Trivia Herbert Lom shot his cameo in half a day, while Richard Todd has stated in interviews he regrets making this film.
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24th Jul 06
A young psychiatrist interviews four inmates in a mental asylum as part of a bizarre job interview.
You could argue that what we now know as the modern horror movie started with the arrival of films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and the like, as these were, after all, the first of a generation of flicks that were unflinching in their portrayal of physical violence and the terror that ensues, and caused headaches for censors the world over. But that was the mid-to-late 70s for you, when social unrest was high, times really were a-changing and our horror movies reflected that.
The years before, where censorship was rife and gore was rare as hell, constituted what you could consider a more civilized age. This was the hey-day of Hammer and Amicus, where the onus was not on the shocks, the jumps, the machetes and the realistic blood spray, but rather to tell a story that was genuinely chilling. And when you can't resort to showing copious amounts of blood and gore, you have to be a little more inventive as to how to scare your audience, which is something the guys at Amicus know only to well.
Which brings us on to Asylum. The movie starts with Dr Martin (Robert Powell) arriving at the asylum of the title in his beautiful red MG sports car, accompanied by the booming score of Ride of the Valkyries, which is a little bit overdramatic but what the hell. He’s here for a job interview and has an appointment with the asylum director, one Doctor Starr, but instead he’s led in to a different office, the office of Dr Hungerford (Patrick Magee, who’s the guy from A Clockwork Orange, not the guy from The Avengers and Waxworks). There Hungerford explains that Starr has had a nervous breakdown and is now one of the patients, and is claiming that they are someone else entirely different. After a brief discussion whereby Dr Martin reveals he’s had some experience working with people with dissociative disorders, the two doctors come to an agreement; if Dr Martin can deduce which of the patients on the top floor is Dr Starr then the vacant position is his.
And so begins this Amicus short story compilation. Martin heads up to the top floor, past a whole host of wildly disturbing paintings on the stairwell on the way up, is greeted by Max the caretaker and then lead from room to room, where he’s given the opportunity to chat to each patient in turn. This is the real meat of the adventure with each patient’s meeting quickly turning into a flashback of the tale of how they got there, and boy are they creepy. But they’re creepy for more ways than one; firstly because, as I said above, you had to work a little harder on the story when your blood and guts quota was always going to be low, but secondly because once you get used to this story telling style you see potential creep out moments coming a mile away.
For example, let me go a little more in depth into the analysis of the first story than I really need to just so you get the idea what I’m talking about. It’s the story of Bonnie (Barbara Perkins) and her disastrous affair with a married man named Walter (Richard Todd, of Dam Busters fame). Dr Martin goes in to her room and to talk and she reluctantly agrees to explain the story of why she’s there, but why won’t she look at him? Why do we deliberately only get to see the back of her head? Is that a clue of a nasty scare coming later on? Hmmm… Anyway, the tale starts with the two lovers talking on the phone while Walter drinks his whiskey decanter dry until his estranged wife turns up. How was your evening darling? Oh fine, she replies, and then tells Walter what a great evening she’s had at her voodoo witchdoctor class and that the big mess of shells, claws and saber teeth that she’s got tied around her wrist is a strong good look charm that’s going to ward away evil. Right, so far the clues are Bonnie hiding her face, voodoo and a lucky charm bracelet.
So Walter then pipes up I’ve bought you a present and promptly takes her down the basement, where he proudly displays a brand new casket freezer, which his wife seems strangely pleased about (it was the early 70s). Then he shows her the sharp edge of a fire axe, which she’s not quite so pleased about, chops her up into little pieces, wraps each body part in brown paper packaging and neatly ties string around them, as if he was going to post the lot on or something. He places all the parts in the new freezer, obviously, but as he’s picking up the last part – the head I believe – he spies his wife’s crazy voodoo bracelet on the floor. Appalled, both at what he’s just done and the shoddy craftsmanship of the bracelet probably, he chucks it in to the freezer on top of the body parts and promptly heads off upstairs to get another scotch.
Now this is the trick. Obviously that’s not the last we see of Walter’s wife, this much is certain. Similarly, we know that Bonnie’s going to be here any minute, and by the fact that it’s just Bonnie in the funny farm we can make an educated guess as to how soon Walter buys it. In the same vein, when the parceled hand grabs Bonnie by the face in the basement and she grabs a knife to defend herself, you can tell what she is going to do. Sure enough, when Bonnie finally does turn around back in the asylum room to face Dr Martin, you can see that… well, I’m not going to spoil it for you but I think you can probably guess by now.
This is what Amicus does so well, slightly better I think than their Hammer counterparts even though a great deal of actors, writers and directors often flitted between the two institutions. It’s that simple feeling of dread that gets under our collective skins and makes us all feel so uncomfortable that they seem to have mastered portraying. If you are observant it’s no big thing spotting what the next big scare or next big twist is going to be, but it still creeps you out anyway, sometimes because it’s just creepy watching the characters work out what’s about to happen to them. I mean, I know I’m watching a horror compilation, but they often don’t look like they know they’re living in one.
The next two short stories are equally chilling. The first deals with a tailor who, down on his luck and with bills to pay, accepts a rather strange job from Peter Cushing. He wants the tailor to make a suit for him out of some bizarre cloth he’s brought round that shines different colours of the rainbow depending on the light, and he wants it made between 12 midnight and five in the morning over consecutive nights. Weird? I think so. The second story is slightly weaker and tells the tale of Barbara (a young and rather beautiful Charlotte Rampling) who’s just come out of the nut house and has moved back in with her older brother and a nurse. Despite the warnings that she should stay off the drugs that sent her loopy in the first place, she finds some hidden in her make up draw, knocks them back and then gets visit form an old friend, played by none other than Britt Eckland. A coincidence? Maybe.
But it’s the finally story, which also wraps around into the epilogue tale, that will really haunt you. Herbert Lom (who apparently was a big name even before his star turn as Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies) plays Dr Byron, a practitioner with an over fascination with a handful of little toy robots he’s crafted. One of them he’s fashioned in his own image and the story revolves around the claim that he can, with the power of thought alone, transfer his willpower into this marionette at his pleasure. Mad, surely, or is he?
Suffice is to say that this one will give you the creeps for weeks, and also sets up the movie’s very clever ending. I don’t want to give too much away, but the residents of the top floor of this asylum have one thing in common; that they think they’re sane and they’ve been framed for the murders in question by some supernatural force or other. But just when you think it’s going to happen again, with a neat little twist of an ending, the movie pulls the rug from under you and shamelessly delivers an ending that’s both shocking and surprising, sealing the quality of the film for all to see and, in the case of this reviewer, leaving you wondering if there aren’t more Amicus movies out there worth tracking down.
There’s more to it of course, the score is excellent and wholly appropriate throughout, and the presentation of this new remastered widescreen effort is exemplary, but essentially it’s the stories that count. In this age of filmmakers plundering the late 70s and early 80s for grind house plots to regurgitate, it’s great to see old fashioned horror being given a new lease of life in the ever widening DVD market. I guess it just goes to show that a good scary story is a good scary story whenever it’s told, and that’s something that maybe aspiring filmmakers should remember these days. Oh, and that if they could afford him they should get Herbert Lom in their movie, as he’s absolutely great.
Versions Your best bet is the very good remastered widescreen region 1 edition from Dark Sky Films
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