"Lights... Camera... Murder!"
Paul Toombes is a successful horror actor whose trademark role, Dr Death, featured in a number of high-profile films. When his wife-to-be is brutally murdered, Toombes is acquitted of the crime but spends years in a mental institution as a result, unsure whether he killed her or not. Upon his release, his old screen writer friend Herbert Flay secures him an opportunity to reprise his Dr Death role in a television series. Toombes reluctantly accepts in a bid to restart his career but it isn’t long before people associated with him are murdered and he starts to think that perhaps he is responsible for the murders after all.
Madhouse is a curious little outing, coming late in the day from the glory days of the quaint British horror cycle and emerging in the mid-late 70s savage realism era with stuff like The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween. It’s almost like a troubled bridge between the two, not really clicking well in either era, but working better as a swansong to a horror heyday that had long since found relevance and had grown stale with younger audiences. It is arguably a swansong for lead actor Vincent Price too, as this was to be his last true horror vehicle and he would be consigned to bit parts and supporting roles for the rest of his career.
For all intents and purposes, Madhouse is a slasher film and would have found a suitable home not even a decade later. The ‘Dr Death’ killer, complete with face mask and black costume, wracks up a decent proto-slasher body count and even manages to find creative ways to off his victims – garden forks, faulty falling bed props or even just a good old fashioned throat cut are used to good effect. It doesn’t take Hercule Poirot to work out who is actually behind the murders and so it’s a matter of waiting out the time until said character is revealed. Madhouse then attempts to completely jump the shark in the final five minutes with an even more silly twist but fortunately its not enough to ruin the rest of the film.
Madhouse could have been well ahead of the curve with some tweaks to its script. The self-aware film-within-a-film setting and the focus on an aging horror star whose best days are behind him could have been a fitting tribute to the twilight of Vincent Price's long and much-loved career in the genre. There are subtle nods and in-jokes from the characters from time-to-time, showing some winks to the audience – at one point, Price’s character jokes “if this were a horror film, by now you’d be dead”. Such meta-fictional sharpness would have worked far better than the deadly serious approach Madhouse decides to take and whilst the film isn’t as deep or committed to this side of self-reflection, it still provides some interesting glimpses as to what the likes of Scream and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare would bring to the table decades later.
The problem with Madhouse is that the tone never settles. The terror is played serious and straight but director Jim Clark never manages to infuse it with any real horror or suspense. Characters are chased around corridors and stalked through studio sets with little tension or foreboding. Despite the nature of some of the deaths (including decapitations), the film is never gory or brutal. On the other hand, the script detours into the campy black macabre spectacles of the Dr Phibes films too often, trying to add some fun and frolics into the proceedings. Just like the film itself tries to straddle two separate eras of horror, so to does the script which doesn’t know whether to go one way or another. Instead, we get this hazy middle ground where it tries to cover all bases but fails to cover any.
It goes without saying that the acting is top drawer across the board – Price, Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry (who had made a name for himself in the Count Yorga vampire films) are great in their roles. Cushing is my favourite actor for a good reason and that’s because he’s just brilliant in everything, always giving 100% and always making the most out of his characters. He’s perhaps a little underused here, but at least the second half of the film gives him more to do. Quarry enjoys chewing the scenes in a more antagonistic role. But this is Price’s film. With a little of the Shakespearean ham he approached his role with in Theatre of Blood, Price laps up his dialogue with epic relish, infusing his character with plenty of sympathy for the way he’s been treated by everyone and getting to indulge in a glorious soliloquy during the finale. It’s not exactly prime Price (and that has to go to the aforementioned Theatre of Blood) but it’s still worth every penny. It’s also great to see Cushing and Price share plenty of scenes together, something which should have happened more often in their career (and you can add Christopher Lee to the mix too).
In a nice nod to an even earlier era of horror, this co-production between Amicus and AIP (an American company which was home to Roger Corman and the series of Edgar Allan Poe films that Price made in the 50s) allowed for the use of footage some of those feature films to be used as the ‘Dr Death’ footage. So Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone are also given screen credits here thanks to the stock footage, despite Karloff dying in 1969 and Rathbone in 1967.
Madhouse wasn’t a great hit upon its release and was deemed a second-rate horror, but it has since found new life with retro horror lovers who can appreciate just what it brought to the table. With Vincent Price virtually playing himself in his last big horror lead, it’s a fitting tribute to one of the genre’s most iconic and most loved actors.
Director(s): Jim Clark
Writer(s): Angus Hall (novel), Ken Levison (screenplay), Greg Morrison (screenplay)
Actor(s): Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Roberty Quarry, Adrienne Corri, Natasha Pyne
Duration: 92 mins