Synopsis: Masters of macabre Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry give performances to die for in this “diverting little chiller” (Boxoffice)! When horror star Paul Toombes’ fiancée is brutally killed, he loses more than this job-he loses his mind. But twelve years later, when he returns to TV – only to discover a fresh batch of corpses – Paul finally begins to understand that melodrama can be murder on your career!
Let’s face it: Vincent Price was at the tail end of well over a decade of schlocky horror films and he had been over-acting for most of that period. Having seen many of them, my expectations were extremely low for this outing; even though I had seen it before, many years ago, I couldn’t recall if I had liked it or been indifferent to it. All I knew is that I didn’t loathe it – which, all thing considered, was a start.
Aside from some editing issues during the chases and fight sequences, ‘Madhouse’ is a fairly solid horror film: it gives us an iconic villain in Dr. Death, creates a sense of insecurity (by introducing madness into the mix – meaning that we can never be sure that what we’re seeing is actually taking place as is), provides plenty of threatening situations for its characters and dishes out a few dramatic death scenes – albeit not especially violent or gruesome ones.
It kind of reminded me of gialli, the Italian thrillers that became so popular in the 1970s, but without the gore or artsy shots. Evidently, due to those missing elements, I wouldn’t actually call it a giallo film – but the pacing, themes, settings, look and its general characteristics made me think of gialli. But one of the good ones – because, as appealing as gialli can be, they frequently focus on violence above all other elements, including acting and storytelling (or, at least the ones I’ve seen do).
‘Madhouse’ avoids these traps by focusing on mood first and foremost. Even Price manages to deliver a relatively nuanced performance, only going broad when his character is faced with some sort of emotional extreme, such as anguish or fear – in which case his whole face would become possessed. But, the rest of the time, he played down his character’s madness and gave us a fragmented man, self-doubting and aware of his vulnerabilities.
What I find particularly interesting is the somewhat autobiographical aspects of the film. Not that Price was mad – nothing like that. What the filmmakers did was to incorporate footage of Price’s earlier films with American International Pictures, as well as previous co-stars, into the movie. At one point, while watching old footage featuring Basil Rathbone, Price’s character even refers to him as Basil, further crossing that line between reality and fiction. It gave the film an illusion of realism that was probably one of the key strength of the film.
In larger roles were Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry, both of whom Price had worked with before. It’s quite intriguing how Cushing plays Price’s close friend and collaborator while Quarry plays his nemesis. It so happens that Cushing and Price got started in horror films at about the same time and both made a name for themselves in that genre – so they were compatriots of sorts, whereas Quarry was being groomed to replace Price in AIP films after the latter’s contract came to an end, and had had disagreements in a previous film. I don’t know if this was intentional, but it’s a side of the movie that I appreciate.
I quite liked the character of Dr. Death that Price plays. In fact, I wish that there had been more of him on the silver screen, that they had actually made films featuring this character (as opposed to being a fictional character within a motion picture). The Dr. Death make-up alone, as simply as it is, really impressed me. It’s quite iconic, and it would have made for a memorable villain. In ‘Madhouse’, they refer to five Dr. Death films having been made but, alas, in real life, that was never to be.
‘Madhouse’s actual killer is unclear until the end. We get the impression that Price is losing his mind and killing people while in a haze, but we can never be sure. The killer also doesn’t look exactly like Dr. Death, wearing a mask instead of make-up, so we are left unsure if it’s for practical reasons (to get out of his killer’s guise rapidly), or because it’s someone other than Price.
His tenacious and vigorous style reminded me of the killer in the original ‘Scream’ trilogy (I wonder if it was an influence…). The chief problem with the film is that the killer, as energetic as he is, couldn’t possible achieve what we see on screen.
This is a prime example of the ‘Friday the 13th’ conundrum, which is to say the killer appears everywhere seemingly by magic, out-walks his running prey and basically never runs out of breath or trips and falls. It’s as though he’s conveniently teleporting from one place to the next.
But, given that this is a genre convention, fans of horror will probably not be bothered with this aspect of the film. They will also forgive the somewhat obvious “great reveal”, having seen similar twists many times before, due to the fact that it’s a good ride. And, in horror, the ride is frequently an essential part of the experience. Had it been more flawed that it actually is, this would be another story, I’m sure.
Thus, despite its simple-minded and virtually unrelated title (why not just call it ‘The Madness of Dr. Death’? Is it too similar to Price’s ‘Dr. Phibes’ series?), I would heartily recommend this film to horror fans. It’s not especially visceral, but it has its moments. And it creates an eery enough mood to elicit a few chills along the way.