❉ We check into Dunsmoor for tales that witness madness…
After a strictly limited special edition release from Second Sight last year, the classic Amicus anthology Asylum is back on Blu-Ray alongside The House That Dripped Blood, which we talked about here.
1972’s Asylum was the fifth of Amicus studios’ ‘portmanteau’ horrors, as they’re known to genre fans, and by now the house style had been pretty well established, proving to be popular and lucrative – Asylum went in front of the cameras barely a month after Tales From The Crypt opened in the UK, and was itself in UK cinemas three months later.
As with the previously reviewed The House That Dripped Blood, Asylum is one of the stand-out entries in the Amicus canon due in part to its use of a distinctive, singular locale for its framework, giving the film a certain cohesion unifying its individual ‘chapters’. In this case it’s the foreboding, grey-walled asylum of the title, Dunsmoor, a permanent home for the ‘incurably insane’, where young Dr. Martin – the lean, intense Robert Powell, fresh from Doomwatch duties – is put through an offbeat job interview by the asylum’s owner, Lionel Rutherford (A lugubrious Patrick Magee), wheelchair-bound after an attack by one of his residents… Chaperoned by attendant Max Reynolds (Geoffrey Bayldon, in a role originally intended for Spike Milligan!), Martin is invited to meet four patients and hear their tragic stories and must deduce which one of them is the mysterious ‘Dr Starr’, the asylum’s previous manager, and now a patient after a “complete mental breakdown”.
Like The House That Dripped Blood, the individual chapters are written by the film’s scriptwriter Robert (Psycho) Bloch, adapting short stories Bloch had originally written for pulp fiction magazines – one of these had also been adapted for TV in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Hour – and in true Amicus style, these chips off the old Bloch are brought to the screen with a mostly British cast of familiar faces ranging from veteran character actors Magee, Bayldon, Barry Morse, Richard Todd, Herbert Lom and James Villiers to rising stars of the ‘70s Robert Powell, Britt Ekland and Charlotte Rampling, whose iconic gigs Tommy, The Man With the Golden Gun and The Night Porter respectively were just around the corner. And of course, it wouldn’t be an Amicus movie without the gentleman of horror, Peter Cushing. The real star of Asylum, however, is classical composer Mussorgsky, whose pounding, pealing suites are plastered over the film’s soundtrack to great effect in the various vignettes.
The stories which comprise Asylum – indeed, a film called Asylum – would not play well with advocates of a more enlightened approach to mental health issues, but they take place on a different plane altogether to any realistic portrayal of sanity or lack thereof. But ‘Civilised’ folk will always have a morbid fascination with peering into the abyss to see our own reflection, and these macabre tales are deliberately heightened nightmares of extremes of the human condition.
The poor souls who feature in Asylum’s vignettes are not victims of ‘insanity’, but an altogether more relatable condition – obsession, whether it’s the cast of The Weird Tailor, from Barry Morse’s poverty stricken tailor and his client Peter Cushing’s very specific requirements for a mysterious suit made of eldtrich fabrics to the tailor’s daughter becoming besotted with the suit’s mannequin, to the frankly bonkers Mannikins Of Horror, where Herbert Lom is working on a tiny automata replica of himself that can be animated by his own will in order to take revenge on Rutherford, or opening instalment Frozen Fear, a fun, if predictable, revenge tale of sexual betrayal and jealousy and brown paper packages tied up with strings….
Frozen Fear and The Weird Tailor almost feel like escapees from previous Amicus anthologies – the former calls to mind aspects of The Vault of Horror’s The Neat Job, while The Weird Tailor feels like a leftover from Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors or Torture Garden, with the rather creaky, claustrophobic vibe of those early Amicus’ efforts less well realised chapters, and Peter Cushing while admittedly watchable as always, isn’t seen at his best in an underwritten role he could play in his sleep – less said about the risible Jewish caricature Barry Morse has to work with the better, despite the sympathy his character engenders.
The real highlights of the film come from its third and fourth chapters, Lucy Comes To Stay and Mannikins of Horror. The former is a rather poignant tale with (spoiler alert!) Charlotte Rampling and Britt Ekland playing twin sides of the same woman’s psyche – Barbara (Rampling) has just been released from hospital suffering from some kind of breakdown, but enjoys no sense of freedom as she is zombified with medication by her nurse (Megs Jenkins) and over-protected by her brother George (James Villiers). All this changes when Lucy (Ekland) comes to stay, endeavouring to persuade Barbara to loosen her shackles so they can get up to mischief together as they did before Barbara’s hospitalisation…
The contrast between Rampling and Ekland makes for perfect casting here, with Rampling at her most protean and androgynous in appearance, playing Barbara with the same sort of distracted, somnambulant quality as Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, while blonde, girlish Ekland is bright as a button as the coquettish, flighty ‘naughty little sister’ figure. It’s an at times haunting and affecting vignette, which closes with a well realised mirror gag.
One can’t help but wonder if this instalment inspired Richard Matheson’s Millicent and Therese, the middle story of Karen Black vehicle Trilogy of Terror (1975).
The closing tale, Mannikins of Terror, brings the storyline back to the titular setting in fine fashion with a wonderfully absurd yarn about a miniature homunculus crafted by Byron – Herbert Lom on top glowering form as an ‘inmate’ of equal intellectual stature to his ‘capture’ Rutherford, toiling over his will-powered, part-organic robotic minifig of terror to exact revenge on Magee. The scenario is, of course, daft as a brush, but like many of Amicus’ grim fairy tales, the fact that it is played dead straight by all involved makes for a captivating flight of delirium and obsession.
But who was Dr. Starr? You’ll have to check-in to Dunsmoor to find out!
After many years existing on home media as a poor quality transfer, this spectacular clean up of the original 16mm film – gotta love that early ‘70s film grain, showing the location in all its grim, whitewashed seediness – scrubs up a treat, and is complemented by a raft of extras including those ported over from previous Region 1 and 2 releases, including a genuine time-capsule in the form of a BBC on-location report with cast and crew. As standard, the sleeve insert comes with an option for the owner to display the original one-sheet poster art or Graham Humphreys’ new artwork, in the genre poster artist’s trademark ghoulish hues. With Second Sight’s pairing of Asylum and The House That Dripped Blood, and Indicator’s handsomely presented Blu-Ray of Torture Garden, it’s to be hoped that the entire canon of Amicus anthologies can soon be enjoyed anew in HD.
❉ Audio Commentary with director Roy Ward Baker and camera operator Neil Binney
❉ ‘Two’s a Company’: 1972 on-set BBC report featuring interviews with producer Milton Subotsky, Director Roy Ward Baker, Actors Charlotte Rampling, James Villiers, Megs Jenkins, Art Director Tony Curtis and Production Manager Teresa Bolland
❉ Screenwriter David J. Schow on writer Robert Bloch
❉ Fiona Subotsky remembers Milton Subotsky
❉ ‘Inside The Fear Factory’ Featurette with directors Roy Ward Baker, Freddie Francis and producer Max J. Rosenberg
❉ Theatrical trailer
❉ Reversible sleeve featuring new artwork by Graham Humphreys and original artwork
❉ SDH English subtitles for the hard of hearing
❉ Asylum Standard Edition Blu-ray (2NDBR4116) released on 6 January 2019. Running Time: 88 mins Region: B Cert: 15. RRP £15.99. Click here to buy directly from Second Sight Films.
❉ James Gent is the Editor of We Are Cult, and is the co-editor of Me and the Starman, (Chinbeard Books, 2019) Available in paperback from Amazon: All profits from this book go toward supporting the work of Cancer Research UK.