1974 / Jim Clark
You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!
It may be a well-worn cliche, but you can imagine those who worked on Amicus Productions’ 24th film adopting that old adage as their mantra. Tension between the company’s partners, Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, was reportedly mounting, with the former feeling increasingly sidelined by the latter, which probably didn’t create a relaxed working environment for those in their employ. Despite this, there is much to enjoy once you’ve entered Madhouse (UK, Jim Clarke, 1974).
The story opens, as the on-screen message says, in ‘Hollywood some years ago…’ at a New Year’s Eve party held by horror legend Paul Toombes at his home. The actor’s smartly dressed guests are there to watch the latest entry in a successful movie series featuring his on-screen alter ego, Dr. Death.
Toombes also wants his guests to toast his impending marriage to the beautiful and much younger Ellen, and while most of them do, there are two notable naysayers – one of his former co-stars, Fay, who has been holding a torch for him herself, and Oliver Quayle, a porn film producer who can’t wait to inform Toombes of the kind of work his bride-to-be used to get up to.
Toombes is devastated and it seems the wedding’s off until, after a snooze, he goes to find Ellen to apologise for his reaction – only to find she’s been beheaded. He has no idea if he’s killed her during a blackout or not, and neither do the authorities.
We next meet him after the opening titles when, following treatment in an institution for a nervous breakdown, Toombes seems better and is en route to England, where his old friend, writer and Dr. Death co-creator Herbert Flay, is resurrecting the character for a new audience on television.
What Toombes doesn’t know is that Quayle is behind the production, that a new series of murders are about to take place that seems to pay homage to Dr. Death’s most notorious activities and that – spoiler alert – his friend Herbert is the man behind them.
And that, in a nutshell, is Madhouse, a very loose adaptation of the novel Devilday (Sphere Books, Angus Hall, 1969), written by journeyman author Angus Hall, who also penned the novelisation of Scars of Dracula (Sphere Books, 1971) as well as non-fiction titles on topics including crime and the supernatural.
His original story focuses on a journalist’s dealings with a once-famous horror star who, like the character he regularly played on film, is a Satanist. Hall approved Vincent Price’s casting as Toombes, claiming he had him in mind while writing the book, which seems incredible when you consider the fact that on the page, he’s described as repulsive, obese and very hairy – things the urbane Price was certainly not!
There is some debate about who held the rights to adapt the novel. Some sources suggest that Milton Subotsky read the book in 1969 and immediately snapped them up, while others claim AIP owned them.
The premise had certainly been bubbling under at both companies for some time. According to Amicus: The Studio That Dripped Blood (Stray Cat Publishing Ltd, edited by Allan Bryce, 2000), Subotsky and Rosenberg planned in 1970 to make a film “set on the last day of shooting in a film studio that is about to close, and featuring murders by all the great monsters of filmdom,” but dropped it in favour of Devilday, which was then renamed The Revenge of Dr Death, but changed again to Madhouse to avoid a clash with Dr Death – Seeker of Souls (US, Eddie Seata, 1973).
However, in Vincent Price – The Art of Fear (Reynolds & Hearn, 2003), author Denis Meikle claims that also in 1970, AIP had taken an option on the novel but initially scrapped the idea to film it. Eighteen months later, a script was written by Murray Smith, but that was also dumped, and another 18 months went by before filming began at Twickenham Studios, with a new screenplay credited to Greg Morrison and Ken Levison.
Whatever really happened, what we do know is that the film was the two studios’ first collaboration since Scream and Scream Again (UK, Gordon Hessler. 1970).
That film had been a big success, so it’s perhaps a surprise that it took them so long to work together again – until you learn that Subotsky had been asked by AIP to find another title for them
to collaborate on, but turned the idea down due to friction between himself and AIP’s then-Head of European Production, Louis ‘Deke’ Heyward. However, when Heyward left the company, the path was clear for another partnership.
