Madhouse (1974)

I’ve had the pleasure of watching this film a few times since first writing this post–as originally featured at Crane’s Cabinet of Kinetographic Curiosities–and I tend to like it more and more each time. But, I’ll let the review itself speak to why that is, and follow with a couple of additional comments after that.

Originally posted January 17, 2018.

Summary: Popular horror star Paul Toombes (Vincent Price) is entertaining guests at his home during a New Year’s Eve party when his fiancee is killed.  Upon discovering the decapitated corpse, Toombes goes mad with grief.  A decade later, after frequent mental breakdowns and subsequent rehabiliation, the aged Toombes is offered a chance to resurrect “Dr. Death,” the horror character that made him famous, for English (as in England) television.  But when people close to the project start dropping dead (killed in a pattern reminiscent of the classic Dr. Death movies), old suspicions and rumors about Toombes’s innocence and strained mental state rear their ugly heads once again.  Hilarity ensues.

Thoughts: As the generations shifted in Hollywood and the stars of the silent and post-silent “Golden Age” grew older, audiences saw the emergence of a handful of movies dealing with the topic of aging, fame, and aging fame.  Sunset Boulevard (1950), arguably the most famous example, touches upon the subject of age as it related to stars and starlets of more mainstream fare, and Limelight (1952 originally, re-released in the US in 1972) deals with the hope and promise of a new generation as encouraged by those who came before.  Madhouse deals with a similar topic of aging fame, but does so through the eyes of an Italian giallo with British and American sensibilities.

Because it operates as a psuedo-giallo, Madhouse is more of a mystery film than a straight-up slasher.  Sure, there is a silent killer in a mask on the loose, and of course, some of the kills are mildly graphic–but the extreme gore of the slasher is not present here, and more time is spent on the investigation of the killings than the actual kills themselves.  There’s also the claustrophobic setting; theoretically, all if London is the setting, but the action is contained to television studios, offices, and small estates in tight, economical camera shots.

But what makes Madhouse a bit classier than giallos (and I love giallos, by the way, for their pulp-like trashiness) isn’t the lack of gratuitous nudity (though there is a lack of it–so much so that there isn’t a bit of it in the film), but rather the powerhouse cast.

I swear, everything Vincent Price touches turns to absolute gold.  The movie could be a disjointed mess (like 1970’s Scream and Scream Again, also an Amicus and AIP co-production) but once Price is on screen, it doesn’t matter.  The same is true of Peter Cushing (also a cast member of Scream and Scream Again), who plays Herbert Flay, a script writer and longtime friend of Paul Toombes.  Robert Quarry has a small part as Oliver Quayle, a former adult film director turned television executive, and he exudes sleaze throughout.  Natasha Pyne is our every-man (or every-woman) character, Julia Wilson–young assistant to Oliver Quayle, assigned to Paul Toombes–and is the one with whom the audience can most directly relate.  Rounding out the main cast and hitting home the themes of the film is Adrienne Corri as Faye Carstairs Flay, former starlet (now disfigured wacko who cares for spiders like cats) and current wife of Herbert.  The story of her climb to success and hard fall would be enough to drive anyone mad, and she’s used well as a personification of Chekov’s gun, besides.

Conclusion: Madhouse is an excellent thriller from Amicus (with help from AIP), and is a great Vincent Price/Peter Cushing vehicle (in that they’re actually on screen together).  Give it a watch if you’re a fan of proto-slashers, 70s British horror, and/or Vincent Price and/or Peter Cushing.  And if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like Vincent Price because you think he’s an over-actor (or, as I call them, “wrong”), you’ll be happy to know that he turns in a subdued performance–very little ham is served during this cinematic meal.

This film is, first and foremost, a thoroughly Amicus Productions production (technically it’s an Amicus and AIP co-production, but it feels more Amicus than anything).  During the 1960s, Amicus was a sort of poor man’s Hammer Studios: Slightly lower quality horror films with modern settings and no recognizeable gothic characters (like Dracula), though some films dealt with gothic monsters (like vampires).  But as the 1960s grew into the 1970s, the works of Amicus looked and felt more and more like Hammer films, and even shared some of the same actors (Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee being the most notable).  In fact, I’d say that by 1974, both studios engaged in a complete reversal as Amicus films looked and felt more like Hammer films and Hammer films looked and felt more like Amicus films.

And upon further reflection, this film reminds me vaguely of a film entitled Targets (1968), starring Boris Karloff in his final role before his death. Though Targets is fundamentally different for several reasons I won’t get into here (not the least of which is being in the different–though related–genre of “suspense thriller”), the theme of “old horror actors coming to terms with the brave new world of late night frights” is central to the plot, and so the title warrants a mention here in my humble opinion.

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