Grade:  C+
Rated PG-13

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and its sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), are cult films—but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re not suitable for family viewing. In the case of this double feature—available now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber—there’s far less violence, sex, and jump-scares than in contemporary horror films (see the trailer). But these are definitely cult classics, which is to say that they’re not mainstream popular.

For me, a cult classic is defined by a string of “usuallys”:  Usually it’s a low-budget B-movie, one that courts in-your-face difference and has an air of scandal or controversy about it, often with acting and a script that make you wonder if it’s unintentionally bad or bad for the purpose of being campy. Rarely is a cult film deadly serious, but most of the time there’s a “weird” factor. In part they’re also defined by their audiences, who celebrate “getting” the film when others don’t, and whose embrace can be exuberant, if not obsessive.

When it was first released, Dr. Phibes nudged viewers toward a cult film mindset just by featuring Vincent Price, who had built up a following as the star of campy director Roger Corman’s B-movie adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe horror stories. Price’s silky villainous voice and stage-actor mannerisms in those films had already earned him cult status—something that would continue throughout his career, whether he was featured in The Brady Bunch Hawaii episodes and the beach-party film Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, embraced by Tim Burton for two films (Vincent and Edward Scissorhands), enlisted by Michael Jackson (“Thriller” song/video) and Alice Cooper for musical gigs, celebrated in song by Deep Purple and ZZ Top,or parodied on The Simpsons and SNL.

The original movie poster also helped steer viewers toward a cult film mindset, as the tagline was “Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Ugly”—a play on the “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” tagline from Love Story, a sentimental romance that was released the previous year. Part of the campiness too results from in-your-face anachronisms. Though the film is set in 1925, a hospital has bright lime-green walls (pure psychedelic ‘70s!) and Phibes’ shrine to his wife (the only spoiler you’ll get from me) features a head shot that looks like every late ‘60s and early ‘70s model.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because contemporary audiences will come to these films without any of the cultural indicators that hint at how the film is to be watched. You should know that Dr. Phibes is a British-made dark comedy that’s intentionally campy—more creepy, weird, and outrageous than it is scary or shocking. Older and knowledgeable viewers will see the intentional campiness; viewers coming to this blind will react as if they’ve just watched The Room and think it’s so bad it’s funny.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Grade:  C+/B-)

Poe created the first mystery detective story (“Murders in the Rue Morgue”), and that’s how Dr. Phibes plays out. It begins with a Phantom of the Opera-esque shot of a cloaked figure playing the organ in overly dramatic fashion, on a set that features an elaborate mechanical band that he “conducts,” then dances with a woman in white. Huh? Yep. Other than taking in the elaborate Art Deco set and noting the allusions, the only other takeaway is “bizarre.”

After this strange dance, the man lowers a cloaked object through an opening in the floor, then he and his lady (whom we come to learn is his assistant) hop into the Phibesmobile. It’s a long sedan with Price’s features etched in profile on the sides and the back of his head in the rear window. Then we cut to a man lying in bed. He tosses and turns, but finally settles down to sleep. A skylight above him opens up. The cloaked object is lowered, then raised again and we realize it’s a birdcage. The man awakens. And suddenly he is staring down a vampire bat—make that plural. Police arrive the following morning to see a corpse whose face is marked by boils and scarred by bat bites. No actual biting is shown, just close-ups of bats and body parts, followed by the image of the dead man. It turns out that we’re dealing with a serial killer, and it doesn’t take Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) that long to see two patterns: the victims are doctors, and the methods seem to parallel the 10 plagues of Exodus that Moses cursed Pharaoh with for not letting the Israelites leave Egypt. Viewers know who did it, but not the pattern or the why. Scotland Yard eventually figures out the pattern and the who and why, and then, as with any serial killer story, the plot revolves around trying to stop him.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again! (Grade:  C-/D)

The reviews of this one were mixed. Gene Siskel gave it one star, and the L.A. Times warned that those who “enjoyed the campy horror of last year’s Dr. Phibes are in for a keen disappointment.” Yet Variety praised Price for delivering “one of his priceless theatric performances” and The Monthly Film Bulletin said it was better than the original. More recently, wrote that while it’s not as good as the original, “the film still entertains and thrills.” How did it fare at Rotten Tomatoes? Not as well as the first film, which earned an 88 percent “fresh” rating from critics and a 75 percent audience approval rating. The sequel only received a 61 percent critics rating and a 57 percent rating from viewers. And that might be generous.

Set in 1928, three years after the action of the first film, Dr. Phibes Rises Again! may have the same director (Robert Fuest) but it doesn’t have the same unifying and progressive series of plague murders; instead, the killings seem more random and not quite as fun (if such a thing can be said). Phibes awakens from a state of suspended animation and travels to Egypt with his assistant and corpse bride, hoping to learn the secrets of bringing someone back to life. Curiously (and clumsily), the film begins with a recap of the original and claims the late Mrs. Phibes was in a state of “suspended animation between life and death.” That’s certainly not the way the first film played out. There’s another plot thread, too: an ages-old adventurer named Darius Biederbeck (Robert Quarry), who has been taking an “elixir of life,” needs to replenish his stock from Pharaoh’s River of Life to satisfy his desire for life, so it becomes a competition.

But don’t look for scenes of Egypt. What wasn’t filmed at English studios was shot on location in Spain. Don’t look for logic, either. Somehow the doctor manages to transport his clockwork band and entire Phantom of the Opera wardrobe along with him, setting up a new headquarters in a section of an Egyptian temple. The Art Deco set design is quasi-replicated here, but stands out like a sore toe. At some point there’s a series of light bulbs that look like the vanity in a theatrical dressing room . . . except that it’s inside a rocky, cavernous space. The murders themselves are still somewhat inventive, but also more graphic and gruesome. The sequel was clearly designed to give fans more of the same, but ironically it’s less of the same. The exclamation point in the title should have been warning enough. But the first film remains a good example of B horror movies from the ’60s and early ’70s. Ranker fans rated it 14th out of more than twice as many.

Entire family:  Uh, no (age 12 and older?)
Run time:  94 min./89 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 2.0
Studio/Distributor:  Kino Lorber
Bonus features:  C+/B-
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for some horror violence/gore

Language: 3/10 and 2/10—Pretty mild

Sex:  2/10 and 2/10—In Phibes 1, a nude drawing of a woman is displayed; in Phibes 2, a woman traps a man and from a distance you can see him grabbing a breast briefly

Violence: 6/10 and 7/10—In Phibes 1 mostly faces and skulls are shown in various stages of trauma a deterioration; in Phibes 2, more of the actual killing is shown, some of it quite gruesome

Adult situations: 1/10 and 0/10—In Phibes 1 there is some social drinking but that’s it; in Phibes 2, there’s nothing in the way of drugs or alcohol or smoking.

Takeaway:  It’s tough to explain the appeal of B-movies to people who didn’t experience the A/B double features in theaters; they were mostly bad, but when you found a good one or one that was so bad it was good, you valued it . . . perhaps beyond its worth