Sunday, 16 May 2010

Madhouse (1974)

Country: UK

The Madhouse of Dr. Fear
The Revenge of Dr. Death

This joint venture between American International Pictures and Amicus Productions is based upon the novel Devilday by Angus Hall. Despite a promising and intriguing premise this amounts to little more than a tired and jaded trawl through the greatest hits of Vincent Price. There are numerous opportunities for some self-reflexive fun and pastiche, but director Jim Clark and his collaborators don’t quite have the guts to push the film in the direction of the spoof territory where it may have succeeded. Price plays the character of Paul Toombes a faded has-been of a Hollywood star who achieved notoriety and success in the past with a series of horror films in which he played the sinister psychopath Dr. Death. The film opens with a glitzy, vulgar and camp Hollywood party in honour of Toombes’ latest marriage. Sadly the decapitation of his new love sours the mood somewhat (though its the typically tawdry Amicus décor that had me retching in horror) and Toombes suffers a complete breakdown jabbering incoherently that Dr. Death was responsible. Years later Toombes accepts an invite from an English television producer to resurrect Dr. Death for the small screen - only for his insecurities , mental anguish, and past to return to haunt him.

In places this feels like a very cheap and tacky production due to the sheer volume of recycled footage that makes up the running time. The self indulgent (and over long) extracts from films such as The House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and The Raven (1963) are used to illustrate Toombes’/Price’s past glories. But for anyone familiar with these films, tedium will soon set in. This was Price’s last film for AIP, and the whole thing has the rushed feel of a company eager to extricate themselves from Price’s contract and move on to more commercial avenues. When such external concerns actually bleed into the film itself it’s a bad sign, and the result is a film that feels like a feature length swan song (but not a good one). In fact as a vehicle for the departing Price it borders on insulting. The screenplay by Ken Levison and Greg Morrison is unimaginative and plodding and shamelessly exploits Price’s commercial fall from grace. Price gets to do his tortured artist routine, but without the psychological complexity of the Corman/Poe films, and without the wit and enthusiasm of Theatre of Blood (1973). A perfunctory police investigation into the mysterious deaths takes up far too much screen time and is further proof of a screenplay devoid of ideas. The boredom is alleviated a little by a frankly bizarre cameo by British talk show host Michael Parkinson, but is spoiled by the intrusion of the obligatory AIP archive footage.

The only saving grace for Madhouse is in its casting. In addition to Price we have the ever dependable Peter Cushing who is excellent as the dandyish Herbert Flay. Its good to see these two horror heavyweights finally sharing a generous amount of screen time (past films featuring the two were frustrating in the briefness of Price and Cushing’s on screen interaction). Robert Quarry, most famous at this point for his turn as the modern day vampire in Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) and The Return of Count Yorga (1971) is on hand to play a suitably sleazy scum bag film producer. And Adrienne Corri wins the award for oddest performance for her role as a scarred and faded hag living in a cellar with a disturbing collection of spiders. A brief appearance by the always watchable Linda Hayden as a blackmailing wannabe adds some much needed sex appeal, but she is despatched far too early. Performances like this are much needed because the various set pieces are exceptionally poor. The only highlight coming when Dr. Death himself appears to walk out of the cinema screen at the fiery finale. For a horror film Madhouse is also curiously devoid of atmosphere, and its no surprise that the stagy and insipid direction of Clark would lead to a limited career in that profession - however he would go on to have a tremendous career as an editor. But even the editing in this film misses the mark, with some of the set pieces edited so swiftly you can barely register what is happening. Madhouse has some intriguing things to say about the nature of stardom and the petty politics of film production, it has a somewhat pessimistic and cynical view of the Hollywood conveyor belt, but this is undermined considerably by the films own concession to generic clichés. This could have been a fascinating exercise in exposing generic clichés and conventions and lampooning them within a discussion of the nature of stardom. But unfortunately Madhouse fumbled the ball and the result is the obscurity of the cobweb strewn vault of horror history.

© Shaun Anderson 2010

1 comment:

  1. I found this one to be enjoyable, though I prefer THEATRE OF BLOOD


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