Price, then desperate to get to the end of his contract with AIP, which had just two more films left to run, would have been a no-brainer to play the lead thanks to his reputation within the horror genre. Robert Fuest was originally slated to direct, so that’s perhaps how Robert Quarry and Peter Cushing – both of whom had appeared, like Price, in Dr. Phibes Rises Again (UK, Robert Fuest, 1972), were drafted in to co-star.
Quarry – who was also, to his chagrin, trapped in a contract with AIP – was originally cast as Herbert Flay, but it was eventually decided he was too young for the part, so was given the smaller but showier role of the odious Oliver Quayle.
The actor was open in his dislike of AIP’s head honchos, something that worked well for his performance. Quayle is a sleazebag, a snide, horrible little man – and is said to have been directly influenced by the film’s producers.
Despite Price being in a happy place personally during filming – he was living in Chelsea so he could be with Coral Browne, whom he’d met and fallen in love with while making Theatre of Blood (UK, Douglas Hickox, 1973) – there was tension on set between him and Quarry, with the pair reputedly sneering and bitching at each other throughout filming. Was Price aware that Quarry was being groomed to replace him as AIP’s premier star, and so was asserting his authority? Maybe, but the animosity adds a little fire to their scenes together.
Cushing, meanwhile, was as close as Subotsky and Rosenberg came to having a regular house star, so it’s no surprise to see him pop up here. As ever, he’s a reliable presence on screen, managing to be disarmingly charming and dapper, despite some terrible cravats and an appalling toupee.
What is delightful is the chance to see Cushing and his friend Price share scenes together for the first time, although Price was apparently somewhat taken aback by how committed Cushing was in their climactic fight scene (Cushing described it as a “titanic ding-dong” in his autobiography, Past Forgetting (George Weidenfeld & Nicholson Ltd, 1988)). By this point in his life, three years after the death of his beloved wife Helen, he was rather frail-looking, but the veteran star proved what a fine physical actor he could still be.
As for Price, Amicus: The Studio That Dripped Blood states that it was miscast because he “never managed a convincing performance as a hero,” but it’s actually rather refreshing to see him so vulnerable. You do wonder if he’s playing a character closer to his real self than at any other time during his career; Toombes is, after all, clearly concerned with his appearance, charming and personable – when he’s not wondering if he could be a psychopath, anyway.
The book is right, however, to suggest that as Hall’s original depiction of Toombes was a drug-taking, violent sexual pervert, “the foundations were laid for Price’s best performance since Witchfinder General (UK, Michael Reeves, 1968)”. Certainly, a straight adaptation of the text would have been interesting in that respect.
As already mentioned, Robert Fuest was originally pencilled in to direct, but it ended up being Jim Clarke (not the racing driver of the same name) who took the reins. An acclaimed editor by trade, he’s another given a chance to hone his directing skills by Amicus, following in the footsteps of Kevin Connor and Freddie Francis. Let’s face it, it wouldn’t have been altruism on their part, but rather the knowledge that as a novice, Clarke would have been cheap.
Clarke did, however, already know Subotsky before being approached about the job. Writing in his autobiography Dream Repairman: Adventures in Film Editing (LandMarc Press, Jim Clarke with John H Myers, 2010), Clarke states they’d bonded over a shared interest in “paperback fiction of a not terribly high quality.”
He goes on to say that he got on well with Price, and both men agreed that ex-publicity agent Morrison’s original script wasn’t good enough. Subotsky threatened to rewrite it himself, so Clarke brought in Ken Levison, with whom he’d previously worked on John Schlesinger’s section of Visions of Eight (US, 1973).
Levison wrote a new treatment overnight, which gained Price’s approval. He then spent a weekend penning the following Monday’s scenes. Other rewrites were done right up to the wire, and in the order that scenes were shot, with Levison posting them through Clarke’s door.
The director would read and edit them the next morning while en route to the location or Twickenham Studios. A script girl would then type them up and distribute them to the actors, who’d learn their lines while the set was being lit.
