Roy Ward Baker, 1972
Starring: Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Robert Powell, Herbert Lom
One of Amicus’s final horror anthology films is this underrated effort set in a mental institution, in which a prospective new doctor, Dr. Martin (Robert Powell), is set with a challenge that will determine his employment. The former head of the asylum, Dr. Starr, is suffering from a mental breakdown and a case of split personality. Martin must interview several patients and correctly work out which one is Starr. While stylistically similar to Amicus’s previous films, Asylum is a breath of much needed fresh air, because it abandons the formula used on all the studio’s previous portmanteau films. In efforts like Tales from the Crypt, The House That Dripped Blood, Torture Garden, and Vault of Horror, a group of strangers come together and learn their potential fates – typically from an ominous, possibly supernatural figure – only to be told at the conclusion that they are already dead (and presumably in hell).
In the first story, “Frozen Fear,” a female patient (Barbara Parkins) tells Dr. Martin about how she came to be in the hospital. Her married lover (Richard Todd) killed his wife — after surprising her with the gift of a large freezer in the basement, which she is implausibly thrilled by — not realizing that her recent foray into voodoo will ensure she returns from the grave, even after being dismembered. Though this one has some amusing elements, it’s actually the weakest of the bunch and asserts, with very few exceptions, the fact that British studios should just never dabble in tales of voodoo and Afro-Caribbean magic. Admittedly, though, I was relieved by two things. First, this tale made it easy to assume that a certain tone was set for Asylum, which was blissfully not true; secondly, that the studio didn’t blow their load all at once, as were, by putting the anthology’s best story first, as is the case with many of their other portmanteau films.
The second, far superior tale, “The Weird Tailor,” is one of Asylum’s best. A downtrodden (and almost humorously Dickensian) tailor (Barry Morse) is wondering how he will pay the rent when a mysterious customer (Peter Cushing, in excellent form) suddenly comes into his shop and commissions a new suit. Made of strange material and to a set astrological timetable, it becomes clear to the tailor that there’s something odd about the suit, which even absorbs a stray drop of blood, leaving behind no stain… Though the tone of this second chapter is far different from the first, it does introduce a theme that would run throughout Asylum, another element lacking in the studio’s earlier anthology films. Every story has to do, in some form or another, with the animation of uncanny anthropomorphic figures: a corpse, a mummy, robotic figures, an imaginary person, etc. While American novelist Robert Bloch wrote many of these scripts for Amicus, the stories in Asylum were largely based on his own tales and I wish this unified theme was something the studio had thought to bring to their earlier works.
The next story, “Lucy Comes to Stay,” is another of my favorites thanks to the completely unexpected presence of the radiant Charlotte Rampling. She stars as Barbara, a woman returned home to live with her brother (James Villiers) after a stay in an asylum. She is frustrated with her brother’s uncertainty about her mental health and his insistence that she be monitored by a nurse (Megs Jenkins). But soon her mischievous friend Lucy (the lovely Britt Ekland of The Man with the Golden Gun and The Wicker Man) convinces her that what they really need to do is get out of the house…
Rampling is excellent, as always, and it’s a real treasure to see she and Ekland playing off of each other. They’re an example of the film’s incredibly solid cast, which includes Cushing (in “The Weird Tailor”), Patrick Magee as the stern, unforgiving doctor who demands that Dr. Martin find the real Starr, and the great Herbert Lom, who is fantastic in the last episode, “Mannikins of Horror.” In a spin on James Whale’s Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein, Lom plays Dr. Byron, a madman who is experimenting with what he calls “soul transference,” where he intends to send human consciousness to small humanoid robots. The effects are undeniably silly in this one, but it’s weirdly effective thanks to Lom’s delivery.
While most of these Amicus anthology films have predictable endings, I’m not going to ruin this one for you. It’s not at all obvious who is the real Dr. Starr — and there are many worthwhile contenders — but the film’s conclusion probably won’t be all that much of a surprise. Still, I remember not being overwhelmingly fond of it this one, but revisiting it has really changed my mind. If you find Tales from the Crypt to be uneven, or even just a one-trick pony, definitely give Asylum a shot. Hell, it’s worth it just to see Charlotte Rampling lose her marbles. Pick it up on DVD.