Dr. Martin is young psychiatrist seeking a position at an asylum for the incurably insane. When he arrives, he finds that the former director of the facility, Dr. Starr, has become one of the patients. The interim director, Dr. Rutherford, offers the applicant a bizarre test to prove his worthiness for the job – interview the patients upstairs and determine which one is really Starr. Martin soon learns that each of the inmates has a terrifying story to tell.
Horror anthologies were the bread and butter of Britain’s Amicus Productions in the late 60s and early 70s. Beginning with 1965’s DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, the studio formed by producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg cranked out no fewer than eight feature-length collections of short terror tales through 1980. ASYLUM is one of the best known – and best – of those films.
The tales range from low-key and tense to pretty outlandish, but all are extremely well-acted and directed with flair by Roy Ward Baker (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, THE VAULT OF HORROR, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS). The screenplay was penned by PSYCHO author Robert Bloch, who also wrote THE DEADLY BEES, THE PSYCHOPATH, THE TORTURE GARDEN and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD for Amicus. His work here is exceptional, displaying the same macabre sense of humor and manic energy he demonstrated in his famous novel. This film is set apart from other anthologies by its clever premise, which makes the “wraparound” plot integral to – and just as interesting as – the inmates’ stories. The audience is drawn into the mystery of Dr. Starr’s identity right along with Martin, making each side story doubly engrossing as we keep a sharp eye out for clues. Bloch also establishes from the start that things may not be what they seem with Rutherford’s odd challenge and odder personality, drawing the viewer in and holding them tightly until the final, shocking revelation. Though a couple of the side tales are a bit predictable for the seasoned horror fan, the film as a whole is riveting, twisted fun.
Like most Amicus films, this is a showcase for some of the finest actors in early 70s England. The legendary Peter Cushing is excellent as a bereaved father who has turned to the supernatural to reclaim his departed son. Displaying the versatility that allowed him to move so effortlessly from the villainous Baron Frankenstein to the valiant Professor Van Helsing and back for Hammer, he delivers a performance that is simultaneously chilling and heart-wrenching. Herbert Lom is typically magnificent as the vengeful Dr. Byron, creator of tiny dolls with life-like faces that he believes can be imbued with the souls of real men. Lom is suave and disarming one moment and raving like a maniac the next, making him comes across as easily the most dangerous resident in a building full of homicidal nutcases. Charlotte Rampling (ZARDOZ, ORCA, BASIC INSTINCT 2) will send chills up your spine as a drug-addicted schizophrenic whose alter ego is the fun-loving, murderous Britt Ekland. Barry Morse elicits considerable sympathy as a down-on-his-luck tailor asked to create a very special, very evil suit, and Richard Todd does a nice turn as an adulteress husband who discovers that his murdered wife is indeed equal to the sum of her parts. Robert Powell and Patrick Magee are both first-rate as Doctors Martin and Rutherford, respectively. And don’t take your eyes off Geoffrey Bayldon in a very important “bit” part…
Contributing greatly to the fun is composer Douglas Gamley (AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT, MADHOUSE). His bombastic themes are frenzied and relentless, giving intense power to the shock scenes and creating a pervasive sense of disorientation that perfectly suits both setting and story.
ASYLUM has few flaws, but it isn’t perfect. In the first tale, severed limbs wrapped in brown paper and twine attack a cheating husband and his mistress. Though suitably creepy, some of the appendages’ movements are a bit mechanical and one wonders why the girl doesn’t just flee the scene the moment she sees body parts in bags crawling around. The finale of this segment also shows the girl hacking toward her own face with an axe to free herself from an attacking arm, which leads to a “startling” reveal of scars on her cheek when we flash back to the asylum. Sadly, these wounds don’t look much like they were caused by an axe blade. Lom’s deadly doll is also frightening but not overly convincing – especially when we are asked to believe that it can climb up walls and onto furniture. The film’s closing twist is certainly unexpected, but doesn’t quite answer all of the viewer’s questions and undermines the creativity of the film’s premise a bit. These points, however, are not enough to derail this clever and creepy film.
Along with AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS and THE BEAST MUST DIE, Dark Sky Films will bring ASYLUM to DVD on July 25, 2006. The widescreen presentation is up to the usual high Dark Sky standards, and the disc includes a nice featurette about the history of Amicus, featuring interviews with Rosenberg, Baker and Freddie Francis (DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, THE SKULL). Also included are a small still photo gallery and a commentary track with Baker and cameraman Neil Binney.
Whether you are an Amicus fan, a devotee of British horror, or just an average fright flick lover looking for a great collection of terror tales for a dark, stormy night, this movie delivers the goods. Combining a stellar cast, a sharp storyline, expert cinematography, and Baker’s steady hand at the helm, it ranks as one of the top two or three scarefests to come out of the United Kingdom during the 1970s. Jaded fans used to excessive gore in their horror may find it a bit tame, but those looking for great performances, clever plotting, and dark wit will find it very satisfying, indeed.