Thursday 30 January 2020

ASYLUM (1972)

Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Starring Peter Cushing, Robert Powell, Charlotte Rampling, Britt Ekland, Patrick Magee, James Villiers, Herbert Lom, Geoffrey Bayldon. Horror, UK, 1972, 88 mins, cert 15.

“Never turn your back on a patient”. 

Following on from their special limited edition Blu-rays back in July, Second Sight has now released standard editions of the classic Robert Bloch penned Amicus anthologies ASYLUM and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD.
Amicus’ production model of modest tightly scheduled shoots allowed Messrs Subotsky and Rosenberg to attract top-drawer acting talent as they often only required them for a day or two of shooting. Case in point, ASYLUM, for which director Roy Ward Baker (SCARS OF DRACULA/THE VAMPIRE LOVERS) had a more than respectable roll-call of quality thespians to marshal for his first Amicus film.
Hammer legend and stalwart Peter Cushing provided the essential iconic genre anchor, and surrounding him were Herbert Lom, Robert Powell, Charlotte Rampling, Patrick Magee, James Villiers and Britt Ekland.

As with all portmanteau pictures, the wraparound framing device is the glue that binds the individual tales into a satisfying whole. ASYLUM’s is both a particularly effective premise and also a kind of whodunit to boot. To the dramatic classical strains of Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on Bald Mountain’, Robert Powell’s Dr. Martin drives up to the mist enshrouded grounds of an asylum for the incurably insane. Upon arrival he is greeted by interviewing doctor Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee), who sets him a challenge. Can he correctly identify which of the patients confined upstairs is the former doctor (now completely mad) for whom he is hopefully to replace? Guiding him into each of the patients rooms, and hearing their individual stories is the asylum’s intern, Max, played by the wonderful Geoffrey Bayldon – who also appears in THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. (Quick aside: I once had the pleasure of chatting to Geoffrey about ASYLUM at a ‘Catweazle’ convention – he seemed to have found memories of it, and was keen to know whether it was available on DVD – it wasn’t at the time).

So, patient one (story one: FROZEN FEAR), Dr. Martin meets Bonnie (Barbara Parkins), who was having an affair with married man Walter (Richard Todd) who murders his wife (Sylvia Syms), chops her up into pieces, wrapping each part in brown paper and storing them in the newly purchased deep freezer in the basement. However, unlike Julie Andrews’ song in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, these brown paper packages tied up with string turn out to be anything but a few of Walter and Bonnie’s favourite things... 
Patient two (story two: THE WEIRD TAILOR), Dr Martin then meets Bruno (Barry Morse), an old-fashioned gentlemen’s tailor who is behind with his rent until he is generously commissioned by a ‘Mr Smith’ (Peter Cushing), a keen astrologer, to fashion a suit out of a special glowing fabric for his son. Mr Smith gives very precise instructions as to how and when Bruno can work on the garment. Having followed his client’s exact instructions to the letter, it is only when he delivers the suit to his client that he finds not only are his money troubles still far from over, but he has blood on his hands and the sinister true nature of the suit will be revealed once it is returned to his shop... 

Dr. Martin then meets patient three, Barbara (Charlotte Rampling) in LUCY COMES TO STAY, where Barbara insists she does not belong in the asylum. She then recounts her story of how she and her ‘friend’ Lucy (Britt Ekland) colluded to help Barbara escape from the confines of her sedative administering nurse and controlling brother George (James Villiers) using sharp implements...

And finally Dr Martin encounters Byron (Herbert Lom) in MANNIKINS OF HORROR, who has been fashioning a collection of robot dolls with life-like clay faces. He claims his creations have actual internal organs and he is experimenting with transferring his personality into the doll he has created of himself... 
My favourite Amicus anthology remains FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, but ASYLUM does have its own rewards. The framing device is sound, not to mention sinister, and its denouement is pleasingly unsettling. FROZEN FEAR features a nice jump-scare involving a severed arm, although the sight of a wiggling leg and shuffling torso are liable to induce giggles rather than shudders. THE WEIRD TAYLOR has a more sinister gothic aesthetic than the other stories, but the payoff doesn’t satisfy as it seems to go off on a less interesting tangent. LUCY COMES HOME features a nicely effective murder set-piece clearly inspired by PSYCHO (as does the basic premise – unsurprisingly given the scriptwriter Bloch). Herbert Lom appears to be rehearsing for his Chief Inspector Dreyfus role in the future PINK PANTHER films. You can almost imagine him trying out his deadly robots on Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau! (In Bloch’s original story the robots were actual mannequins, but presumably a typically tight Amicus shooting schedule wouldn’t allow for the luxury of stop-motion).  

In conclusion then, my diagnosis is that whilst the stories contained within make for an uneven bunch of bedfellows, no one, least of all me, would consider you mad if you checked out this ASYLUM.

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FrightFest.