January 01, 2011

Robert Fuest - a stylish approach to horror

Unique visions and eccentric horrors...

Robert Fuest is a director whose name I learned early on in the world of horror movies. I was then very disappointed when his name stopped cropping up. Reports of a third (and fourth) Dr Phibes movie turned out to be rumours and Fuest settled back into TV and TV movies, most of which I haven't seen. Partly because they were rarely shown, but also because I was afraid they'd mar my admiration for his best work.

While he's mostly associated with the stylised world of The Avengers and the two Dr Phibes movies, he also made two straightforward horror films, the original And Soon the Darkness and The Devil's Rain. Between directing episodes of The Avengers and The New Avengers, he directed almost a cult movie for every year.

Fuest had directed eight episodes in the Tara King (Linda Thorson) era of The Avengers in 1968-69, but had been a production designer for many earlier episodes. It had an obvious influence on the visual style of his films and he continued to work with producers and writers from the series.

A sober change from The Avengers, this was definitely a horror film. No spoofing, but an attempt to do nail-biting suspense in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock. Like the methods of the 'Master of Suspense', Brian Clemens' script created a plot which would play on the audiences' expectations and try to keep them guessing. (My full review is here).

While The Avengers and The Final Programme are set in surreal and stylised universes, The Devil's Rain and And Soon the Darkness are set in the real world. His trademark bizarre set designs are completely absent, but what remains is the sparseness, using empty landscapes instead of soundstages. The French countryside in And Soon the Darkness is open and flat - the cyclists are often alone in an expanse with no one else around. The 'stage' is empty apart from a few key players. There are very few towns or buildings and very few places to hide...

The rocky plains of Lapland at the start of The Final Programme also resonates with The Devil's Rain, set almost entirely in an American desert. Again, wide open flat space with only the key buildings visible. A wooden church literally in the middle of nowhere. The location stripped down to the place 'where it all happens'.


A hugely enjoyable black comedy, with Vincent Price murdering his enemies with a variety of themed murder methods. It was fun to see reviews of Se7en remember this film as a possible influence.

Many dark jokes arise from Phibes having had his face burnt off, meaning he has to eat and drink through unseen cavities in the side of his neck, and plug in a speaker to make himself heard.

As I watched this again, I kept catching myself thinking "nothing is happening in this scene". Fuest, like Phibes, makes time for the finer things in life. Beautiful corridors, exquisite women in exquisite dresses, music, dance, fine food and wine. Between murders, and even during murders, Phibes does everything with style. When his assistant Vulnavia appears, she walks down a corridor built especially for a grand entrance. And Fuest takes the time to watch.

Vincent Price is supposed to be stoney-faced - perhaps a technique he perfected for Witchfinder General - but shows just how little he needs to still make it humorous. My favourite scene is when he leaves one murder only after giving the corpse a withering look after sniffing some cheap wine, then re-entering the shot to shake his head at some doubtful art hanging on the wall. Subtle, silent asides.

Fuest demonstrated his comfort with visual story-telling by taking us through the first ten minutes of the film without a word being spoken, by which time we get to know Phibes, the man, his mission and his methods. Throughout the film are many more music-only segments.

In the stripped-down style of The Avengers, he continued to use sets that were sparsely furnished, only containing the elements needed for each scene. In TV, this would have suited the limited budgets and fast shooting schedules. Phibes' main hall contains a (huge pink) organ, his mechanical band, and a dance floor - everything needed for the opening scene, but nothing more.

The second murder in The Abominable Dr Phibes reminds me of the surreal look of The Avengers. On seeing the 'frog mask scene' on DVD for the first time, I was shocked at how little set there was - little more than a staircase and a pillar! But the framing of each shot emphasises the characters and the action, and any object placed close to the camera can easily take up half the screen - why waste money on an expensive set if you can't see it?

But this isn't to say he was always constrained by budget. The gorgeous interior of Phibes' pyramid hideaway, and some of the rooms in Jerry Cornelius' mansion look huge - but still empty of clutter.

Fans of Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter may recognise actor John Cater without his glasses and hunched back, as the detective's furious boss. A role so popular that he's brought back for the sequel.


Vincent Price returned as Phibes, wreaking more havoc on the living with phase two of his master plan, moving his operation to Egypt in search of ancient magic. Again, he uses far-fetched methods to eliminate anyone who get's in his way.

This feels more vicious than the first and it's been reported that it was bloodied up at the request of the producers, while Fuest intent on increasing the comedy. The murders end up as more prolonged and nasty, while the plot feels far thinner than the first. Phibes' motivation is well established, but the murders aren't part of the plan this time, and the doctor makes a silly mistake that slows down the plot.