If that sounds like a bonkers, rushed way to work, it was. Making matters worse was Subotsky himself, who couldn’t help interfering.
“Our real problem was Milton Subotsky, a cross between David O Selznick and the Red Queen in Alice (in Wonderland),” according to Levison, as quoted in Clarke’s autobiography. “David O. Selznick meddled endlessly with the script and everything else. The Red Queen screamed all day over the phone, involving us in a pointless waste of time and energy.”
Subotsky also recast several parts behind Clarke’s back, bringing in less expensive actors. Although Clarke claims they weren’t as good, the supporting cast is full of familiar faces, right from the moment that Toombes arrives at the Royal Victoria Dock – sharp-eyed Doctor Who (BBC TV, 1963-present) fans may recognise Michael Craze, who played William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton companion Ben, among the paparazzi waiting to ‘greet’ him.
Natasha Pyne, then fresh from her success as Patrick Cargill’s eldest daughter in the sitcom Father, Dear Father (Thames Television, 1968), is delightful as Julia, a publicist who also seems to act as Toombes’s PA.
Linda Hayden also pops up as a starlet whose efforts to gain a part in the TV show by seducing Toombes end in disaster when she winds up dead, one of several of Dr. Death’s new victims (the comedic depiction of her foster parents, however, is rather annoying and superfluous).
But it’s Adrienne Corri as Fay, the woman heartbroken by Toombes’s rejection, who threatens to steal the show. When we see her in the present, she’s completely lost her mind, having been trapped in an unhappy marriage to Flay (yes, she really is called Fay Flay) before being disfigured in an altercation with several men.
Rather than being the madwoman in the attic, she’s the crazy lady in the cellar, where she spends her time caring for her pet spiders while still carrying a torch for Toombes, even listening to a recording of him singing the 1926 ballad When Day Is Done (and yes, that really is Price’s voice on the soundtrack). Wearing a streaked wig in homage to Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein, she’s a pitiful creature, but one with plenty of bite – it’s she (and her pets) who comes to Toombes’s aid when her husband is revealed to be the real killer.
The other star of note to look out for is Michael Parkinson playing… Michael Parkinson. Toombes appears on an edition of his chat show in what was the host’s acting debut. He described Madhouse as “…a horror film starring Vincent Price, which involved him setting fire to himself in a TV studio as I interviewed him. Don’t ask me why because I never did work it out,” although he did admit that “Vincent was a joy to work with.” (Parky: My Autobiography, Hodder & Stoughton, Michael Parkinson, 2008).
Parkinson is actually pretty terrible; thank goodness his acting improved, otherwise cult favourite Ghostwatch (BBC TV, 1992) would have been a disaster. However, there is a nice in-joke that occurs when Toombes vanishes from the set; Parky says it’s a fitting move for someone who once played the invisible man, something Price did in The Invisible Man Returns (US, Joe May 1940).
Trivia fans may also like to note that make-up artist George Blackler appears as himself, putting the final touches to Toombes’s striking look on-set. There’s no doubt that the Dr. Death disguise is highly effective, and one of the best images ever created for a character played by Price.
Although filming appears to have been somewhat hectic, Clarke claimed that it was an entertaining shoot: “Everyone pitched in and we muddled through together.” (ibid)
Price had, however, banned Subotsky from the set following a massive row, which the director claimed used “some of the foulest language I’ve ever heard.” (ibid)
Perhaps that’s why the humbled and humiliated producer was all sweetness and light afterwards – until post-production began. Levison suggested they’d been lulled into a false sense of security by some supportive remarks and praise for Clarke’s work.
