BY MARILYN SHAPIRO
Horror fans who were in or near Santa Monica, Calif., in late October, had an opportunity to attend a Halloween Double Feature at the Aero Theater. “The Abominable Dr. Phibes,” a cult classic with fans around the world, was one of two films showcased. Sitting in the audience was the film’s creator, an 86-year-old Troy native whose vivid dream had inspired it.
William Goldstein was born on July 10, 1932, in Troy. He and his family were Temple Berith Sholom congregants. After his bar mitzvah, Goldstein taught Hebrew school.
Upon his graduation from Troy High in 1950, Goldstein attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for two years before realizing that chemistry, not engineering, was his interest. He transferred to Columbia University. After his graduation he took a job in medical research at Albany Medical Center.
One year later, Goldstein moved to San Francisco, where he worked in cancer research at UC San Francisco. Goldstein married Barbara Ellen Lipp in 1955, and they had two sons, Adam and Damon.
Barbara died in 1961, leaving a widower with two young boys.
Soon after her death, Goldstein had a vivid dream about a man who brings his wife back to life. Goldstein developed the dream and its theme of revivification into “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”—a tale set in the 1920s of a disfigured half-dead madman bent on retribution after his wife of two years dies in surgery. Influenced by his Jewish background, Goldstein had Phibes’ victims— all members of the operating team— horrifically, grotesquely murdered one by one through a bizarre ritual based on the G’Tach— the Ten Plagues of the Pharaoh from the Book of Exodus. These included bats, blood, frogs, biting insects, boils, rats, hail, locusts, death of the first-born and darkness. “The G’Tach is a device that perfectly fit the needs of the story,” according to Goldstein. He said, “A rabbi who explains the biblical connection to the detective trying to track the killer is a key element in the plot.”
During this period, Goldstein changed careers to become manpower director of San Diego’s Equal Opportunity Commission. There, he met up with his old friend and classmate from Troy, James “Jim” Whiton, who was living in Hollywood and had had some success as a television writer. The Phibes story sparked Whiton’s interest, and the two men collaborated to produce the original screenplay.
Whiton’s agent showed the script to Samuel Z. Arkoff, studio head of American International Pictures (AIP). Arkoff and his creative partner James H. Nicholson were known for their campy, “B” movies with titles like “The Crypt of the Vampire,” “ How to Stuff a Wild Bikini,” and “Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs.” “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” was to make them into A-listers.
The company filmed Goldstein and Whiton’s screenplay at Elstree Studios in London. Robert Fuest directed Vincent Price, an AIP regular, and a cast of other British actors, including
Joseph Cotten, Terry-Thomas and Peter Jeffrey.
Goldstein and his second wife, Mozella, flew in from San Diego for the film’s premiere on May 18, 1971.
As they approached the Pantages Theater in their taxi from LAX, the Goldsteins encountered a traffic jam. It was not until they got closer that they realized that the flashing marquee, the red carpet, the packed crowds, the searchlights probing the night sky were for the Phibes film’s opening. It was the first time that he and Whiten would view their movie.
Even though AIP gave the Dr. Phibes’ premiere the Red-Carpet treatment, all involved with the project were surprised and delighted when the film became a box office hit. Critics praised the horror film for its dark humor, art deco sets lush musical score, and nasty but inventive murder sequences. Gene Siskel gave the film three-and-a-half stars, calling it a “stylish, clever, shrieking winner,” though he disliked “the lack of zip” in the ending. Variety praised the film for its “well-structured” screenplay, “outstanding” makeup for Vincent Price and “excellent work” on the set designs.
Goldstein and Whiton were commissioned to write a sequel, with plans for several more Phibes movies starring Vincent Price. Unfortunately, 1972’s Dr. Phibes Rises Again was put in the hands of different writers and lacked much of the humor and horror of the first. When Nicholson left AIP in 1972 to become an independent producer —he died soon after of a malignant brain tumor—the future of the series seemed to have died as well.
“With my wife and our blended family of four children at home, I followed the paycheck, ” said Goldstein. He found employment the federal government, in state colleges, and most recently, in rental real estate.
Goldstein experienced another tragedy when his son Adam died mysteriously in 1981 in Bombay (now Mumbai). Interpol has never solved the case.
By the 1980s, the “Dr. Phibes” movies, through their re-showing and availability on VHS, were becoming “phan phavorites,” The audience became international, with fans in other countries including Canada, Spain, France, Japan, and Australia.
By the 2000s, the Internet introduced a new generation of readers and moviegoers to Dr. Phibes through YouTube and sales of books and DVDs on Amazon. Movie critics continued to praise what had become a now cult classic. Christopher Null wrote of the film, “One of the ’70s juiciest entries into the horror genre, “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” is Vincent Price at his campy best.” Alan Jones of the radiotimes.com wrote, “Full of gaudy Art Deco excess, surprise charm and sardonic violence, this deadpan send-up is a classy fright delight.”
Phans Want More
In response to the international following, Goldstein completed two more books, In the Beginning (2010), a prequel, which explained the origins of the “phantom-phantastic” and other characters in books 1 and 2. Vulnavia’s Secret was finished in 2013.
Goldstein’s son, Damon who had worked with his father on the Phibes’ characters’ design since the 1970s, has built the Phibes presence on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. More recently, several fan-generated “Phibes Phan Clubs” have Facebook followers.
Famous “phans” include Tim Burton, Ken Russell, Quentin Tarantino, Stephen King, and Andrew Muschietti, the director of the 2017 Stephen King-based movie, “It”. Kumail Nanjiani built a scene around it in his 2017 critically acclaimed movie, “The Big Sick”. “So many movies have stolen from it,” tweeted Nanjiani on May 27, 2018, “but it remains the strangest, coolest, funniest, and most gorgeous of them all!” Great Britain’s daily newspaper, The Telegraph ranked it among the 50 best horror films of all time, and The Museum of Modern Art in New York City screened it this past February.
Continuing interest in the series also resulted in the 2017 publication of The Dr. Phibes Companion, by film historian Justin Humphreys, (subtitled “The Morbidly Romantic History of the Classic Vincent Price Horror Film Series.”)
Why The Interest?
Goldstein attributes the success of Dr. Phibes to people’s need to root for the underdog. For all his strangeness and brutality, the grotesque half-dead monster Phibes is on a quest to avenge the death of his beloved wife, whom he feels was murdered by incompetent physicians. As David Kehr, a Chicago-based critic stated, “Price’s performance suggests that, underlying the madness, there is a real and damaged human being who deserves your support.”
Is there another Dr. Phibes movie in the future? Goldstein confidently states, “Yes!” In 2015, Goldstein and Damon had a chance meeting with Malcolm McDowell, the prolific English actor known most for his iconic role in “A Clockwork Orange.” McDowell expressed an interest in stepping into the late Vincent Prince’s shoes, as he had fallen in love with their Forever Phibes screenplay. Goldstein and his son are considering production offers. Dr. Phibes may live again!
Goldstein keeps in touch with his two Albany nieces. Marcia Goldstein brought her uncle’s story to the attention of The Jewish World.
The former Hebrew schoolteacher now attends Temple Emanuel, Beverly Hills, Calif.
Marilyn Shapiro, formerly of Clifton Park, is now a resident of Kissimmee, Fla. Recently, a second compilation of her articles printed in The Jewish World was published. Tikkun Olam: Stories of Repairing An Unkind World now joins There Goes My Heart. Marilyn Shapiro’s blog is theregoesmyheart.me.