Thursday, November 10, 2011

Madhouse (1973)

Madhouse (1973)
Dir. Jim Clark
Starring Vincent Price, Peter Cushing. Robert Quarry, Adrienne Corri

MADHOUSE is an odd little sorta surreal slasher/maybe a weird meta-joke kind of film. It’s hard to know exactly what it’s up to, and I like that. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film which has quite the same vibe to it. And it kinda works, too, in its own weird way. Not really as a slasher, not really as a postmodern genre joke, but as just as weird kind of movie with its own inexplicable dreamlike potency. Possibly, that’s because it was apparently adapted extremely loosely from a novel called Devilday. They were originally going to title it RETURN OF DR. DEATH --which would be accurate, if not exactly poetic-- but worried that title would sound like a sequel. So instead they went with a title which made absolutely no sense. We hear that Price’s character Paul Toombes did spend time in a madhouse after his wife was killed, but a more appropriate title would be PETER CUSHING’S HOUSE, which is where Price stays during the film.

The hook is essentially this: Vincent Price is a famous, beloved horror actor known for appearing as the title character in a fictional horror series called “Dr. Death.” Cushing is his friend and the writer of the series, who gave up a promising acting career to work on the project. There’s also a seething ex-wife, a slimeball American producer, (Robert Quarry) and a demented ex-lover who lives in a basement and identifies with spiders (played by CLOCKWORK ORANGE rape victim Adrienne Corri). On News Year’s eve, Price’s new trophy wife (a bleach-blonde spray-tanned botoxed parody of bombshell) gets murdered, minutes after Price is informed (by said scuzzball producer) that she had a career in the adult industry prior to her relationship with him. Did Price do it? Or is he being set up? We don’t know, and actually neither does he. He claims he’s blanked out and isn’t sure if he did it or not, and is understandably broken up about the whole thing. Funny thing: the trophy wife is a total parody of an empty-headed plastic fake, and that’s all the script needs her to be. But she’s not played as a grating body count. She seems sort of sweet, actually, and genuinely upset that her husband has suddenly discovered this embarrassing fact about her past. So when she bites it, it’s actually sort of sad and we can identify with Price’s devastation.

Price plays it pretty devastated, too. While he’s been able to avoid conviction, everyone assumes he’s guilty and he himself has his doubts. He has a few moments of glorious mega-acting* but mostly plays the character as withdrawn and broken. This gives him a legitimately tragic feel, but also keeps him mysterious enough for us to wonder if he actually is guilty, either unknowingly or by using his apparent amnesia as a convenient cover. It’s an awkward job to keep your main character a suspect, and the film mostly cheats at it by limiting what the audience sees, but there’s a opaqueness to Price’s performance which manages to be sympathetic but elusive.

Ciphers do not always make great protagonists, but Price manages, remarkably, to be emotive but also possibly unknowable. He manages to make a cohesive performance out of a character who might be an innocent victim or a sadistic liar. Either way, though, Price plays him tentatively; he looks like a man who’s afraid of himself and tired of his life. It’s a performance which is curiously both nuanced and outsized, just like the man himself. Price is a performer who is very aware of his body; here, he uses his large stature as a tool of vulnerability, slouching his wide shoulders, stooping, turning his body inward, melting into chairs with world-weary exhaustion to emphasize the extent to which this previously huge character has dwindled. It’s a performance which plays to his strengths but also gives him the opportunity to put a little humanity in the mix, with surprisingly affecting –if not quite poignant-- results.

So we’ve got that AND the usual gaillo-inspired slasher/stalker scenes --mostly pretty good-- but the real unique factor here is that the film is about a beloved horror icon played by Vincent Price. This is not a minor detail; fully a third of the film time seems to be people talking about his career, suggesting new projects for him, watching his old films. We see a few long clips from “Dr. Death” which are actually taken from Price’s old films, leading him to reminisce about working with Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone in a weird blurring of fiction and biography. Add Cushing and COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE’s Robert Quarry and you end up with something of a reunion tour and last hurrah for the horror icons of the 70s (and also for studio American International Pictures, working with Price for the last time here).

