1972 / Roy Ward Baker
Robert Powell races his sports car through the torrential rain of the English countryside, as the whirling, pounding sound of Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain fills the air. He pulls up to a gated country house just as the sturm und drang climaxes, and with that crescendo, the title bursts onto the screen: Asylum, an Amicus production.
As the titles continue we see the writer is Robert Bloch. Like Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho, Asylum (UK, Roy Ward Baker, 1972) is a pulpy treatment of the fear of insanity. Unlike Psycho, Asylum has not been transformed by the sophisticated touch of a Hitchcock. Instead, Amicus stalwart director Roy Ward Baker leans unapologetically into the lurid ‘penny dreadful’ qualities of the material.
The film’s American distributors eventually pushed things all the way in and retitled the film House of Crazies for its various US re-releases.
Robert Bloch’s story ‘The Skull of the Marquis de Sade’ had already been adapted by Amicus into The Skull (UK, Freddie Francis, 1965), although they didn’t employ him to write the script. This did however lead to work writing the feature films The Psychopath (UK, Francis, 1966) and The Deadly Bees (UK, Freddie Francis, 1967) the latter co-authored with Anthony Marriott. Together, Amicus and Bloch then hit on the idea of using his old magazine short stories from the 40s and 50s, and building portmanteau films around them – first Torture Garden (UK, Freddie Francis, 1967), and then (after Bloch moved to London in 1968) The House that Dripped Blood (UK, Peter Duffell, 1971). Asylum proved to be the fifth and final movie Bloch wrote for the studio, again based on a variety of his own short stories and covered in his own macabre fingerprints. Although The House that Dripped Blood has its fans, to my mind Asylum is his greatest work for the studio, bringing together Bloch’s fascinations with the uncanny and with deranged psychological states, and making the best use of his sly, cynical irony.
Powell, still five years away from upgrading to Jesus of Nazareth, is Dr. Martin. He has come to Dunsmoor Asylum for a job interview with the asylum head, one Dr. B. Starr – or so he thinks. Instead, he is greeted by Starr’s ‘associate’, Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee), cynical and wheelchair-bound after a violent altercation, just as Magee’s character was in the previous year’s A Clockwork Orange (USA, Stanley Kubrick, 1971).
Rutherford informs Martin that Starr has suddenly succumbed to insanity himself, attacked him – thus the wheelchair – and has been detained in one of the patient rooms upstairs. What’s more, Starr has – much like Bloch’s Norman Bates – been taken over by a new personality. Martin will be offered the position he seeks if, after questioning each of the patients, he can identify which one is Starr. Upstairs, the attendant Max Reynolds admits Martin through the security door to the inmates’ solitary confinement rooms, and introduces each patient – withholding any detailed background that would help in the identification. Thus we have the framing device of this, perhaps the greatest of Amicus’s horror anthologies.
The first patient is introduced in the story ‘Frozen Fear’ as Bonnie (Barbara Parkins) who has been embroiled in a torrid affair with Richard Todd’s unscrupulous Walter. When Walter kills his wife with an axe, he reckons without the voodoo bracelet she had taken to wearing. After he wraps her body parts in brown paper and twine, they come to life and drag him into his brand-new chest freezer (a very 1972 home comfort for aspirational Brits). When Bonnie comes to investigate, the parts turn on her, brown paper crinkling as they slither across the floor. The wife’s head, visibly breathing beneath its paper wrapping, provides the film with its poster, positioned just beneath its gloriously demented tagline – “Come to the asylum – to GET KILLED!”
The second patient is Bruno (Barry Morse), and his tale is ‘The Weird Tailor’. There’s actually nothing weird about the tailor at all, just melancholy – he’s about to lose his shop to his thuggish landlord, through lack of customers. The weirdness begins when Peter Cushing walks in (often a bad sign). Cushing’s ‘Smith’ offers Bruno £200 to make a special suit from a mysterious shimmering material. The tailor can, however, only work at certain prescribed hours after midnight, for reasons Smith briskly summarises as “astrology.” In fact, the suit is intended to raise Smith’s son from the dead, but when it is instead placed on Otto the shop mannequin the results drive Bruno insane. At the end of the tale, we see him claiming Otto still wanders the streets of London. This is perhaps the most visually striking story, at least before Asylum’s climax – Roy Ward Baker really pushes the atmospheric lighting and Dutch angles to drive home the psychological unease.
