Asylum (1972) was just one of more than a half-dozen horror anthology-style fright films made by Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky's Amicus Productions. The structure of these movies almost never varied, with four-to-six gruesome tales running about 15 minutes apiece usually connected by an ominous storyteller/host who's part of a larger mystery revealed in some sort of twist ending. Though produced for the same modest budgets as rival Hammer Films' horror movies, the brief shooting schedule each segment required - stories could be filmed in a matter of days - attracted not only the usual fine assortment of character actors commonly associated with the genre (Peter Cushing, Herbert Lom), but also rising talent from the British stage (Charlotte Rampling, Michael Gambon), and bigger, established Hollywood names looking for an easy paycheck.
Amicus' films in this omnibus format varied in quality, from the highs of Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (the first, released in 1965) and Tales from the Crypt (1972) - both incredible fun when seen in a packed movie theater - to the lows of Torture Garden (1967) and The Uncanny (1977), the latter produced by Subotsky after his split with Rosenberg.** Asylum is near the top of this short list thanks to Roy Ward Baker's subtle direction of several excellent performances, and a restrained script by horror fiction icon Robert Bloch.
(Mild Spoilers Throughout)
Aspiring young psychiatrist Dr. Martin (Robert Powell) arrives at lonely Dunsmoor Asylum for a job interview (to the effective strains of Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain). However, Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee) informs him that the head of the institution, Dr. Starr, has gone mad and is now a patient. In a highly unusual move, Rutherford puts Martin's skills to the test: If he can correctly guess which of the four incurably insane patients is the onetime psychiatrist, the job is his.
Led by orderly Max Reynolds (Geoffrey Bayldon), Martin is introduced to Bonnie (Barbara Parkins), who in flashback tells how her married lover, Walter (Richard Todd), murdered his wife (Sylvia Syms), a practitioner of African black magic, and packed her in a basement meat freezer, with disastrous results.
Next, Martin meets mad tailor Bruno (Barry Morse), who tells a weird tale about a man named Smith (Peter Cushing), who came to his shop with an order for a most unusual suit, some sort of gift for his son.
The third patient, Barbara (26-year-old Charlotte Rampling), insists that she's not responsible for the tragic events that followed her return from hospital after being treated for drug addiction. Under close supervision from older brother George (James Villiers) and Nurse Higgins (Megs Jenkins), Barbara is visited by "best friend" (and thinly coded lesbian lover) Lucy (Britt Ekland), urging Barbara to run away with her.
Finally, Martin meets Byron (Herbert Lom), who busies himself making little half-homunculi/half-mechanical people, vowing to will his soul into the eight-inch facsimile of himself.
For the most part, Asylum is very effective. Cinematographer-turned-director Freddie Francis directed the majority of Amicus' anthologies, but Roy Ward Baker's direction of Asylum is notably subtler in execution and, at least partly thanks to Baker, has uniformly better performances. The former is most apparent in the first and overall most successful segment, "Frozen Fear," with direction and editing that maximizes the potential of the material without becoming distractingly showy, and which for the most part avoids the kind of special effects that would have been impossible with this budget. It's quite well done, quietly unsettling without being at all gory.
"The Weird Tailor" is a mixed bag. In a superb performance, Peter Cushing in one scene obviously, disturbingly draws upon the very real pain he endured following the recent death of his wife. His portrait of a pathetic, irrational man going to extraordinary lengths to bring a loved one back from the dead is both creepy and sadly touching. First adapted as an October 1961 episode of the TV series Thriller, "The Weird Tailor" is unfortunately seriously damaged in trying to pare the segment down to an acceptable length. The climax makes no sense at all because the characters of the tailor and his wife (Ann Firbank) have been stripped to less than their bare essentials.
The segment with Lom, "Mannikins of Horror," suffers from inadequate special effects, though this is greatly compensated by a disturbing bit of horror that's followed by an unusually satisfying twist ending (the best of the Amicus anthologies) that answers the film's Big Riddle once and for all.
Video & Audio
Dark Sky's presentation of Asylum is almost identical to Anchor Bay UK's Region 2 PAL DVD from a few years back, though this mastering is pleasantly sharp with good color. It's also 16:9 enhanced with a 1.77:1 ratio, approximating the original theatrical release. The mono audio is rather tinny, but that seems inherent to the original soundtrack, not the DVD. Optional English subtitles are included, and the DVD is not region-encoded.
Inside the Fear Factory is a 20-minute, 16:9 featurette apparently originally produced by Blue Underground for Anchor Bay UK's Amicus set. It also appears that the show has been reworked, as the UK boxed set included two titles not part of Dark Sky's Amicus trilogy: Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965) and The House That Dripped Blood (1970). Though limited to clips from the three Dark Sky titles, the show is entertaining, thanks partly to the eyebrow-rising remarks by the late Max Rosenberg, co-president of Amicus, whose acrimonious split with former partner Milton Subotsky was still apparent in 2004, when this last interview was filmed. Also on hand are directors Roy Ward Baker and Freddie Francis.
Also included is an excellent audio commentary moderated by Marcus Hearn and featuring director Roy Ward Baker and camera operator Neil Binney that digs into the nuts and bolts of early-'70s film production.
An above-average Photo Gallery includes international posters, lobbies, stills and the like. First-time viewers should steer clear of the spoiler-filled trailers for --And Now The Screaming Starts (16:9), Asylum and The Beast Must Die (both 4:3 full frame) until after they've seen the pictures. All are complete with narration and text, though the one for The Beast Must Die is in poor condition.
Brief but useful Biographies with short filmographies are included for Peter Cushing, Roy Ward Baker, Herbert Lom, Britt Ekland, and Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky.
Christopher Gullo's liner notes are a disappointment. See this reviewer's comments on --And Now The Screaming Starts! for more about these.
Asylum is a good example of this subgenre of horror virtually owned by Amicus during the 1960s and '70s. It makes for great Halloween viewing and tame enough that families with children perhaps 10 and older can enjoy its old-fashioned thrills.
**This reviewer's pick for the all-time best horror anthology is Mario Bava's I tre volti della paura (1963), first released in the U.S. as Black Sabbath.
Stuart Galbraith IV talks about Invasion of Astro-Monster in an audio commentary track that's just one part of Classic Media's upcoming Godzilla Classic Collector's Edition. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.