Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
DVD distributor Mondo Macabro has once again come to the party with a fine version of a film nobody expected to see restored. Juan López Moctezuma's La mansión de la locura is an art-horror thriller set in France but shot in English in Mexico. It opened there in 1972 but didn't appear in this country until 1977 under the more commercial title Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon. At the time it seemed yet another spicy foreign horror movie (Savant thought it was from Spain) with big splices where nudity and who-knows-what had been snipped out.
Like many noted Eurohorror titles, Locura has existed primarily on gray-market videotapes. In its original form it impresses as a visually competent attempt to wed a suspense thriller with the delirium of an asylum movie. Mondo Macabro has decided to use the variant title Mansion of Madness on this release.
Gaston LeBlanc (Arthur Hansel) takes time out of his journey to visit the sanitarium of Dr. Maillard. He's never met Maillard but knows him well by reputation and is initially pleased when the good doctor takes him on a tour of his progressive institution. Instead of being caged, the patients are allowed to run loose to express themselves, and the hospital grounds resemble a free-form circus. But the more LeBlanc sees, the more disturbing the asylum becomes -- patients are mistreated and Maillard's methods make little sense. By the time LeBlanc discovers what's really going on, it's far too late to do anything about it.
Edgar Allan Poe's The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether has a narrative twist that is fairly easy to guess, at least now after the basic idea has been cribbed a thousand times. Moctezuma's film turns that short-story idea into a feature by filling it out with elaborate stagings of the wild goings-on at the Maillard Sanitarium. People seem to be living in every nook and cranny of the vast estate, while Maillard's armed guards patrol the borders to protect them. Along with the detective story and several other genres, Poe also seems to have invented the concept of grand guignol, as this tale would transfer neatly to the Parisian stage with little adaptation necessary. The same basic plot twist motivates the original The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as well.
As documented in the disc's fine extra features, Juan López Moctezuma was part of a radical theater troupe and helped produce the freaked-out features of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Fando & Lis and El Topo. Mansion of Madness uses some of the same personnel.
The movie is clearly the work of a hundred or so creative gypsies working at the isolated ruin of a large estate in an attractive wooded area. As a happening weird-in it's not bad, as it certainly maintains a consistent offbeat mood. As an art-horror film it moves in fits and starts, mainly because the cinematography and directing style don't work toward any particular tone. The best parts of the film are Moctezuma's Bosch-like wide masters of ruined galleries and factory-like areas, all overrun with Maillard's subhuman madmen working out their bizarre living arrangements. LeBlanc stares at a row of smokestacks with a woman living in each, or a ragged fellow taking up residence in a furnace, while Maillard lectures proudly on his accomplishment. His explanations and theories are Lewis Carroll-like nonsense, and the overall effect is a disturbing dislocation -- we know something's seriously wrong but can't picture exactly what.
Some tableaux have considerable power and indeed look like stagings by Fellini, only without expressive lighting or camera moves. Whether the subject is a woman in a glass box or a court-like audience assembled to watch an exotic dancer, the lack of creative lighting keeps the surface of the film rooted in reality. There's little genuine delirium in this vision of madness.
As with Marat-Sade, the eventual theme is political: any system of power is cruel and repressive, and duly constituted governments have a lot in common with a pack of asylum escapees. LeBlanc uncovers a weird conspiracy and must fight to stay alive. Innocuous moments contrast well with stranger material, such as the sight of a gaunt old man tied to a cross in a forgotten corner of Maillard's deepest dungeon.
Mansion of Madness plays out like a pageant with little opportunity for characters to emerge. The hero is colorless and the heroine he finds along the way merely functional. The best role goes to the power-mad conspirator played by Claudio Brook, who was the main character in
Luis Buńuel's Nazarín. The dramatics are predictable but the cast puts a lot of energy into their work.
Mondo Macabro's DVD of Mansion of Madness is a reasonable flat transfer of a movie that was clearly projected at an aspect ratio wider than 1:37. The main titles and scattered compositions have a great deal of loose air north and south. But there are also quite a few setups that would be ruined if the film were cropped, so the flat transfer is probably a good idea.
The extras include a docu on Moctezuma with commentary by some of his working associates. Guillermo del Toro also contributes an interview and credits the director as one of his main inspirations. A text interview with Moctezuma rounds out the academic content. A trailer and a stills gallery are included as well.
Mondo Macabro's package text does its best to hype the film, which is described as "Like a Monty Python film directed by Fellini ... on acid!" It's an impressive movie, even though it doesn't quite live up to that claim.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Mansion of Madness rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Docu, Guillermo del Toro interview, Moctezuma text interview, stills, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 11, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson