Friday, December 11, 2015

Asylum (1972)

Asylum (1972)
Dir. Roy Ward Baker
Written by Robert Bloch
Starring Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Robert Powell, Herbert Lom, Barry Morse, Patrick Magee

The years between the 1971 release of THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD and the 1974 release of FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE were something of a golden age for horror anthologies, especially those released by the longtime also-ran English horror factory Amicus productions. While rival Hammer Studios was suffering a painful artistic and popular decline with their characteristic brand of gothic bloodletting, Amicus was managing to stay relevant by cranking out contemporary-set anthologies corralling the still-popular British horror stars of the time into a few days’ work on different segments. It was cheap and hit-or-miss, but overall boasts a surprisingly high success rate, as we saw with the excellent VAULT OF HORROR and TALES FROM THE CRYPT.

Both of those films were based on the EC horror comics of the same name, but ASYLUM (premiering in 1972, the same year as TALES) took a different approach: four different adaptations of Robert Bloch short stories, adapted by the author. Bloch was already the subject of some renown for having written the novel upon which Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano based PSYCHO (apparently quite faithfully), but his writing was quite a bit more versatile than that much-copied story would indicate. Actually, Bloch was a writer somewhat more in the Lovecraft vein than the fairly grounded world of Psycho would suggest; in fact, he corresponded with Lovecraft himself and his circle of writers quite a bit as a youth. Lovecraft even includes a very thinly-disguised Bloch (“Robert Blake”) in his final fictional work, The Haunter of the Dark, itself a sequel to an earlier Bloch story in which a thinly-disguised version of Lovecraft gets killed. And then Bloch wrote a sequel to Lovecraft’s story to bring himself back from the dead! That immediately suggests something about Bloch which was never evident in Lovecraft: a sly sense of humor, and a sure hand at a cheeky twist.

These traits would serve him well in the medium of short fiction, but would transfer successfully to the silver screen only sporadically. By 1972, he’d written a total of nine screenplays --five of those for Amicus-- and had a fairly spotty track record from what I’ve seen. I hear TORTURE GARDEN is pretty good, and I liked THE SKULL (though more for its stylish direction than its somewhat languid screenplay), but on the other hand THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD is the very definition of tepid mediocrity, and THE DEADLY BEES (apparently significantly re-written without his consent, but still…) is a solid candidate for actual factual most direly worthless artistic endeavor ever mounted by humans. That’s not hyperbole, that’s just stating a simple scientific fact. Give me a pen and paper and I can prove it to you mathematically.

Turns out ASYLUM is one of the good ones, though. Directed by Roy Ward Baker (the earlier Amicus anthology VAULT OF HORROR, the English parts of the Hammer/Shaw Bros oddity LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES), this turns out to be one of the sleeker and more enjoyable horror anthologies from this period, even if it somewhat lacks a truly classic sequence. Eschewing both the pulpy meta comedy of HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD and the more visceral sadism of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, ASYLUM, true to its name, defines itself with some of the strangest and most esoteric stories ever to grace an anthology. Somewhat different in tone from the twist-heavy EC comics that supplied the giddy essence of VAULT OF HORROR and TALES FROM THE CRYPT, these tales wind their way into stranger and often nearly surreal corners of horror.  

It starts with a real solid wraparound story -- not always a strong suit of these movies, so it’s worth noting. It’s not as eloquently dreamlike as VAULT OF HORRORS’ 5-people-in-a-locked room premise, but certainly more cinematic. It involves a young doctor (Robert Powell, the title role in JESUS OF NAZARETH) arriving at an asylum seeking a job. The asylum administrator (Patrick Magee, CLOCKWORK ORANGE, BARRY LYNDON, as well as THE SKULL and TALES FROM THE CRYPT) gives him a test to prove his merit: it seems that the previous head psychiatrist has recently gone mad, and has been committed to his own institution along with the other nutjobs. If the neophyte psychiatrist can identify which of the deluded inmates is the doctor, the job is his. The stage is set, then, for four interviews with different inmates, each with a strange tale to tell. This nifty setup invites the viewer to play a little game with how much they want to believe of the twisted stories, all told by madmen, at least one of whom is so deluded we know it would take special talent to even establish his true identity. It provides an air of slippery ambiguity to the whole proceedings, nicely heightening the special strangeness to be found here.

The first story is a pretty perfect encapsulation of the general weird vibe here, though it’s the most literal, and the most traditionally horror-driven. It’s a simple setup, almost to a fault: A cheating husband kills his voodoo-aficionado wife, chops up her body, and neatly wraps the pieces up in a freezer for later disposal. But, wouldn’t you know it, wifey took the precaution of pre-voodooing herself, presumably with the expectation of exactly this scenario, because the severed body parts have no intention of letting their death and dismemberment keep them from some well-deserved revenge. That’s it, there’s nothing else to the story itself, but the design of the vengeful body parts is top-notch -- having them wrapped in butcher paper (aside from making them more feasible as props) somehow makes the whole thing way more morbid than it would be if they were simply exposed. And besides, take a look at this:

I mean, who could ask for anything more?