So there’s a not-so-subtle layer of meta-joke lurking underneath it all (there’s a costume party where Price wears his “Dr. Death” costume, Cushing dresses like Dracula, and Quarry dresses as Count Yorga). What are we to make of this, given that the slasher element seems intended to be taken in all seriousness? I honestly have no idea. In the big climax of the film, Price ends up fleeing from a killer who may or may not be imaginary into a TV studio, where he escapes through a door – and into a interview with British TV icon Michael Parkinson, where he sits down, talks about his career, and watches a few clips of old films. If there’s a metaphor here, I couldn’t quite make it out, but it does serve to concoct a somewhat unique mix of nostalgia and serviceable slasher action. It builds to an ending which is so totally surreal that I can only assume it’s supposed to mean something, but I’ll be damned if I could tell you exactly what. It possibly has something to do with the emotional strain of creating and inhabiting evil characters in horror movies, but whatever point may have been intended arrives too murky to really pin down. In order to explain, I’m going to have to spoil the big reveal at the end so the next bit is in magically


When the poor spunky gal played by Natasha Lynne (absolutely adorable here) gets knifed before she can reveal who the real killer is, Price goes nuts, drags her body onto the Dr. Death set and sets her up at a dinner table where he torches her and himself in a giant maelstrom of fire. We cut to his friend Cushing, who has been given the job of taking on his role. He sits at home and watches the same footage that we --the filmgoers-- watched of Price burning up, when suddenly a slightly toasted but very much alive Price comes out of the projected image on the screen and accuses Cushing of being the real killer, which he admits he did out of jealousy. In the ensuing old-man fight, Cushing ends up face down in a Spider pit. Granted, that all makes perfect sense. But then suddenly his corpse turns into a desiccated skeleton, Price sits down in front of a mirror, and begins putting make-up on. In time, it becomes clear that he’s recreating Cushing’s face over his own using makeup. What the..? Then finally, he sits down for a big meal with Cushing’s insane fire victim spider-loving wife (long story) and they explain they’re about to have a big meal of ….red herrings. And that’s it. Cut to credits of Price (!?!?) singing a song.

How in God’s name is anyone supposed to hew some meaning out of that? I don’t think anyone is seriously going to mistake Price for skinny little Cushing, even with a new face, so the assuming-his-identity is out. Maybe he’s taking on the character of an even crazier killer than the one he previously portrayed? That might kind of tie in to the main theme I guess. And wait a second, Cushing is supposed to be the killer, but he’s clearly visible in the crowd at the TV interview when the poor young lady is getting murdered. That’s obviously not some kind of goof, you don’t need to hire Cushing to fill out a crowd. So what’s the deal? And what about Price coming out of the film? It seems like it has to be a metaphor or a dream or something, but then it just keeps going. And ending on a red herring pun? Is that a hint that we’re not supposed to think about this too hard, or is it a clear sign that all of this is actually meant to be interpreted as some sort of meta commentary on genre and meaning? I’d tell you but honestly I have no fucking clue whatsoever.


Still, as full of winking oddities as it is, the film seems genuinely serious about its atmosphere and characters. The Dr. Death costume is a visually striking design, and the film is full of that exaggerated nightmare atmosphere that I always go for. The actors seem to be trying harder than they technically need to, the horror is well-executed, and the postmodernism is handled with affection rather than smirk. Mostly, though, the film is memorable for its odd touches and the completely inexplicable ending. The incoherent tone is probably the result of incompetence in the filmmakers (as these things usually are) but here, director Jim Clark (editor to many films including recent efforts like KISS KISS BANG BANG and VERA DRAKE but director of only four, this being his last one) at least really knows how to stage sequences so they work. Put a bunch of sequences like that together, and even if they don’t make much sense the impact will carry you through. Pleasantly, that’s the case here. It may not be quite cohensive enough to qualify as the kind of career capstone for Price that it may have been intended to be, but that’s OK because it captures its own kind of weirdly mordant charm. Like Price himself, the thing is a lumbering --but fascinating—original which is worth watching even when it can’t always be called respectable.

*copyright Vern at

1 comment:

  1. Andy and I watched this a few years ago during a day long movie marathon. Good to know that the ending was genuinely inexplicable (and awesome) and not just a case of me being drunk and easily confused.