Monday, May 10, 2010

ASYLUM (1972)

Starring: Robert Powell, Peter Cushing, Charlotte Rampling, Herbert Lom. Directed by Roy Ward Baker.

The landscape of British fantasy cinema from the late 1950’s to the mid 1970’s was largely dominated by Hammer Film and only Amicus Productions, founded by Max Rosenberg and Milton Subosky, offered them any serious competition. Often using the same writers, directors and stars, their output was more self-consciously ‘modern’ than Hammer’s – rarely straying into the Mittle Europa settings that were Hammer’s trademark.

Although Amicus made a number of fine features – And Now The Screaming Starts, Horror Hotel, The Skull and two Dr Who movies starring Peter Cushing – it was their portmanteau films for which the company became best known. Offering a Four-For-The-Price-Of-One (sometimes Five) approach, the films featured a number of different stories linked by a single character or setting.

In Dr Terror’s House of Horrors it was Cushing’s eponymous Dr Schreck, in Torture Garden Burgess Meredith japed as the Carny from (literally) Hell, The House That Dripped Blood featured, well, a house, Tales From the Crypt had Sir Ralph Richardson slumming it as a mysterious monk and Asylum had Robert Powell and the titular Looney Bin.

When Dr Martin (Powell) arrives at an asylum for incurably insane he is presented with a strange conundrum. It appears that Dr Starr, the asylum’s chief psychiatrist has also gone ‘incurably insane’ and is housed in one of the cells upstairs. Challenged by Dr Rutherford (Patrick Magee in fine scenery-chewing form) to identify Starr, the scene is set for a veritable who’s who of British actors in a series of tightly written little chillers from the pen of the great Robert Bloch.

Taking their inspiration (as many of the Amicus portmanteau films did) from the old EC horror comics, each separate tale has a real sting in it.

Richard Todd and Sylvia Sims star in a story of voodoo, chest freezers and revenge from beyond the grave in Frozen Fear. Peter Cushing and Barry Morse try to resurrect the dead but end up giving a mannequin murderous life in The Weird Tailor. Charlotte Rampling and Britt Ekland appear in a story of split-personalities and murder in Lucy Comes To Stay, while Herbert Lom, Powell and Magee give toy robots a bad name in Mannequins of Horror.

Usually in an Amicus film there was usually at least one tale that didn’t work (the haunted piano in Torture Garden, or the horror at the end of the Indian Rope Trick in Vault of Horror) and Asylum is no exception. For all charms of Ms Rampling and Ms Ekland, Lucy Comes to Stay is easily the weakest of the stories on offer here) but fortunately Frozen Fear, Mannequins of Horror and, particularly, The Weird Tailor more than make up for this.

Cushing is, of course, excellent as a man tortured by the dead of his son. Richard Todd looks slightly uncomfortable as wife-murdering Walter, Herbert Lom does a very fine turn as Herbert Lom, all moody stares and quick little gestures, and both Patrick Magee and Robert Powell provide a solid anchor for the whole thing. Of particular note here is Geoffrey Bayldon as hospital orderly Max, who gives the film its creepy heart and who’s unsettling performance is both intense and restrained – you’ll never think of Catweazel the same way again.

Cheap and cheerful (or fearful) stuff, efficiently shot by Roy Ward Baker (Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, Vault of Horror) Asylum is another of those little gems from the tail-end of the British horror boom.

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