There are still some priceless visual gags (Phibes' head hidden among some skulls) and the wonderful finale. Plus a cameo from Peter Cushing and roles for Robert Quarry (Count Yorga), a young Fiona Lewis (The Fury), a young John Thaw (The Sweeney) and Lewis Fiander (Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde, Who Can Kill a Child?).


At this point, Fuest turned down directing another Vincent Price serial killfest, Theatre of Blood, for fear of being typecast. Though I would have loved to see his version.

Instead Fuest wrote, directed and designed The Final Programme, though I'll vouch that he included an awful lot of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius mythology. While the author wasn't happy with this presentation of his anti-hero, Fuest's film is still a hell of a homage.

After the death of his father, international playboy and genius Jerry Cornelius inherits the family mansion. Three scientists are very interested in something in dad's safe and employ a troubleshooter to help Jerry break back into the house to get the information and save Jerry's sister from his drug-crazed brother Frank. As the world descends into chaos, Jerry has no idea that he could also be its the saviour...

At the time, just after 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was very hard to sell science-fantasy to an audience for them to take seriously. The film spoofs as much sci-fi as it presents, also portraying the action hero as a clumsy coward. When it's not spoofing, it's a satire on the future of humanity. Full of ideas, many are mentioned and not shown - you have to listen carefully to realise the Third World War is well under way. Much of the best dialogue is almost lost in the mix, "she got absorbed in someone else...".

I enjoy the many references to Moorcock's work, but don't take it as a serious representation of his character. Though it's thrilling to see the central crux of Moorcock's epic Eternal Champion story played out in the second act, as Cornelius returns home to his beloved (I mean truly beloved) sister Catherine to face off against his rival, Frank. My favourite 'facet' of the character were the books about Elric of Melnibone, going through the same motions as Cornelius but in an alternate dimension.

Fuest repeatedly highlights strong, no-nonsense female characters. The mute sidekicks around Phibes are decorative but also deadly. And Soon the Darkness has the fiesty Pamela Franklin. But the strongest of all is Jenny Runacre as the formidable Miss Brunner, a power-driven nasty version of Emma Peel - unnaturally strong, intelligent, scheming and vampiric...

Jon Finch (The Vampire Lovers, Hitchcock's Frenzy, Polanski's Macbeth) looks good as Jerry Cornelius but winds up as a foppish clown and a victim of circumstance. Watch out for a young Sarah Douglas (Ursa in Superman II, Return of the Living Dead III) as Cornelius' sister, bedridden much like Phibes' wife.


While the two Phibes and The Final Programme can be enjoyed as spoofing their respective genres, the last in this batch wasn't intentionally funny. I initially had trouble linking in And Soon the Darkness and The Devil's Rain, which are both played seriously (despite Shatner's over-acting). Fuest can do genuine horror if he wants to - generating unease, suspense and shocks.

The common theme is the remote setting and the barren landscape - like the town in the middle of the desert. A church that god has abandoned, and satanists have moved in. Their quest for power needs only one thing, a mysterious book...

When it was released, The Devil's Rain was one of the squishiest horror movies I'd ever seen. But because the gore was made of wax, it was possible to show gushing fluids pouring out of people at a time when blood-letting was still seriously censored in the cinema.

The images echo Dr Phibes when he's melting the wax busts of his victims after each successful kill. Pointing a blowtorch at each 'face' was another violent image that wasn't actual violence being committed. The use of humour and the outlandish methods in the Phibes films also enabled some nasty murders to escape censor cuts.

The Devil's Rain has an unusual vibe to it, set up during the titles backed by queasy visions of hell as painted by Hieronymus Bosch. While the soundtrack isn't memorable, the mix of unsettling tones and human crying prefigures the music of Suspiria.

With so much going for it, the film's main drawback is the lack of story development or urgency, especially in the middle. Also having John Travolta in a bit part and a half-naked William Shatner co-star are distracting for any serious viewers. But Ernest Borgnine is effective as a resurrected devil-worshipper - a formidable villain with some nasty powers, looking suitably demonic before the make-up effects kick in. Also interesting to see Tom Skeritt before he tackled Alien.


But after that Robert Fuest mostly returned to TV, including two episodes of The Avengers reborn, both of which are recommended. The Midas Touch features one of the tightest TV car chases and the creepiest of murder methods. The Tale of the Big Why is one long mysterious chase and features actress Jenny Runacre from The Final Programme.

But that was the end of Fuest's busiest and most creative period. There are a couple more films of his that could be interesting which I hope to see soon, but the above list includes his most surreal work and all of his horror films. If you've liked any one of this list, you should see the rest.

I guess And Soon the Darkness was the most straightforward film of Fuest's to be remade, maybe The Devil's Rain would be the next (anyone?). It was interesting to learn (in the DVD notes on Dark Sky's edition of The Devil's Rain) that Fuest also turned down The Legend of Hell House (hmm) and The Neptune Factor (thankfully)!

