"You have nothing to lose but your mind"
In order to meet a requirement for employment at the Dunsmoor asylum for the incurably insane, a young psychiatrist interviews four inmates. 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 six 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. For many, Asylum is often cited as the best of the Amicus anthologies.
The best thing about these anthology films was that they would feature a number of smaller stand-alone horror stories which usually ran for about ten 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. 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 out 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 to work out who the former head of the asylum was. It also helps the wraparound story that Amicus' films 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, and the seriousness of the setting is in stark contrast to the sillier moments of some of the stories.
The first story, Frozen Fear, lends its main visual image to the poster - that of a severed head wrapped in brown paper. It's about a husband who kills his wife because she won't give him a divorce. However, he is unaware that she was a voodoo priestess and her limbs come back to life inside the freezer, desperate to get their revenge. This story is the one which owes most of its black humour approach to the old EC Comics and is the one which best portrays how this anthology format worked. The severed head, wrapped in brown paper, coming back to life and then beginning to breathe through the paper, is highly effective and unnerving.
The second story, The Weird Tailor, is a bit lower 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. Having already been adapted for the 1960s Boris Karloff Thriller TV series, The Weird Tailor isn't given as much time to develop here, making it a little bit too rushed. 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. Cushing isn’t in it enough to make much of an impression (only two scenes) so it’s a good job that Morse is able to hold his own and convey the mystery and eeriness of the story. The material glows quite weirdly and the set up to the finale is quite nice, if somewhat predictable, which stop this from being a complete waste of time.
The third story, Lucy Comes To Stay, 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, Mannequins of Horror, 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 it's little human head but the segment isn't really meant to be as long as the others and is more of an extension of the wraparound story. Lom is his usual sinister self to add a suitable threat to the ridiculous sight of the robots attempting to kill people and Patrick Magee was always good value for money.
If anything with Asylum, it is the finale and the conclusion to the wraparound story which makes it really stand out from the rest. The audiences finds out just who is the insane doctor and it's a chilling, twist 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. Though the format was looking a little creaky and old fashioned by the early 70s (Hammer had sexed up their films and increased the amount of blood), Asylum is consistently engaging and definitely worth a look.
Director(s): Roy Ward Baker
Writer(s): Robert Bloch
Actor(s): Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Herbert Lom, Patrick Magee, Barry Morse, Barbara Parkins, Robert Powell, Charlotte Rampling
Duration: 88 mins