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ASYLUM ***

Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Starring Peter Cushing, Robert Powell, Charlotte Rampling, Britt Ekland, Patrick Magee, James Villiers, Herbert Lom, Geoffrey Bayldon. Horror, UK, 86 mins, cert 15.

Released in the UK on Limited Edition Blu-ray by Second Sight Films on 29th July 2019.

 

As well as releasing the Amicus classic THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD in a rather splendid limited edition, the good folks at Second Sight Films have also packaged up another Amicus anthology based on a collection of short stories by PSYCHO author Robert Bloch. ASYLUM was originally released in 1972 and was the first movie that director Roy Ward Baker (SCARS OF DRACULA/THE VAMPIRE LOVERS) made for the company having directed a few for rival company Hammer and, along with Peter Cushing (DRACULA), Henry Magee (DEMONS OF THE MIND) and Herbert Lom (THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), lent the film some genre credibility, alongside faces more familiar to mainstream audiences, such as Britt Ekland (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN), Robert Powell (THE ITALIAN JOB) and James Villiers (FOR YOUR EYES ONLY).

 

The framing story concerns Dr. Martin (Robert Powell) who attends a very strange job interview at an asylum for the “incurably insane”, as interviewing doctor Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee) puts it, which begs the question as to what Dr. Martin could possibly do there as he goes through some of the patients’ stories later on but that is probably digging too deeply. Anyhow, Dr. Rutherford sets up a challenge for Dr. Martin – interview four of the patients to see if he can guess who the former-doctor-gone-mad whom he would be replacing is. Not a regular NHS interview granted, but it does give the movie a bit of a whodunit feel as Dr. Martin feels his way around the minds of the inmates, guided by intern Max (Geoffrey Bayldon – THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD).

 

In FROZEN FEAR, the patient he meets is a woman who was having an affair with a married man who murders his wife and chops her up into pieces, wrapping each part in brown paper and putting them in the new freezer he has just brought her. However, those pieces come alive and exact their revenge on the cheating husband and his mistress.

 

THE WEIRD TAILOR is the second story and sees a hard-up tailor who is behind on his rent commissioned to make a suit by mysterious astrologer Mr. Smith (Peter Cushing). Smith says the suit is for his son and gives the tailor the exact measurements, the material it must be cut from and at what time of the day he must do the tailoring. Of course, the penniless tailor does the job but things get tricky when it comes to collecting payment.

 

Dr. Martin then meets Barbara (Charlotte Rampling – THE NIGHT PORTER) for LUCY COMES TO STAY, where Barbara insists she has no need to be in the asylum. She then tells him the story of how her brother George (James Villiers) was tasked to look after her when she became ill and kept her sedated and under nurse supervision in the family home that she was the rightful owner of. However, after getting the nurse out of the way Barbara was visited by her friend Lucy (Britt Ekland), and together they concocted a plan to be free from George forever.

 

And finally there is MANNIKINS OF HORROR, where patient Byron (Herbert Lom) has made a collection of dolls which he claims have working internal organs, if only he could just transmit his personality into the one that looks like him. So guess what happens next...

 

Of the anthology movies that Amicus put out ASYLUM doesn’t quite hit the same storytelling heights as DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, isn’t as much fun as THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD or is as creepy as FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE but it does have a dark tone that permeates through each story that the producers didn’t fully exploit from the asylum setting. However, it is the ideas in the stories that are dark and not execution because despite some nifty prop work and every actor doing their best to sell you on the horror of it all, there really isn’t anything remotely scary about mechanical toys dolls scraping their way slowly across the floor on a so-called murderous rampage. Perhaps we have been spoilt in this effects-heavy era with the likes of CHILD’S PLAY, PUPPET MASTER and DOLLS all refining the action – and maybe in 1972 it looked a bit scarier – but here and now it just looks a bit naff, although the internal organs that splat out when one of them is squashed looks pretty good.

 

But that is just one story, and with the exception of FROZEN FEAR – which has its own set of problems when trying to be shocking – the other stories rely on the performances of the actors more than any special effects and they are the best ones overall. LUCY COMES TO VISIT is very predictable and you know where it is going to go very early on but Charlotte Rampling, Britt Ekland and James Villiers give it their all to try and make more of the story than is really there, whilst THE WEIRD TAILOR is the best of the bunch despite feeling a bit underwritten. Still, just seeing Peter Cushing being mysterious, articulate and commanding is enough to lift it up and Roy Ward Baker does a grand job with the misty Gothic touches that add a bit of atmosphere.

 

Coming backed with an audio commentary courtesy of Roy Ward Baker and camera operator Neil Binney, the disc also features an archive BBC report on the making of the film which is worth a look for historical context, an archive featurette about Amicus that features interviews with co-founder Max J. Rosenberg and directors Roy Ward Baker and Freddie Francis (DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS), interviews with Amicus co-founder Milton Subotsky’s widow Fiona and screenwriter David J. Schow, whose appraisal of the works of Robert Bloch is very informative if you are unfamiliar, theatrical trailer and rigid slipcase packaging that features new artwork from Graham Humphreys and a 40-page book with essays on the film by Allan Bryce, Jon Towlson and Kat Ellinger. As a package it is very similar to Second Sight’s THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD and collectors would be well advised to get in early to grab the pair, and as a film ASYLUM is not without its merits but is certainly a less satisfying trip down memory lane than THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, and if you fancy a double-bill of old-fashioned horror in high definition with these two releases then it might be best to watch this one first.

 

Chris Ward

 

 

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 © 2000 - 2018