All of the above have made it to DVD and I'm sure will continue to entertain.

(1977, segment 3 'The Island')

The rest of his directing jobs were mostly in TV. This half-hour section of Three Dangerous Ladies is the strongest of the three, and Fuest recalls Graham Crowden (The Final Programme, O Lucky Man) and Jenny Runacre, opposite Charles Gray and John Hurt! 

A rich wall-to-wall soundtrack, recalling the vocal elements of Dr Phibes, and a gorgeously shot journey to the island lead up to a large house with enigmatic occupants. A great build-up to a pay-off you'd expect in a Victorian short story. But for anyone desperate for every last drop of Fuest, this is worth a look. 


Not necessarily a must-see, but Revenge of the Stepford Wives is a taut, and occasionally nasty, TV movie, the first sequel to the 1975 film, directed by Bryan Forbes. Sharon Gless plays a reporter, drawn to the too-good-to-be-true statistics of Stepford residents. She befriends a young couple, played by Don Johnson (between A Boy and his Dog and Miami Vice) and Julie Kavner (between Rhoda and The Simpsons) and locks horns with Arthur Hill (Mission Impossible, The Andromeda Strain) about Stepford's new, deadly secret...

I enjoyed this more than the original movie (where even the poster is a spoiler), because I didn't know where it was going to lead. It has no tell-tale, Fuestian hallmarks, but is effective like his other straightforward thrillers.

This is only currently available on VHS in the US.


It's surprising that one hasn't arrived sooner, but there's now a book out about Robert Fuest, but, it's only available
in Italian!

Author Michael Moorcock talks about his experience of the adaption of The Final Programme in
his recent public interview at the BFI. Though as movie connections go, he prefers The Land that Time Forgot (1975) which he scripted! Now that's a different beast altogether...

(Updated August, 2013 - to include Revenge of the Stepford Wives review.)


  1. Yes those Dr. Phibes are very special. Lush and at times even garish to look at. I still have a crush on the original Vulnavia as a new actress did the role in the sequel and I was so disappointed.

    I have And Soon the Darkness somewhere around herr and did not know it was the same director and will hvae to try and dig it out and watch it.

    I love Vincent Price and have yet to do a review of even one film of his at my site though I have seen so many, some even recently. I jsut got in the Witchfinder General as well and it too has gotten buried in the mess.

    Bill from the UCafe

  2. Well, there was a good reason why the original Vulnavia wasn't in the second one. Phibes had a new assistant in the sequel. It was the studio who wanted 'name continuity' that renamed her back to Vulnavia.

  3. An excellent article. I really enjoyed it.

    But is that a half-naked William Shatner I see?

  4. Yup. Not only is Shatner lower down the cast list, he's also stripped down by satanists...

  5. Wow, great write up. I'm a little ashamed to admit that although I know must of the films you have listed, I didn't know the man's name, much less that one man was behind them all. It's nice to get a look at the work of a director who isn't such a celebrity himself. It really opens your eyes to the fact that there is more than just Hitchcock, Carpenter, and Romero out there.


  6. Just wanted to let you know that I liked this post so much that I chose it as one of the best of January, and included it in the fourth "issue" of Spatter Analysis.

    Check it out!


  7. After enjoying DR PHIBES so much I'm looking forward to checking out more of Fuest's films, so it's great to have a guide like this! Excellent post.

  8. Very glad you found this, Alex! I'm currently looking for Fuest's non-genre movies for further recommendations.

  9. excellent article: sadly, robert fuest passed away today. R.I.P.

  10. I was with Bob, dad the day before he died. He still had an amazing eye and a wonderful sense of humour. We looked at some great black and white stills from both Phibes and Weathering Heights and a few from the Avengers. He was foremost a painter and painting almost to the end. I left him that evening in the care and love of his wife Jane and daughter Rebecca who kept him warm and safe tell the end. It is thrill to see that others appreciated his work. We will miss him terribly.
    Aaron Fuest

  11. Anton,
    I heard the sad news yesterday and really am terribly sorry for your loss.
    It was heartening to hear that your Dad kept his sense of humour and remained creative to the end.
    Of course his work will continue to entertain us, possessing a magical longevity like Dr Phibes himself.
    Mark Hodgson

  12. I like both Phibes films and Vincent was at his best with these films,and Robert was a great director.As a side note..I'm almost certain that the 'big ornate door' leading to Phibes chamber was also used in 'The Haunting'..which is one of my all time favorite films...it's the 'bending-in' prop door during the scene when all the characters are woke up in the den toward the end of the film..both films were filmed at borhemwood studies in England..I think the 'prop door' was saved for future films.

  13. That's a keen observation! Worth checking out...

  14. Mark,you can see just the ' large side panels' of the door in the above photo you have on this review..with Vulnavia standing in front of it.