Ryne Barber of The Moon Is A Dead World is doing his annual HALLOWEEN FIFTEEN theme, where he asks bloggers to share their thoughts on selected films he plans on seeing each October. He was kind of enough to let me share my thoughts on a Vincent Price film I had never seen until a few weeks ago called MADHOUSE from 1974. Click on Ryne's take on the film and then read mine and see if you guys agree. Thanks Ryne for the opportunity! Look forward to contributing again next year, bro!
Peter Cushing - Herbert Flay
Robert Quarry - Oliver Quayle
Natasha Pyne - Julia Wilson
Adrienne Corri - Faye Carstairs
Linda Hayden - Elizabeth Peters
Ian Thompson - Bradshaw
John Garrie - Inspector Harper
Jenny Lee Wright - Carol Clayton
Genre - Horror/Mystery/Slasher/Giallo
Running Time - 91 Minutes
First of all, I want to thank Ryne Barber, of The Moon Is A Dead World, for letting me contribute to his annual Halloween Fifteen list - a list where Ryne picks 15 random films and has other bloggers share their opinions on one of those 15. When I saw the list, I had watched most of them and even reviewed some. But one film had caught my attention for several reasons.
One, I had never seen it before and figured October's All Horror Month on Full Moon Reviews would be a perfect time to review it. Two, it's a co-production by American International Pictures and Amicus Productions - two companies I've barely scratched the surface with on this blog. And three, it stars one of my favorite horror actors, the late, great Vincent Price [with a bonus of the awesome Peter Cushing added in!]
So realizing that MADHOUSE would be an interesting film to review, I decided to sit down and watch it. While it wasn't the best film I have ever seen and it didn't really thrill me from beginning to end, I still got a kick out of the camp and mystery [or lack thereof] of it all. Let's take a look at one of Vincent Price's less seen and/or talked about films to see if this movie is worth getting mad about.
In Hollywood during the 1960s, one of the biggest horror icons named Paul Toombes (Vincent Price) hosts a New Year's Eve party, showing his latest Dr. Death film to his guests. As the guests applaud the film, Toombes thanks his writer, Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing), for pretty much being responsible with doing all the hard work when it came to the Dr. Death films. He also announces his engagement to the beautiful Ellen Mason (Julie Crosthwaite). Unfortunately, some prick for a producer, Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry) reveals to Toombes that Ellen used to work for him in his 'adult' movies. Feeling betrayed, Toombes lashes out at Ellen, who runs away crying. Up in her room as she tries to get herself back together, someone dressed as Dr. Death enters her room and murders her. Obviously, all evidence points to Toombes. Toombes himself believes he may have done it, although he has no memory of the murder.
For many years after a mental breakdown, Toombes has been in a mental institution. But feeling better and with no evidence that could prove he was a murderer, he's released back into society with his reputation now ruined. Coincidentally, Herbert Flay and Oliver Quayle [now a television producer] are working on a Dr. Death television series in England, inviting Toombes to reprise the role [although he's not too eager to do so]. Once the project starts filming, more people start dying by someone dressed as Dr. Death. Is Toombes really the murderer, or has he been framed all along?
MADHOUSE is the last film Vincent Price made for American International Pictures, as the horror landscape was changing by this point - especially after the massive success of the big budgeted 1973's THE EXORCIST, which scared away a lot of producers of low budget films. Probably due to its similarities to Price's THEATER OF BLOOD from 1973 and his two Dr. Phibes films [1971's THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES and 1972's DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN], MADHOUSE wasn't as well received or as well remembered as those films I mentioned. MADHOUSE also isn't as memorable or as well made as those prior films, so I can understand that. Still, MADHOUSE isn't all bad and is worth a look if you enjoy seeing Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Robert Quarry all in one film together sharing scenes.
MADHOUSE is supposedly based on an Angus Hall novel from 1969 called Devilday, although the film differs from its source. For example. the Toombes character is a sexual predator who is pretty much implied to be his wife's murderer under the guise of his cinematic alter geo, Dr. Dis. The film makes it pretty clear whether Toombes did the deed or not, while using Price's very own films to create this character of Dr. Death for him. Both the novel and the film are pretty tongue-in-cheek and self-aware when it comes to the horror genre, which helps and hurts it at the same time. Later films like 1996's SCREAM would perfect this, but MADHOUSE makes a solid effort even if it doesn't fully succeed.
What hurts MADHOUSE the most is the pretty routine and disjointed narrative. This is most likely due to the fact that the film attempts to be three sub-genres at once without really realizing it, making certain subplots implausible and certain important aspects fairly predictable sooner than they should be. The mystery aspect, in particular, is disappointing since you'll figure out the identity of the killer before the halfway mark. The film is still fun after that knowledge, but with a short list of suspects, it's not a head scratcher as to what's really going on in this film. It's also disappointing in terms that MADHOUSE plays out like a pre-slasher film. Or more likely, since the killer wears a mask and black gloves, the film is a English giallo film. Giallo films have convoluted storylines, but the identity of the killer is usually one you can't figure out and makes you re-examine everything that came before that revelation. MADHOUSE is too generic to allow that to happen, even if the killer does make sense in a logical way. I guess I was expecting more out of it.
