Asylum (1972)
By: Mr Intolerance on July 29, 2009  | 
Umbrella Entertainment (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0 Mono. 88 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Starring: Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Herbert Lom, Patrick Magee, Barry Morse, Barbara Parkins, Robert Powell, Charlotte Rampling
Screenplay: Robert Bloch
Country: UK
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"You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Mind!"

Asylum is one of, if not the strongest of Amicus' portmanteau films of the early 70s. Boasting an impressive cast of genre and non-genre actors, this Robert Bloch-written (he wrote Psycho, if you're not in the know) and Roy Ward Baker-directed (a fella who made many fine horror films for both Amicus and Hammer) film really shows you how short horror stories can work on the screen. Granted, I'm a sucker for this kind of film (and I can thank sneaking into a cinema to see Creepshow when I was far too young to do so for my love of portmanteau or anthology horror films), and also that I'm a big fan of 60s and 70s UK horror, this is a stong piece of horror cinema right here by anyone's standards, and one I will heartily recommend you get yo' ass down to see as soon as possible.

Pompous young psychiatrist Dr Martin (Robert Powell) has arrived at Dunsmoor Asylum, a home for the incurably insane, in the wake of an escape. Greeted in an ominous fashion by Nurse Reynolds (Geoffrey Bayldon, who seems to be Amicus' answer to Hammer's Michael Ripper – an actor who seems to be almost contractually obliged to appear in all of their films), he's told by Dr Rutherford (Patrick Magee – effortlessly sinister) that Dr Starr, the head psychiatrist has gone barking mad and has been made an inmate of this particular laughing academy. In order for Martin to be accepted as a doctor here, he has to interview the strangest of the patients, and work out which one is Dr Starr, whose psychosis has manifested itself as a form of Multiple Personality Disorder – he's become another person, with another person's memories. I've been to some tough job interviews, but this...sheesh!

Seriously though, it's a pretty nifty framing narrative, and one that gives screenwriter Bloch a fair bit of leeway for the macabre and the bloody (which, you must remember, he did make his career in) – after all, all of these folks are nutters, and dangerous ones at that; if the audience aren't sitting on the edge of their seat waiting for the goodness to occur given that premise, they're possibly brain-dead. And so young Dr Martin goes from cell-to-cell, listening to the lunatic ravings of the patients trying to determine which one is the errant Dr Starr – and such tales they tell...

Frozen Fear

Bonnie (Barbara Parkins) is a bit of a floozy, really, trying to tempt gold-digging weakling Walter (Richard Todd) away from his wealthy, domineering wife Ruth (Sylvia Sims) – this guy has a terrible taste in women, don't you know. Ruth is attending lessons, for want of a better word, with an African spiritual leader, of whom Walter is openly scornful, dismissing the whole thing as "voodoo", or "mumbo-jumbo", but in whom Ruth places a lot of faith, stating that, "There are natural forces which are stronger than life or death. Forces which modern, civilised man has forgotten." Walter really should have listened to her more closely.

While marital infidelity isn't exactly a new idea, this tale does give a bit of a novel spin on things with its fear of cultish leaders, which is kind of a contemporary anxiety that's played out well here, if seemingly a little side-long to the action at hand; a plot device, really. In any event, Ruth won't give Walter a divorce, and so he needs to take drastic steps in order to be in never-ending sexual ecstacy with hot piece of ass Bonnie. Very drastic steps, as it turns out, as he dismembers Ruth's body and sticks all the bits in the freezer he's just bought for that very purpose – Walter gets to deliver the awesome, if somewhat obvious, line over Ruth's butchered remains, sneering: "Rest in pieces."

However, Ruth isn't all that keen on her new life as a hacked-apart corpse, and she's especially unhappy about her husband potentially shacking up with that tramp Bonnie, on her dime. What happens to our nefarious ne'er-do-well lovers, and what ends up sending Bonnie to the booby-hatch, has to be seen to be believed...

The Weird Tailor

Bruno (Barry Morse, who you might know better as uber-scientist with a dicky-ticker Victor Bergman in Space: 1999) is...well, was, a tailor. But as the title of this story might hint at, he's a tailor with a difference in this riff on the old W W Jacobs classic short story The Monkey's Paw. Bruno's down on his luck – he can't afford to pay the rent on his shop, and his landlord is threatening to evict him and his devoted daughter Anna if the rent can't be made by the end of the week. Enter: Mr Smith (Peter vCushing, obviously relishing the opportunity to play against type as an icy bastard, and yet still evokes sympathy – the mark of an actor who is pure class) who wants Bruno to make him a suit out of some very special material indeed, and he's willing to pay top dollar for it. The suit is for Smith's son, and Smith has a very exacting time-line for the suit to be made in, giving Bruno a schedule and very clear instructions as to its creation. Anna is not happy about this, and mirrors the audience's concerns that things are possibly going to go very badly indeed...