The next segment is a strange one, possibly more of a fantasy-drama than out-and-out horror; it has a gothic whimsy that recalls some of the gentler Twilight Zone episodes (at least one of which is almost certainly an inspiration). Not necessarily what you’d expect from the writer of Psycho, but there you go. A put-upon tailor facing financial ruin (Barry Morse, THE CHANGELING [the 1982 one with George C. Scott, which I consider to be something of an unacknowledged horror masterpiece]) accepts a job from the mysterious Mr. Smith (Peter Cushing) to make a suit out of a glowing, inexplicable fabric. You at first assume he’s planning on mounting a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but alas, the story takes an arguably more tragic turn. I’ll say no more, except that Cushing’s part is extremely small but he’s absolutely terrific here, even by his usual high standards. Like his role in TALES FROM THE CRYPT, this casts him in a somewhat atypically sympathetic role for such an iconic horror actor, and one can’t help but remember that the actor was still dealing with his crippling grief over the death of his beloved wife Helen in 1971. With only a handful of scenes, he gives a performance of painfully raw emotion so potent that it actually kind of derails the segment; nothing else it can offer is going to be as affecting, and it kind of peters out with its somewhat rote and egregiously telegraphed twist. Ever seen an actor ruin a movie by giving too good a performance? Enjoy.

Anyway, the next segment is a serviceable but somewhat disposable psychological thriller revolving the mentally unstable Baraba (Charlotte Rampling, ZARDOZ, BABYLON A.D., TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE, ORCA, and probably some classy shit as well, but what would I know about that?) returning home after a stay in the nuthouse. She’s closely monitored at home, and her frustration is given worrisome focus by the arrival of her troublesome friend Lucy (Britt Ekland, GET CARTER, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, THE WICKER MAN) who seems to have had something to do with her previous unwilling incarceration. Well, if you’ve seen a movie before, you can probably guess what’s going on here. But no matter, Rampling and Ekland are both compulsively watchable, and share an easy, electric chemistry which makes the inevitable escalations feel more energetic and arresting than the languid pace warrants.

The final tale is the shortest and by far the strangest, almost transcending the horror genre into pure art movie in its unprecipitated weirdness. It’s the only story which doesn’t involve a flashback of any kind  --or a story at all, per se. The final interviewee is Herbert Lom (The PINK PANTHER series, Jess Franco’s DRACULA), an obsessive doctor who, while incarcerated, has a hobby of building miniature robotic automatons visaged with his own scowling countenance. Inside these boxy metal contraptions, he’s meticulously reproduced the entire organ system of a human in miniature (it’s not clear with what). He’s done all this, he explains, because he hopes to transfer his consciousness into one of them. Initially it’s hard to see what he hopes to gain from this plan, but quickly it becomes clear -- after our young protagonist leaves him and returns to the interviewer, we see that Lom has, in fact, created a tiny assassin with the intent of murdering the man keeping him locked up! But then it stops making sense again, because making a tiny, clumsy mind-controlled robot seems like the least efficient possible way to go about this task. I guess he was crazy after all.

Both Cushing and Lom have tiny roles,* and there's something of a lack of showy setpieces (aside from the first segment) so it’s good that the general weirdness of the thing is strong enough to carry it. And it's certainly not guilty of overstaying its welcome; at a slim 88 minutes, it feels like it’s over a little fast, actually (especially since Lom’s tale is very short, almost a vignette). But Bloch’s inimitable weirdness pervades everything; there’s simply a dreamy, murky creepiness which grows stronger the longer you stay in this world of mentally unstable rambling. Roy Ward Baker is not a director I would list among the greats, but he sure gets a lot more out of Bloch’s creepy ideas than Peter Duffel did in THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. And more than that, he seems better suited to craft the right vibe for the endeavor, which is crucial, because more than anything this is a vibe movie. It doesn’t traffic in big shocks or gruesome violence, it just wants to drag you into its macabre world and let you kick around for awhile -- and at that, it succeeds admirably. While it may not be quite a pinnacle of the form in the way TALES FROM THE CRYPT is, it’s a perfect little slice of moderately surreal 70’s psycho-horror and an excellent example of why these portmanteau films are so enduringly popular.

*IMDB claims they spent two days and half a day on set, respectively.


Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: Some posters read You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Mind, which is a pretty good tagline. The others feature the blunter alternate tagline, Come To The Asylum… to GET KILLED!
  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Yes, Bloch adapts his own stories.
  • SEQUEL: No, but part of Amicus’ loose series of anthology horror films
  • REMAKE: I wouldn’t swear that none of these Bloch stories have been adapted for other mediums, but I can find no direct evidence that they have.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Today, I’d have to say award-winning actress Charlotte Rampling, though at the time she was nearer the start of her career.
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Cushing, Herbert Lom
  • BOOBIES: None
  • MULLETS: None
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Total dismemberment in the first segment.
  • THE UNDEAD: Killer limbs!
  • POSSESSION: Does possession of tiny evil robot dolls count?
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Yes
  • EVIL CULT: While the first segment centers on Voodoo, that’s really more of an “emerging religion,” though in this case it was definitely practiced for evil purposes, or at least morally ambiguous post-death revenge.  
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: Finally! Creepy Herbert Lom dolls! Plus a creepy mannequin! I was beginning to think the dolls had totally failed us this year, but then along comes a two'fur.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid, a successful Amicus release in 1972.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: If the first task your new employer gives you is to locate the guy who went insane doing your job before you… perhaps seek employment elsewhere.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: There is definitely an Asylum, 100%.
Thanks to the Rampling/Ekland teamup.

No comments:

Post a Comment