That just made what followed worse. Four weeks into shooting, “Milton, the Red Queen, went on the rampage, burning the script to ensure that Jim would finish within a fortnight, losing all character lines and many big scenes as well as striking sets. We were deluged with new pages, and the picture lost all sense.” (ibid)
Subotsky was also critical of Clarke in the media, which is perhaps why Madhouse ended up being his fourth and final film as a director. He later stated: “I preferred being an editor on good feature films to being a director of bad movies,” before adding, “If I’d stayed and fought for
Madhouse, I suppose I might have prevented it from being a failure, but because I wasn’t even on speaking terms with Milton, I decided to let it go. As soon as my back was turned, Milton recut the film and put the coffin lid on a movie that was stillborn.” (ibid)
The irony is that many of the problems in Madhouse – which come in the last 20 or so minutes – could have been solved by a good editor, someone like Clarke himself. Instead, after filming wrapped, he hopped on a plane to cut The Day of the Locust (US, 1975) for his old mate John Schlesinger. Instead, Madhouse was hacked to pieces, presumably on Subotsky’s insistence, turning the climax into a rather disjointed affair.
But it’s not all a disaster. There are some wonderful atmospheric touches throughout, particularly in scenes filmed at the now-demolished Pyrford Place, the 16th-century property in Surrey that doubles as Flay’s home. Shrouded in mist with a dark, spectral figure moving between topiary and statues, they’re all rather picturesque and moody and conclude with the vision of Linda Hayden’s corpse floating silently in a boat, looking rather like something out of a modern interpretation of a Pre-Raphaelite painting.
Although always described as a horror film, Madhouse does, at times, resemble a giallo, which was reaching its peak at the time – the black-gloved killer, the female victims, the masked, mysterious killer… all wouldn’t look out of place in a Dario Argento movie from the same period.
Critics at the time weren’t so enthused. As was often the case with British horror movies back then, it was treated with derision, perhaps because it might have seemed, in a post-Exorcist landscape, rather hackneyed.
Some still aren’t keen. Although he’s right to suggest that Roger Corman deserved some sort of on-screen credit due to the number of clips from House of Usher (US, 1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (US, 1961), Tales of Terror (US, 1962), The Haunted Palace (US, 1963), The Raven (US, 1963), and The Masque of the Red Death (UK/US, 1964), that appear on the screen (they were included on the strict orders of AIP’s Samuel Z Arkoff), Price’s biographer, Denis Miekle, is rather harsh when he calls the film “…a poor man’s Agatha Christie, the diametric opposite of Theatre of Blood in production values and The Abominable Dr Phibes (UK, Robert Fuest, 1971) in originality.” He likens it instead to Grip of the Strangler (UK, Robert Day, 1958) in which Boris Karloff’s writer investigates a 20-year-old series of murders, just as they begin again.
Ian Taylor, writing in Ten Years of Terror (FAB Press, eds. Harvey Fenton and David Flint, 2001), is to my mind closer to the mark when he states that because of the Corman footage and a homage to House of Wax (US, Andre DeToth, 1953) in the fiery climax, the film can be seen as almost a celebration of Price’s entire career.
He also says: “Madhouse is what can be best described as ‘comfort’ horror; in other words, it’s hokey as hell, funny rather than fearsome and homely in the way that UK-lensed genre outings often were in the early Seventies.”
It also has a wonderful final scene. Toombes, having faked his own death and lost his mind again, must disguise himself as Flay so that he can continue to be Dr. Death, Flay having been contracted to play the character in his former friend’s absence.
What results is a truly disturbing mix of Cushing and Price’s features as Toombes takes his place at the dinner table with Corri’s Fay. She’s finally got her man, living with him in her very own Madhouse, and serving him up a rather apt dish of “sour cream and red herrings.”
Amicus: The Studio that Dripped Blood (Stray Cat Publishing, ed. Allan Bryce, 2000)
British Cult Cinema: The Amicus Anthology (Hemlock Film, Bruce G Hallenbeck, 2014)
Chopped Meat: British Horror of the 1970s (A We Belong Dead Publication, eds. Eric McNaughton and Darrell Buxton, 2022)
English Gothic (Reynolds & Hearne, Jonathan Rigby, 2000)
Offbeat (Headpress, ed. Julian Upton, 2022)
Past Forgetting (George Weidenfield & Nicolson, Peter Cushing, 1988)