British distributor Arrow Video strikes up a lavish two-disc set for their Complete Dr. Phibes Collection Blu-ray set.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes was a rejuvenation of sorts for horror legend Vincent Price’s career in 1971. Director Robert Fuest crafted one of the most unique and memorable horror films of the decade with a stylish atmosphere and campy sensibility. Liberally borrowing from disparate influences rarely seen in the genre such as Art Deco and the Bible, Dr. Phibes’ creative murder devices would prove heavily influential in later movies featuring elaborate murder sequences by serial killers. The direct lineage to films such as Saw are clearly evident.
Dr. Phibes opens with one of the stranger introduction scenes. A hooded man is playing an organ with a bevy of clockwork musicians playing beside him. Out walks a beautiful woman as if in a dream and the pair begin to dance in an empty nightclub. We soon learn the beautiful woman is Vulnavia (Virginia North), Dr. Phibes’ accomplice in his murders. The pair sneak into a sleeping man’s room and unleash vampire bats on him in a gruesome death. It is an outrageous scene that immediately signifies the 1960s are over for Vincent Price and a transition to more visceral terror is happening. Audiences were growing tired of horror films that shied away from explicit carnage.
Dr. Phibes (Price) is not randomly killing strangers. Loosely using the ten plagues visited upon Pharaoh in the Old Testament as a template, he seeks revenge on the nine doctors he considers responsible for his wife’s death. Foremost among his targeted victims is Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), head surgeon on the team of doctors that couldn’t save Phibes’ wife after a car accident. Dr. Phibes is always one step ahead of two bumbling police inspectors from Scotland Yard, killing off the nine doctors one-by-one using creative methods. Driven mad by his wife’s death, Dr. Phibes avoids suspicion from the police because he had faked his own death years ago and had been plotting these murders in complete detail.
One of the first in a new wave of memorable killers to hit cinema in the 1970s, Phibes innovative murder scenarios and twisted medical science turns the costume-wearing killer into something akin to a super-villain from the 60’s Batman television show – except with deadly results. He even has his own gaudy lair and a henchman, if you consider Vulnavia’s unwavering support of his deadly activities. Dr. Phibes commits one murder in mute silence while Vulnavia plays the violin. Later movies featuring serial killers learned from this series of films you needed to add a sense of personality and individuality to the killer, including recurring motifs and their fetishistic obsessions.
This was a different type of role for Vincent Price, as Dr. Phibes is nearly mute aside from a few monologues. If there is one problem in the film beyond a couple of tiny plot-holes, Price’s make-up is not particularly effective. On a good Hi-Def display, make-up work looks amateurish at best and might prove distracting to younger viewers not used to older films. It is still one of the most original horror films of the period and one of the first movies that come to my mind when Vincent Price is mentioned.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is presented in 1080p resolution by Arrow Video with a satisfactory film transfer. The 94-minute main feature is encoded in AVC at an average video rate of 34.89 Mbps, consuming most of a BD-50’s capacity. It retains its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Film purists can rest easy, no significant filtering has tampered with the native grain structure.
This is not the most spectacular film restoration in recent memory; Arrow had to license the mildly dated transfer by MGM. It is from the original film elements but they have not been restored beyond a decent film scan. There are excellent improvements visible in both contrast and color over prior DVD transfers, which had been muddy and dull. A touch of softness in some of the optical effects and less-than-stellar resolution result in occasionally weak details. Close-ups are a tad soft in the finest details, though much of that is due to the moody cinematography by Norman Warwick.
The film print shows a wisp of edge enhancement and occasional negative print debris. The color palette is quite vivid in a comic book sort of way, highlighting the excellent art design and lavish sets. Scream Factory’s American edition of this movie on Blu-ray has a slightly different color timing. Your preferred version likely depends on personal preference more than any true qualitative differences between the two competing Blu-ray editions.
Arrow Video has delivered a fine-looking presentation of The Abominable Dr. Phibes. It is not the most revelatory film transfer seen in recent times but looks like a fairly typical transfer done at 2K resolution with some nice benefits in picture quality and a few negatives.
The original mono soundtrack comes in a 1.0 PCM soundtrack with very good sound. Musical elements play a key feature in the strange atmosphere from this set of films and Dr. Phibes’ organ playing comes through in perfect fidelity. The dialogue is always intelligible and clean, appropriately mixed with the musical score in great balance. There are some limitations due to the confined soundstage but it remains an enjoyable part of the entertainment without sounding badly dated.
Optional English SDH subs are included. They display in Arrow’s standard white font.
These films are true cult classics and Arrow Video has packaged the first Phibes’ film with its sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again. The following special features in bold are the ones found on the first disc, meant to go along with The Abominable Dr. Phibes. A separate review will cover the others. The short featurette with the League of Gentlemen rambles a bit, as the men discuss their first memories of the franchise. We lose one commentary found on the Scream Factory BD but gain another commentary exclusive to this set.
The packaging is a classy job, holding both movies in separate cases and a 100-page booklet that all true fans will want to study with care. One should probably go on YouTube and see it unboxed before purchase.
Limited edition boxed-set (3000 copies) containing both films and 100-page collector’s booklet
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again, transferred from original film elements by MGM
Original uncompressed 1.0 Mono PCM Audio for both films
Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for both films
Audio commentary on The Abominable Dr. Phibes by director Robert Fuest
Audio commentary on The Abominable Dr. Phibes by the creator of Dr. Phibes, William Goldstein
Audio commentary on Dr. Phibes Rises Again by critic and author Tim Lucas
Dr. Phibes and the Gentlemen (12:56 in HD) – The League of Gentlemen fondly recall a pair of British horror classics
Daughter of Phibes – Victoria Price discusses Vincent Price’s career
The Doctor Will See You Now – an interview with Vincent Price’s biographer, David Del Valle
Original Trailers for both films
- 100-page collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by Julian Upton, Martin Jones, Justin Humphreys and Jonny Trunk, the on-set recollections of Caroline Munro, plus interviews with Tim Burton and AIP publicist Milton Moritz, all illustrated with rare and original archive stills
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.