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Madhouse

Kino // PG // July 21, 2015
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ian Jane | posted June 23, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Directed by James Clark in 1974, this British/American co-production put together by Amicus and American International Pictures follows a man named Paul Toombes (Vincent Price in the last film he'd make for AIP). An actor by trade, Toombes is popular among horror fans for playing a character called Dr. Death in a popular series of horror movies. He's engaged to a woman named Ellen Mason (Julie Crosthwaite) but after finding out at a party he's attended with her that she's been involved with adult films, he throws a fit and storms out on her. Shortly after, feeling remorseful, he heads back to try and talk to her but find that she has been decapitated.

Understandably shaken by what has happened, Toombes has a breakdown and leaves the acting business. The years pass and eventually he's offered the chance to travel from America to the United Kingdom to reprise his most famous role for a new television series. He accepts the offer and soon meets Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry), the show's producer who he quickly comes to dislike when he forces his girlfriend, Carol Clayton (Jennie Lee Wright), into the series to act as Dr. Death's assistant. Regardless, Toombes tries to make the best of things and can at least enjoy reuniting with his old friend Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing), brought on board to write the series.

Things take a quick turn for the worse, however, once production starts. See, people involved with the series soon start turning up dead, each one a victim of a grisly murder. The culprit? Someone running about in a Dr. Death outfit, someone who looks suspiciously like Paul Toombes…

Squaring Price and Quarry against each other in the movie was a bit of a stroke of genius, as Quarry was at one time considered to be the actor who would replace Price as AIP's reigning king of horror. You definitely do get the impression during their shared screen time that they don't like one another, and it gives some of those scenes a fairly interesting sense of cattiness. This gives the story a bit more punch than it might have otherwise but even without that added element of potential real life drama the story is well told. Some dark humor is worked into the film (look for an ‘appearance' from Count Yorga himself!) and the murder set pieces are done well. If the film isn't ultra-stylish or all that flashy in terms of Clark's direction, it is at least well put together, quite decent in its pace and smart enough to leave the focus on the film's three leading men, each one an important part of horror movie history even at this point in their careers.

In terms of those leading men, each one is featured here in fine form. Quarry plays his smug, arrogant and irritating character quite well. He's got a pretty great screen presence and he uses it to his advantage in the picture. Of course, Cushing comes across as the gentleman that by all accounts he was in real life and seeing him interact with the others in this film is a lot of fun. He's maybe a little underwritten when compared to Quarry or Price but he does an absolutely wonderful job with the material. Price, however, tends to steal the show. He wasn't a young man at this point in his career and he's got a weathered, almost angry look about him for much of the film that suits the character perfectly. As his character starts to question what is real and what is not and ponder what exactly he himself is responsible for, Price delivers an appropriately complex, layered and fascinating performance. There are those who see anything the man was affiliated with as hammy, but pay attention to the way that the man uses his facial expressions and his body language here. He's definitely dramatic and occasionally more than a little over the top but he shows a solid commitment to the part he's been chosen to play and he's great in the lead role.

The Blu-ray:

Video:

Madhouse arrives on Blu-ray in a very nice looking AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.85.1 widescreen. Compared to the previous non-anamorphic DVD release that MGM gave the movie years back, this is quite impressive. Black levels look considerably deeper than they have in the past but not at the expense of shadow detail. The picture is free of crush and compression artifacts while affording the image considerably better, brighter and bolder color reproduction. Skin tones look very nice and detail is, with a few shots excepted, typically very strong and at times surprisingly crisp. There's a tiny bit of print damage here and there but it's nothing too serious while the natural grain structure remains intact, indicating that no overzealous noise reduction has been used here.

Sound:

The only option on the disc is a DTS-HD Mono track in English, there are no alternate language options or subtitles/closed captioning options offered here. Clarity of the audio is quite good throughout. The score, from Douglas Gamley, sounds nice and has very good range and depth to it. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion of note and the levels are properly balanced throughout. There are, however, some audio synch issues. Some will notice these more than others but they are there. Kino has acknowledged this but so far hasn't offered a replacement.

Extras:

Extras are highlighted by a commentary track from film historian and Vincent Price expert David Del Valle. He offers up some interesting trivia in what is essentially a scene specific breakdown of what went into getting this movie made. He details some of the original cast and crew choices, what happened with the script, the locations, the effects, where the movie fits in alongside similar pictures made around this time and quite a bit more. Del Valle speaks pretty enthusiastically about this film and has quite obviously done his research here as he really leaves no stone unturned.

We also get an eleven minute long featurette called The Revenge Of Dr. Death: Making Madhouse that features comments from Del Valle and fellow film historian Courtney Joyner. They do a fine job of explaining the history and origin of the picture and offer some interesting critical insight into certain aspects of the production. Rounding out the extras are a trailer for the feature as well as a trailer for Tales Of Terror (which Kino have also released on Blu-ray recently), static menus and chapter selection.

Final Thoughts:

Madhouse isn't the best of the golden age of British horror but it's still a very fine picture made by a solid director with a superb cast. There's some effective dark humor here in amongst the more traditional horror elements and the end result is a whole lot of fun. Kino's Blu-ray provides an update over the last DVD release that is both welcome and needed, and it throws in few interesting extra features as well. The audio synch issue will irk some, which is pretty understandable. Until it's fixed, we'll say 'rent it' based on the quality of the movie, transfer and extras.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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