Written by: Robert Bloch
Directed by: Roy Ward Baker
Starring: Robert Powell, Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"Working with the mentally disturbed can cause a breakdown."
When discussing classic British horror, the first name that comes to mind is Hammer Studios, the legendary producer of dozens of classic titles. Lost in the shuffle is the lesser-known Amicus studios, who produced quite a few excellent titles in their own right. The most notable of these are their series of anthology films released during the 60s and 70s, which included such landmarks as Tales From the Crypt and The House that Dripped Blood. Released in the same year as the aforementioned Tales From the Crypt, Asylum is one of several Amicus films to feature Hammer legend Peter Cushing. The film is directed by Roy Ward Baker, another Hammer staple who directed Scars of Dracula and Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires before directing both this film and The Vault of Horror for Amicus. To round things out, the stories featured here are all written by Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel Psycho.
The film opens with Dr. Martin arriving at an insane asylum, where he meets the manager of the institution, Dr. Rutherford, who is currently wheel-chair bound due to being attacked by an inmate. Dr. Rutherford then informs Dr. Martin that Dr. Starr, the asylum's previous head doctor, has suffered a psychological breakdown and is currently an inmate at the institution. In order to test Martin's prowess, Rutherford sends him upstairs to meet the various inmates to see if he can deduce which one is Starr. Guided by the asylum attendant, Max, Dr. Martin meets an assortment of characters who relay their bizarre tales, which serve as our stories in the anthology.
First up is Bonnie and her tale, "Frozen Fear," which recounts her affair with a married man, Walter, and their attempt to kill his wife, who has recently taken to alternative religions such as voodoo. Thus, their plot goes horribly awry when Walter carelessly throws her voodoo bracelet in with her remains. The next patient is Bruno, who relates the story of "The Weird Tailor," which recounts his encounter with a strange visitor (played by Peter Cushing) who wants him to make a suit from a strange, special fabric. After giving Bruno very specific orders, which includes working on the suit only after midnight, the stranger disappears until Bruno delivers the suit. Upon their second meeting, Bruno discovers the awful secret behind the suit's mysterious purpose.
The third patient Dr. Martin meets is Barbara, the narrator of "Lucy Comes to Stay." In this story, Barbara has recently been released from an mental institution to stay with her brother and a nurse. Before long, a blonde woman named Lucy (played by Britt Ekland) visits Barbara and convinces her that her brother does not have her best interest in mind and persuades her to leave the house. The final patient is Dr. Byron, who does not relate a story to Dr. Martin; instead, he reveals that he is working transferring souls to small mannequins in order to give them life. This sets the wheels in motion for the final tale, "Mannequins of Horror," to begin, which leads to the shocking climax and revelation of the film when the identity of Dr. Starr is revealed.
For the most part, the structure of these tales will seem familiar to anyone whose seen its anthology contemporaries. The stories are short and sweet, and end with some sort of shocking revelation and twist, and the film as a whole operates like this as well. While the film is a bit more bleak than most Amicus releases, the film as a whole is not particularly groundbreaking. The frame story involving Dr. Martin attempting to deduce the identity of Dr. Starr is interesting, and it provides a natural transition into the individual stories, which range from decent to excellent. There's not a stinker among the bunch, but "The Weird Tailor" and "Lucy Comes to Stay" are the standouts here.
The former is of course memorable for the presence of Peter Cushing, who only has two scenes; if you're going to check this one out based on Cushing alone, you might be disappointed. The story overall is an interesting one and is particularly notable for its gothic atmosphere that recalls some of the earlier Hammer films. While each of these stories is predicated on some sort of mystery to a certain extent, this makes the best use of it because the possibilities surrounding the strange garment are endless, which makes it a bit more unpredictable. Cushing, of course, is great as the strange visitor, Barry Morse also does a fine job as Bruno, and comes off as one of the more sympathetic characters in the entire film.
The other standout, "Lucy Comes to Stay," features the best performance in the film in the form of Britt Ekland's Lucy. Perhaps best known to horror fans for her role in The Wicker Man, Ekland here invigorates the story with her performance as the femme fatale. Of all the stories, this one is the most sinister and brutally realistic. Whereas the other stories have a supernatural tint to them, "Lucy Comes to Stay" shows that the worst evil lies in man, whether they know it or not. The final revelation here is quite predictable, but it still works because it renders our protagonist as a sympathetic victim of her fate. Plus, it's a reminder that Britt Ekland was one of the most beautiful women in the world, and that's never a bad thing.
As a horror film, the film relies on various methods to scare you: gothic imagery, disturbing characters, chilling twists, and even undead creatures. Perhaps the most chilling aspect is the film's ending, as the film's bleak, nihilistic outlook is relayed by maniacal laughter and the notion that evil is inescapable. There's very little gore here, but that's par for the course as far as the Amicus anthologies go. The music is not very memorable outside of the bombastic use of "Night on Bald Mountain" during the opening credits, but this goes a long way in establishing the tone and atmosphere for the film. Overall, the film feels similar to the other Amicus anthologies, and it's difficult to describe unless you've seen one.
So, is Asylum the place to start if you've never been introduced to the world of Amicus? Not quite. I would have to concur with Wes's contention that Tales From the Crypt is the best starting point because it's not only the finest of the Amicus anthologies, but also one of the best horror films period. This is not to say that Asylum is a bad film, but it does pale a bit when compared to the best of its type (but what film wouldn't?). Instead, there is a very workman-like quality to the film that exhibits a mastery of the anthology format: the performances are good, the direction is well done, and all the stories fit together extremely well in building towards a tightly-constructed and well conceived climax. All in all, Asylum is a fun collection of short horror stories that is the cinematic equivalent of sitting around the campfire and listening to ghost stories.
Dark Sky has released Asylum in two different configurations. First up is a stand-alone release that features an excellent video and audio presentation. The transfer is excellent for a 35 year old film, and it's appropriately grainy with rich, vibrant colors. The 2.0 mono track is just as excellent, as it's very clear and rich. There are also a few special features, including a commentary by Baker, a featurette about the film, cast and crew biographies, a still gallery, and some liner notes detailing the film's production. This disc can also be found in an Amicus collection along with And Now the Screaming Starts, and The Beast Must Die (all films featuring Cushing). If you're an Amicus fan at all, grab the set; if you're just a fan of British horror anthologies, Asylum deserves a spot on your shelf. Buy it!
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