Bruno delivers the suit on time, and we see that sometimes things really aren't what they seem, and that familial love can be a scary thing indeed. The twist at the end of this sartorial tale is a fucking beaut, let me tell you.

Lucy Comes To Stay

Barbara (Charlotte Rampling – phwoar! Have you seen The Night Porter?) is a troubled lass with a rather nasty friend, Lucy (pert and pouting blonde-bombshell Britt Ekland – PHWOAR!!! Have you seen The Wicker Man?). When Lucy's around, Barbara gets very antisocial indeed, and yet Babs can't seem to see this herself, being somewhat dependent on Lucy's strength of character to get by. Matter of fact, she's being looked after by her rat-fink priggish brother George (James Villiers), and kept away from Lucy, and drugged up to the eyeballs on a range of sedatives – not a wise idea, I would've thought, given that drugs are the reason she was hospitalised in the first place.

Y'see, Barbara has been let out of a hospital and into George's care, aided by the smotheringly maternal Nurse Higgins (Megs Jenkins) because she'd been up to badness in the past when under the influence of non-prescription drugs, and Lucy. However, Nurse Higgins' quite elderly mother has been hospitalised due to an accident and has to leave, and Barbara can't be watched the whole time, and it's only a matter of hours before she returns to her pill-popping ways. And then Lucy, who George can't bear to hear about, arrives and the whole situation goes entirely to pot...

Mannikins of Horror

Urbane and charismatic Byron (Herbert Lom, who you'd probably know better as the long-suffering Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the various Pink Panther films, or maybe as Hammer's under-rated Phantom of the Opera) is a man who makes little dolls, kind of homonculi, really – and he wants them to come to life. You might say that he has a bit of a God-complex. It's the briefest of the stories, but leads rather neatly into wrapping up the framing narrative, where Dr Martin finds out exactly who Dr Starr actually is, and where the audience gets the best pay-off they could possibly hope for. Watch and see, kids – the biggest twist is at the end, and it's a ball-tearer, you wait and see – EC couldn't have topped this.
The picture quality is top-notch, razor-sharp and crystal clear. It's presented here in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and anamorphically enhanced. And it looks pretty bloody good, let me tell you.
The sound, for a dual mono track, isn't too bad. I did find a bit of distortion during some of the louder moments of the score, but I think that'd happen on the best of sound equipment with Mussorgsky's "St John's Night On The Bare Mountain" blaring out of the speakers.
Extra Features
Besides the informative feature-length commentary with director Roy Ward Baker and camera-man Neil Binney, there is the real reason to watch the Extras package, the featurette Inside the Fear Factory, which has interviews with Max Rosenberg (one of the masterminds behind Amicus), directors Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker, and other luminaries from the Golden Age of UK horror. It traces the history of Amicus and doesn't stint on detail and telling it like it is – if you like these kind of films (and I'm assuming that if you've read this far, you do), this is an Extra you need to watch. There are also trailers for The City of the Dead, The Beast Must Die and And Now The Screaming Starts, if you want to see 'em – I'd recommend watching the first two of those films, but giving the third a miss – it's a bit of a stinker.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
With the amount of time given to each of the stories to develop, the strength of the writer and the extraordinarily talented cast, Asylum does itself great credit by standing head and shoulders above the rest of the rather sinister and excellent fairy-tales that Amicus gave us in the 70s through playing things straight rather than for ghoulish laughs, fine acting (although Morse's almost caricaturish Jewish tailor is a little hard to take – but bear in mind who he was acting against; some pretty stiff competition, let me tell you) and a very good story. The trademark black humour is present, but thankfully underplayed, and the tales presented, while they do go for the jugular, never do so in a jocular manner, and I think that really aids their telling. If you only dip into the Amicus portmanteau ouevre once, this is the film to get. Uneasy laughs? We got 'em. Chills and thrills? You'd better believe we got 'em. A top-notch cast doing good things with a razor-sharp script? Bingo! If this film disappoints you, there is something deeply, deeply wrong with you.

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