The third patient is Barbara (Charlotte Rampling), and her story is ‘Lucy Comes to Stay.’ An unsubtle tale of Barbara and her special mischievous friend Lucy (Britt Ekland), the twist would have been highly guessable at the time to viewers familiar with Bloch’s work, and even more so today in our post-Fight Club world. Bloch wanted this story to go first, as a slower and more accessible entry to the tales, but the producers switch it to the penultimate positions – understandable, as it’s easily the dud in the pack. The drop in pace is sometimes claimed as Asylum’s most significant flaw, but one could say it’s a useful breather before the final storm. Rampling plays Barbara with pathos and as much depth as she can give the material, and Britt Ekland is as striking as ever. It is disappointing, however, that Robert Bloch wrote yet another script where a psychotic rushes out of a bedroom to stab a victim at the top of the stairs – but here they just crumple to the ground, the opportunity lost for a more full-on homage to Psycho (USA, Alfred Hitchcock, 1960).
The fourth story, which eventually merges back into the framing narrative, is easily the highlight of the film. In ‘Manikins of Horror’ the great Herbert Lom plays Dr. Byron, a man Rutherford has scheduled for a lobotomy. Byron has become convinced that he can animate tin toy robots, allegedly containing ‘exact reproductions’ of certain colleagues, and send them out to do his psychic bidding. After all, as Byron says, did God Himself not breathe life into the nostrils of the inanimate man He had created?
This section was, in fact, my introduction to Asylum. As a small boy, I turned on the television one evening to find Herbert Lom hunched over such a creation. His tiny tin man, topped with a rubbery human-looking head, escaped the confines of its maker’s room, squeezed down a corridor and onto a dumb waiter, and emerged into the downstairs office to find Rutherford quizzing Martin on his decision. Editor Peter Tanner cuts back and forth with increasing urgency between the little robot and Lom’s face, twitching and mumbling, his eyes expressionistically lit as if starring his own private giallo.
Sneaking across a desk, and coming up behind Rutherford with the very scalpel he intended to use on Byron, the creepy homunculus thrusts its weapon into the back of Rutherford’s neck, killing him instantly. Horrified at the whirling, clicking creation, Dr Martin raises his foot and stamps it down hard onto the assailant, smashing it open to reveal pulsating offal – and triggering a bloodcurdling scream upstairs. I watched as Robert Powell raced back up to find the psychically linked Byron had been pulverised. This demented sequence, viewed in isolation on a glowing late-night cathode ray screen, caused Asylum to lodge itself in my heart just as the scalpel had been lodged in Rutherford’s brain stem.
What makes Asylum so good? Incoherence is so often the flaw in a portmanteau movie, but Asylum benefits greatly from the consistency of its preoccupations. Bloch has an eye for the unheimlich with his living body parts, walking mannequins, and grotesque flesh-filled toy duplicates. His fascination with one personality replacing another, Bates style, comes through in ‘Lucy Comes to Stay’, in the framing narrative with Starr’s identity switch, and even to an extent in ‘Mannikins of Horror’ where Byron’s will is strong enough to animate and take over his creations.
The thread of dementophobia that runs through the film is also pure Bloch – a chronic terror of going insane, of the supposed potential for madness to be in some way contagious. This is what Baker attempts to convey with his directorial style – each story being more stylised and delirious than the last. Or at least, that was the intention – foiled by the late shuffling of the running order, where the producers moved the more plainly shot ‘Lucy Comes to Stay’ to the middle of the pack. The rationale – give ‘em something a bit meatier earlier in the film – is understandable, if one allows for a carnival barker mentality, but it subtly breaks the film’s construction. The intended one-way journey into escalating derangement is quietly derailed.
This unfortunate act of vandalism is not enough to rob Asylum of its many charms, and it stands as a great example of the asylum-horror tradition, wherein you may step in but will perhaps never step out. Since at least The Cabinet of Caligari (Germany, Robert Weine, 1920) and A Page Of Madness (Japan, Teinosuki Kinugasa, 1926), and on through more recent films such as A Cure For Wellness (USA, Gore Verbinski, 2016), cinema has had a fascination with the line between doctor and patient – and how it might dissolve and leave people trapped, and ranting as to who exactly is mad.
Speaking of which, we must return to the intriguing puzzle-based narrative frame. After all we’ve seen, which of the cast – in the final analysis, so to speak – is Dr. B. Starr? We cannot spoil that here. To find out, you must take a trip to the asylum… TO GET KILLED!