy is a very dry humor with minimalist dialog and bumbling detectives 3 steps behind the assailant. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is also a morbidly romantic movie. Climaxing with the mad organist embalming himself in a tomb shared with his wife. His madness born from a devoted love that transcends this mortal coil and death itself.   

Further Reading

The Dr. Phibes Companion by Justin Humphreys

Caroline Munro: First Lady of Fantasy by Robert Michael “Bobb” Cotter

The Beast Called Fame

Musical Double Feature: Phantom of The Paradise and Shock Treatment

Whether adapted from stage or produced strictly for the big screen, musicals have been popular since the emergence of sound film technology. Choreography and music interwoven delight the imaginations of young and old alike, with lavish sets and perspectives that would be impractical in a theater. Adding in elements of kitsch and horror have given us classics like Little Shop of Horrors and Hedwig And The Angry Inch, yet one of the most common themes in musical film is a rags-to-riches tale. Set within the entertainment industry, characters of humble origins realize their dreams of making it big. Sensationalizing the notion that anybody could be discovered and revealing the grotesque addiction to reaching celetoid status.

Brian DePalma and Richard O’Brien would deliver darker takes on show business within the musical film genre. Inspired by German expressionism and classical gothic horror, Phantom of The Paradise and Shock Treatment are satirical journeys through the shadowy side of striving to become famous. De Palma’s rock opera would lament the loss of self and exploitative hallmarks of celebrity isolation. While O’Brien’s musical would be ahead of its time, predicting round-the-clock access to the rich and elite. Both films would achieve cult status in varying degrees and ask their audiences what would they give to be adored on stage?

Phantom of the Paradise

In 1969, a young Brian De Palma had overheard a popular Beatles song turned into unbearable elevator muzak. Igniting an intense disgust within the director to hear art transformed by corporate America for a quick buck. Combined with his personal demons of pitching ideas to indifferent studio suits, De Palma created Phantom of The Paradise. A Faustian musical, taking notes from Leroux’s The Phantom of The Opera and Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Grey

The film begins with a grim introduction by Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone. Preparing the audience to meet the mysterious and Spector-esque record tycoon, Swan. Surrounded by 2-way mirrors and bodyguards, the genius producer seeks a unique sound to open his new music venue, The Paradise. 

While hundreds of acts vie for his attention, Swan takes notice of the passionate and naive composer, Winslow Leach. Having written a cantata based on the German legend of Faust, Swan steals Winslow’s music and disposes of him. Brutalized and mangled in a record press accident, he is reborn as a masked Phantom. Terrorizing performers as they rehearse bastardized versions of his songs for opening night.

But Swan casts an irresistible lure, promising the cantata will be performed by the perfect songstress, Phoenix. Winslow is compelled to bind himself through infernal contracts signed in blood, when tempted with his heart’s last desire. 

With Swan shrouded in surveillance and secrets, the cameras keep rolling. Tapes pile up in his vault, having recorded the darkest moments of Winslow and Phoenix. The Paradise’s mirrored walls shine distortions of dreams turned into obsession. Splitting from their innocence and integrity, leaving only empty reflections of fame. Winslow, now as the Phantom, rewrites his cantata as a confessional acceptance of his metamorphosis. Acknowledging his new founded villainy and the internal battle of angels and demons. Torn between the success of his masterpiece and saving the soul of Phoenix from Swan and the horrors of celebrity.

Shock Treatment

After a few unproduced ideas for a sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Richard O’Brien would release Shock Treatment in 1981. Considered an “equal” to the cult film without referencing the events of its campy predecessor. It features music adapted from previous scripts and shared themes with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Poe’s short story William Wilson

Brad and Janet Majors reside in the domestic doldrums of their hometown Denton, Texas. Now transformed into a Stepford suburbia of mindless entertainment addicts, the town is taken over by DTV. A television studio owned by fast-food tycoon, Farley Flavors. The Majors become guests on “Marriage Maze”, a game show that is quick to publicly humiliate them. To save their relationship, Brad is committed to “Denton Vale” for treatment. A psychiatric hospital that is also a reality show/soap opera. 

But perceptions are warped through multiple camera angles and walls of television screens. The neuro-specialists are actually character actors and counseling is a series of commercials. Farley Flavors and DTV slowly seduce Janet with stardom. Brainwashed by pharmaceuticals and her own ego, she becomes a self-obsessed monster. Along for the ride is the entire town of Denton. Lost within its role of audience participation and Farley’s plot of take-out therapy and world domination.

Circling the series of events befalling The Majors is Betty Hapschatt and Judge Oliver Wright, hosts of “Denton Dossier”. An investigative show that gets canceled just as Janet’s star rises. Oliver and Betty suspect a conspiracy is taking place as others vanish within their on-air personalities. Fearing for Brad and Janet’s sanity they decide to intervene as fame and “mental hygiene” spreads like a virus through Denton.

“Are you one of those that finds this emotive form of presentation is overly manipulative?”

There is a rigid dichotomy between the mysticism of Phantom of The Paradise and the science of Shock Treatment. Yet both offer villains with good publicity that hook us with a litany of false pretenses. The only real power they have over us is what we give them when tempted with our dreams coming true. Both musicals expose the power of desire and how weak human morality can actually be. The soundtracks to DePalma’s and O’Brien’s musicals become allegorical representations of abandoning humanity for excess and fame. The track listing offers ballads of sacrifice and catchy commercial jingles foreshadowing the dirges to come. 

What stands out most is the eerie prediction of reality television in all of its extremes. In the climactic scene of Phantom, Swan plans to marry Phoenix and assassinate her on live television. While in Shock Treatment, Farley Flavors is content to package and sell a fad fixation on mental health by exploiting the private lives of the audience to push products and ratings. 

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, both films make use of mirrors and themes of character-splitting that beg the audience to look at themselves. Reflect on our indifference to commodifying the human experience and the rate at which we consume celebrity culture. To recognize our own faces in the screaming crowds at The Paradise or among the spectators of DTV Studios and consider the normalcy of unreality in the name of entertainment. 

Further Reading

Unproduced Rocky Horror Sequel Scripts

Swan Archives: Phantom of the Paradise fansite

Originally Published October 2021