There are other issues I had with MADHOUSE. The ending, in particular, kind of bugged me. It was like SCREAM 4 - where you think the film should have ended at a certain point, but it continues with some extra minutes to create more of a happier ending. I did dig the twist at the very end, but I could have lived without it. I also love the fact that a director gets murdered on a television set by a gimmicked bed and the production continues the very next day without any sort of consequences. Only in the movies! I also found the neighbor characters that were trying to extort Toombes to be really annoying. I also thought the subplot with the spider lady, who was Herbert Flay's crazy wife or something, was a bit out there as well. Plus a lot of the middle act was pretty slow and not particularly interesting in terms of story and characterization.
However, I do love the idea of a horror movie icon being haunted by what has made him a star. In many ways, the narrative uses Toombes as a character who gives us a reason as to why audiences make and flock to horror films. Toombes says that these kind of films serve as a way for all of us to get out all those latest desires for fear and violence, releasing that energy in a safe and sociable way. However, someone is using his Dr. Death character in an unsafe and dangerous manner. It haunts Toombes throughout the film, having trouble watching his past work since it reminds him of the pain it has caused him and others for years. Although he enjoys playing Dr. Death somewhat, he wants nothing to do with its legacy. It gives the character [and the film] a lot of depth. A man haunted by his own success - definitely a miserable way to live.
I also dig the nods to Price's past working for AIP, with the use of clips of his previous movies as a way to create credibility for his Dr. Death persona. We see scenes from 1961's THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, 1962's TALES OF TERROR [with cameo by Basil Rathbone], 1963's THE RAVEN [with cameo by Boris Karloff] and other films. I like how meta it was, by using real life Vincent Price films that passes off as Paul Toombes' films as well.
There's another nod I loved as well. At a party for Toombes, the guests are dressed in costume. Toombes is obviously dressed as Dr. Death. Robert Quarry's Oliver Quayle is dressed as Count Yorga, which was Quarry's vampire character in 1970's COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE. And probably the most ironic one of all, Peter Cushing's Herbert Flay is dressed as his nemesis, Dracula. There are also nods to horror films, where characters threaten others by saying they'd be dead if they were inside of a horror movie. The script had its issues, but when it was smart, it was very smart.
MADHOUSE had a low production, so it's not a very gory film. We do see a decapitation, some slit throats, and objects being impaled into necks [such as a pitchfork and a letter opener]. There's also that bed scene, which is quite funny for multiple reasons. But hey, it's original and inventive! I loved the make up of Dr. Death as well, especially the Dr. Death costume the killer wore. I have a thing for skulls, so I thought it was awesome. I want to wear that for Halloween just to scare people. There was a definitely creep factor.
The direction by Jim Clark, who's much more known for being an editor, is slightly above average. There's not a lot of style to the film, making Clark's work a point-and-shoot affair. Still, there are some nice stalk-and-chase scenes that have nice tension. The editing is solid, especially during one scene where real life and reel life are mixed together to create a thrilling sequence. The film looks nice cinematography wise. But other than that, the pacing is off at times and it's not the most interesting presentation visually. I don't think Clark directed a film after this, which is a shame. His work isn't all that bad and could have gotten better with more films under his belt.
The acting is the reason why people still talk about MADHOUSE. Vincent Price is excellent in a very understated performance as Paul Toombes. He plays the role with some nice subtlety at times, but does get to chew the scenery in some memorable moments. It also helps that the Toombes character seems to be a role Price would be comfortable in playing, as MADHOUSE sort of plays as his farewell from AIP. I enjoy anything Price is in, and this is no exception.
The other actors don't get as much to do, but they're fine with the material they're given. Peter Cushing isn't in the film as much as I'd like, but I really enjoy seeing him interact with both Price and Robert Quarry. Quarry gets to do more as a sleazy producer, playing the character to perfection. The female actresses, like Natasha Pyne, Adrienne Corri, and Linda Hayden, are good in their roles. It’s a very cool cast that raises the watchability of MADHOUSE.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE CANCELLING MY PHYSICAL CHECK UP WITH DR. DEATH
- Toombes is getting married to a hot blonde. He really takes his Dr. Death character seriously, because this step is one closer to the grave.
- Some wannabe actress stole Toombes' watch. Since she messed with Dr. Death, it wouldn't surprise me if her time’s almost up.
- Some redheaded nut lives in the basement with plants and spiders. BATMAN & ROBIN really messed up Poison Ivy! Or is this Mary Jane Watson after SPIDER-MAN 3? I can't tell the difference anymore...
- Dr. Death strangled the actress playing Dr. Death's assistant. Judging by her performance, I'm not surprised she choked.
- Dr. Death was able to stop an elevator from closing that occupied his victim
- a scared Julia Wilson. Obviously this place does not take place in Haddonfield. See: HALLOWEEN II (1981)
THE FINAL HOWL
MADHOUSE is pretty much a forgotten little movie from the Vincent Price days working for AIP - although Rob Zombie remembered it fondly for Bill Moseley in HALLOWEEN II (2009). While the narrative is convoluted and has issues that hurt it more than help it, the nods to the main actors' pasts are welcomed. I also enjoyed the acting, the make up, the death sequences, and most of the direction. So it definitely warrants a recommendation if you enjoy this era of horror, especially if you're a Vincent Price fan. Not the best Vincent Price film you could ever see, but a worthy 90-minute time waster.