Friday, April 22, 2011

Madhouse (1974)

My Rating: 6/10

Down on his luck and trying to keep a grip on his precarious mental health, has-been horror-film icon Paul Toombes (Vincent Price) takes a stab at revitalizing his career by starring in a television series based on his famous silver screen persona, Dr. Death. But when people start dying in gruesome ways that resemble Dr. Death's handiwork, Toombes suspects the evil character has completely taken over his mind. Jim Clark directs this thriller.
 These days, "Scream" gets all the credit for being the first post-modern, self-aware horror film (Even though that award should really go to "There's nothing out there").  Roll back the timeline a few decades, though, and you find this forgotten gem, starring Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry (of "Count Yorga:  Vampire", a movie I have sadly not yet seen).  Put Vincent Price and Peter Cushing in the same movie and it's worth showing up just to watch them read a telephone directory.  Alas, Cushing isn't in this much - He wanders in and out of the story, probably from other movie contracts during the same time period.  But back to "Scream" -  "Madhouse" kept reminding me of "Scream" as it played through...  It's a weird fusion, sort of a mashup of 50's/60's gothic horror classics and emerging 70's London disco culture, self-referencing all the way and, like "Scream", resembling a slasher/horror on the surface and actually being a twisted mystery underneath.

Price plays himself, a famous horror actor who's not coping well with the changing times.  His iconic screen character Dr. Death was forcibly retired years past, when his bride-to-be was beheaded under mysterious circumstances and Price was committed to an asylum due to mental breakdown.  Now he's out, healthy, and being wooed by old friend Cushing to make a comeback as Dr. Death in an ongoing TV series.  Unfortunately, the reappearance of Dr. Death in his life brings, well... the reappearance of Dr. Death in his life, and before you can say Wes Craven, a mysterious figure in a death mask starts appearing and murdering everyone close to him.  The murders keep occurring during blackout periods for Price, leaving him and the police wondering if he's gone batty once more and is rowing without all his cards in the deck.

I have to give special kudos to Price's very simple-yet-enjoyable Doctor Death makeup...

... but the real visual winner here is the "killer" version of Dr. Death, who ends up out-Screaming the "Scream" phantom and being one of the more unnerving slasher killers ever:

It's an effectively creepy and simple look that I hope to steal for a Halloween costume one of these years, if I can ever convince any Trick or Treaters to come back to our house again.  The killer Dr. Death mows his way through the cast in various creative ways, some of which make no sense whatsoever but presage the "Death by garden implement" wave of 80's slashers.  The whole thing builds to a dramatic conclusion that literally brings the house down in an obvious homage to Price's old Poe films.

Oh, and did I mention that there's also a crazy disfigured spider lady living in Cushing's basement, for no apparent reason?

So, all of this sounds like good stuff so far, and it is, but why the middling rating?  The problem is that it's all a bit of a mess.  It has a lot of good pieces, but the director doesn't seem to know how to fit them together, and the tone is so uneven that people on the IMDB board are mistakenly complaining that the film has been edited down over the years.  Sadly, this isn't the case - The jarring transitions and mood breakers are all original, and it often seems that just when you're getting into a nice suspenseful scene, it cuts to a 70's pantsuit party or other silliness.  It tries hard to bridge the older world of crumbling castle horrors with the mid-70's "Deep Red" mod murder vibe, but doesn't quite manage it, leaving the whole thing feeling like two disparate movies stuck together with packing tape.  One minute Price is making his way by candlelight through a cobwebbed basement in the dead of night, the next minute Dr. Death is killing someone to a pop song and disco ball lights.  If it had any other actors in the title roles it would have lost another couple of points on the rating scale, but Price and Cushing do a mighty job of keeping the whole thing watchable and interesting, even though you'll guess who the killer is well before the end.

A forgotten curiosity worth visiting if you're a fan of these legendary horror actors, but not so great for anyone else.

Suggested Accompaniment:  I've said before that Danish freehands are the pipes for 70's films, and here again they're a nice fit.  Something big, swanky, and as outrageously over the top as bell bottom pants would be the ideal pipe for this flick.  But in honor of the movie's split personality, go with a traditional English tobacco...  Maybe Dunhill London Mix, something like that, which should balance out the experience nicely.