Longtime readers will be well aware of my love for Dr. Phibes, the cult classic character played by Vincent Price in two campy AIP productions forty years ago. “Phibes is special,” is how my old friend, Chris Winland summarized the property a couple decades ago and his understatement couldn’t be more accurate. Equal parts horror, comedy, thriller, and romance, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Part of what made Phibes special is there were only two films, despite several attempts over the years to get a third film as well as a TV series off the ground. A few years ago, the character’s co-creator, William Goldstein, acquired the literary rights to his property from MGM, who control the AIP catalog. At the time, Goldstein had to contend with unlicensed comic book appearances and an attempt by his former writing partner to revive the series with a new film. Having settled legal matters, Goldstein set about reviving the book series.
Forty years ago, Goldstein not only novelized the screenplay he co-authored for the original film, but he also novelized the sequel he helped develop. The movie tie-in novels are a very different beast from the films. Devoid of the eye-popping art deco sets and costumes, the campy scores and the scene-stealing performances by the likes of Vincent Price, Joseph Cotton, Robert Quarry, and Terry-Thomas; the books read like old-fashioned pulp thrillers with an exceptionally keen eye for historical detail.
So it was that I greeted the news of Goldstein’s return to the property with mixed feelings. Could he recapture the magic after so long? The unauthorized Phibes comics had tried but failed to capture the tone. The thoughts of anyone making a new Phibes movie seemed doomed to failure. What possible purpose could there be in a new book series so many decades on?
I needn’t have worried. Goldstein’s Dr. Phibes: In the Beginning picked up exactly where the character’s creator had left off forty years before. The book opened with a surprising modern day prologue showcasing Phibes’s mastery of dispatching his enemies with panache before delving back in time (as the second movie tie-in novel had also done) to give us the character’s backstory and fill in the missing pieces.
Goldstein has returned with a fourth title in the series, Dr. Phibes: Vulnavia’s Secret. This title slots in perfectly between the first two titles in the series. It should be noted these are best enjoyed by those who have read the books and are not just familiar with the movies for subtle differences from script to screen or discarded ideas retained in the tie-in novelizations are kept intact in these new titles to offer a consistent alternate take for the literary Phibes. That said, Goldstein explains the re-casting of the role of Vulnavia from the first film to the second in a manner that many fanatical devotees had doubtless already determined was the logical conclusion to draw.
The book opens with Phibes’s dramatic rescue of Vulnavia from St. Daffodil’s asylum for the mentally ill before explaining how Phibes grew new skin cells for Vulnavia’s neck and face to replace her original features that were ruined by the acid shower at the conclusion of the original. As in the second novel (but not the second film), Scotland Yard detective Trout has fallen into alcoholism following his failure to bring Phibes to justice.
The third book introduced us to another female automaton to rival Vulnavia in Sophie, the vocalist with the Clockwork Wizards. We get much more of the character here including the tantalizing revelation that she and the rest of the Wizards had once been living, breathing people before becoming players in Phibes’s nightmarish world of his own creation. Phibes’s bloodthirsty pet eagle makes a welcome return and the book concludes by setting the stage for the second entry in the series, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, with a stronger sense of a cohesive narrative for the entire series this time out than with the third book.
As always with this series, more questions are raised than are answered. Best of all, this definitely isn’t the end of the series. A fifth title, Dr. Phibes: The Real Androbots (co-written by Goldstein’s son, Damon) is in the offing and a Kickstarter independently-produced movie project, Dr. Phibes: Sophie, will launch shortly. Vincent Price may be gone, but the Phibes Legacy lives on and with father preparing to hand over to son, the series may have life in it for quite some time to come. All four titles are available as ebooks with the two latest volumes also available in trade paperback editions. The not so good Doctor is back and here to stay and that is reason enough for new fans and old to rejoice. Highly recommended!
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press). It was followed by a sequel, The Destiny of Fu Manchu (2012; Black Coat Press). Next up is a collection of short stories featuring an original Edwardian detective, The Occult Case Book of Shankar Hardwicke and a hardboiled detective novel, Lawhead. To see additional articles by William, visit his blog at SetiSays.blogspot.com