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Friday, 27 May 2011

Madhouse (1974)

Director: Jim Clark
Stars: Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry

Given that today would have been Vincent Price's one hundredth birthday, a Vincentennial as it were, I felt it appropriate to celebrate his life and career by watching a Price picture that I hadn't seen before. It took some searching but I located this one, a co-production between Amicus in the UK and AIP in the States. It's far from his best film but it has much to offer, not least the trio of legends in leading roles: Price, Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry. A couple more back them up, as Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff make surprise guest appearances, given that they'd both been dead for years: Rathbone died in 1967 and Karloff in 1969. They appear through the magic of cinema, rather like Bela Lugosi did in Plan 9 from Outer Space, but at least Ed Wood used new footage to the screen, Rathbone and Karloff reappear in clips from older AIP films. Five of those are reused here, a quick fact that helps to underline how recycled much of Madhouse is.

The plot is highly recycled. It was originally sourced from a novel called Devilday by Angus Hall, but apparently it bears little resemblance to it. It bears more of a resemblance to one of Vincent Price's previous films, Theater of Blood, made only the previous year and which lies much closer to the peak of his output. The only real difference is the attempt to build suspense by hiding the villain until the end of the film. Theater of Blood featured Price as a stage actor called Edward Lionheart who, after years of bad reviews, fakes his own death and returns to murder his critics. Madhouse features Price as Paul Toombes, a film actor, who is driven mad by the murder of his wife to be, even though he may have done the deed himself. A dozen years later, he travels to London to rekindle his career on television by appearing once more as his famous character, Dr Death, who promptly begins a killing spree in real life as Toombes arrives.

You might expect the dozen year gap between the first murder and the rest of the story to be spent in the madhouse of the title and you'd be right. However that skips by in a single scene and that's it for that. I did wonder, as the suspense built, if the title had a better meaning, that perhaps Toombes was in the madhouse all along and everything we see unfolds only in the mind of a lunatic, but I was giving the film too much credit. It doesn't. It's played straight as a hybrid of horror and suspense, that sort of pre-slasher movie that relishes in its cool death scenes but keeps a sense of mystery about the why of it all. The mystery element worked well here, at least in that clues kept getting dropped for me to fail to identify until the killer was unmasked. Frankly I preferred Theater of Blood and The Abominable Dr Phibes, both of which ignored the mystery element completely and concentrated on style and ingenuity.
Madhouse does have some style but it takes a while to appear, most of it not arriving until the finalé. Strangely, it doesn't have much to do with Price, instead tying to a supporting character played by Adrienne Corri, perhaps best known as Mrs Alexander, the housewife victim in the Singin' in the Rain scene in A Clockwork Orange. During the introductory scene, she's venomous Faye Carstairs, an actress who had appeared in one of Toombes's films and who is not happy in the slightest as he announces his engagement to Ellen Mason at a New Year showing of his fifth Dr Death movie. Twelve years later in London, she's Mrs Herbert Flay, wife to Peter Cushing's character. Life hasn't treated her well: she's now a bleached white and mostly bald lunatic in a wig who skulks around the cellar at night with her babies, all spiders. While most of the cast get routine characters, hers allows many possibilities and she certainly runs with them.

In comparison, her husband is one of those routine characters. Just as Price plays a character rather like we imagine Price himself, a cultured and polite man who merely happens to make outrageous horror movies, Cushing's role doesn't surprise either. He's also cultured and polite and has a gorgeous house on the banks of the Thames. He's also a horror actor, though at the outset he's a writer, as acting hadn't played out for him at that point. Robert Quarry is at least a little more sleazy, starting out as a man who makes adult films for art houses, and who has the distinct bad taste to point out after Toombes announces his engagement to Ellen Mason that she had once been one of his stars. Later in London he's a producer for Rainbow Television, out of the adult business but still sleazy. Quarry fans might be interested to find that he gets to dress up for a costumed ball as his most famous role, Count Yorga. Blink and you'll miss it though.

While all three of these legends do capable work, none of them really able to do otherwise, it's the women who prove most watchable. Adrienne Corri gets to run wild with her role, often with spiders crawling over her body. Clean cut Natasha Pyne, fresh from seven seasons of the classic TV sitcom Father Dear Father, plus the less successful big screen adaptation, is a sheer delight as a PR lady for Rainbow who looks after Toombes. It's not a great role, but she shines in it as a capable professional woman who happens to be gorgeous to boot. Ironically for someone not known for horror movies, she debuted on film in a Hammer picture, a swashbuckler called The Devil-Ship Pirates, with Christopher Lee but not Peter Cushing. Linda Hayden, on the other hand, is known mostly for her horror movies, having built up to this one with notable roles in Taste the Blood of Dracula and The Blood on Satan's Claw. She's very prominent as the first London victim.
The screenplay is the biggest problem, though I don't know how much budget constraints might have contributed. It's so far removed from the source novel that Angus Hall can't attract praise or criticism. Those responsible are Ken Levison and Greg Morrison, neither of whom had a heck of a lot of experience. Levison was a script editor for television whose prior screen work was restricted to a three year period that ended in 1966, eight years before this film was made. He apparently came out of retirement to write this, only to promptly retire again. Morrison never did anything else on screen. It's not that their work is bad here, it's just that it's derivative in many ways and could have been so much better. To give credit where credit's due, there are some really clever touches, such as a mirror scene in Flay's house that suggests multiple personalities, but it isn't followed up on. That's a common complaint here.

For most of the film, the plot is capable but unimaginative. Towards the end of the film, it gets really slack, relying on some outrageous conveniences that pile up unashamedly for an entire sequence. It begins with Toombes escaping from certain death without any explanation, only to stumble out of the room into a TV interview with him, mere seconds off cue, even though he and we had totally forgotten it was scheduled. Michael Parkinson cameos as himself, though the brief scene suggests that he doesn't actually interview people, he just shows extended snippets from their movies instead. The only realistic plot element during this part of the story is an OJ Simpson glove sequence, decades before that particular murder ever happened. Fortunately the inanity ends and we get a satisfactory triptych of finales: a flamboyant one, an explanatory one and a gloriously outrageous one, outrageous in all the right ways.

Don't watch this for quality, watch it for the people involved, especially Adrienne Corri, who may never have done more magnetic work, however wasted her part was. She showed an aptitude for the genre here that was never capitalised on. A steady working actress throughout the fifties and sixties, both in film and on television, she made few horror movies. Her first may have been Corridors of Blood in 1958, with both Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, unless you count 1954's Devil Girl from Mars, and she'd make odd forays over the years, but she demonstrates here that she had everything needed to be a memorable horror lead, not a scream queen but a lead. She made three further films, none of them horror, and a host of TV episodes before retiring from the screen in 1992. That's a shame. Vincent Price, the real lead here, had more horror movies to go, of course, but none for AIP. This was his last picture for them after a long and memorable run.

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