In order to meet a requirement for employment, a young psychiatrist interviews four inmates of a mental asylum. He hears their stories about the revenge of a murdered wife, a tailor who makes a unique suit, a woman who questions her own sanity and a man who builds tiny robots with lifelike human heads. The psychiatrist must then decide which inmate is the former head doctor in order to secure his job.
Think British horror and Hammer will most likely be the first name on your lips, and rightfully so. The studio dominated the late 50s and 60s with its succession of period Gothic horrors featuring Dracula, Frankenstein, various mummies, werewolves and more. However, you would find a solid case to argue for Amicus, a rival British studio which, after the success of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors in 1964, churned out a further seven horror anthology films of varying levels of quality. Asylum was made mid-way through this schedule and acts as a critical high point where the creativity and originality had just about peaked and the films hadn’t got too formulaic for their own good.
The best thing about these anthology films is that they would feature a number of smaller stand-alone horror stories which usually ran for about ten to fifteen minutes and were linked together by a framing story. The stories were usually well-paced, snappy affairs which meant that if you didn’t like it then you’d only have to wait a few minutes before the next one began. It’s a something for all approach that worked well across their anthology films. For each weak segment, there was always a strong segment to rebound with. Asylum is no stranger to this way of working. Everyone will find something different to enjoy and the four different stories will each appeal to a certain horror lover.
The framing story for Asylum is probably the most interesting of the Amicus anthologies and does a nice job of linking together the individual stories. Writer Robert Bloch (who had previously penned The House That Dripped Blood, not to mention writing the novel Psycho) creates a mysterious tale in which the audience are being tested as much as the young psychiatrist. It also helps that Amicus’ film stock always looked dull and devoid of colour, certainly compared to their lavish Technicolour Hammer counterparts. The gloomy look adds to the creepiness and bleak nature of the asylum.
The first story isn’t particularly exciting about a husband who kills his wife because she won’t give him a divorce. It’s not great although it does feature a highly memorable image – that of a woman’s severed head, wrapped in brown paper, coming back to life and beginning to breathe through the paper. It’s quite an unnerving effect as the body parts squirm and making the paper rustle. However, no reason is given for the woman’s body parts coming back to life and this somewhat sours the whole episode.
The second story is also pretty low key as an impoverished tailor is paid a visit by a mysterious stranger who gives him an even more mysterious material from which to make a suit for his son. Barry Morse gives a sympathetic performance as the tailor and Peter Cushing adds a touch of class as the stranger with a lot to hide. The material glows quite weirdly and the set up to the finale is quite nice, if somewhat predictable. Cushing isn’t in it enough to make much of an impression so it’s a good job that Morse is able to hold his own.
The third story is arguably my least favourite but potentially the best developed of the four as a young woman is released from a mental home to stay with her brother. However she keeps having visions of her friend ‘Lucy’ who tells her to run away. Charlotte Rampling gives a good performance as someone who is delusional but Britt Ekland is her usual self: looks good but doesn’t cut it in the acting chops. The twist in this film is highly predictable right from the start even for the least seasoned horror veterans.
The final story doesn’t last too long and is basically a set up for the finale as Herbert Lom’s doctor creates little robots with lifelike human heads and says he can bring them to life by the power of thought. The robot looks really freaky with their little human heads but the segment isn’t really meant to be as long as the others. It leads right into the finale when we find out just who is the doctor and it’s quite a twist ending. It’s a chilling ending which comes out of nowhere and rounds the film off nicely. It will make you smile, laugh and shiver at the same time, which is precisely the sort of black humoured-horror that Amicus was aiming for.
As far as anthologies go, Asylum is a great way to spend eighty-eight minutes. The production is professional enough, the atmosphere suitably creepy for the setting, there are some big names to hold the cast together and there’s a little bit of gore too. It’s a great example of the anthology format being used in the right way.