Of the various production companies working in the British exploitation film industry during the boom years that started with Hammer’s wildly successful horror pictures of the 1950s and ended with a few last gasp films in the early 1980s, Amicus came closest to giving Hammer a run for its money. Amicus’s forte were horror anthology films, starting with Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors in 1965 and ending in 1980 with their eighth and final entry in the cycle, The Monster Club. Throughout Amicus attempted, and generally succeeded, in making its films with a bit of horror and a bit of humor, in the tradition of the old EC horror comics. Asylum came right in the middle of the cycle-the fifth-and, like several others, adapted by Robert Block (Psycho) from his own short horror stories.
The frame story is a good one: a young psychiatrist named Dr. Martin (Robert Powell, The Asphyx) arrives at a mental institution to interview for a position. When he arrives he meets with Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee, Dementia 13), who informs him that the person he suspected to interview with-Dr. B. Starr-is no longer a doctor at the asylum-but is now a patient, suffering a nervous breakdown when his methods-understanding, kindness, patience-proved to weak for the “incurable” inmates. Rutherford challenges Dr. Martin to interview the most disturbed patients and to decide which one is Starr-if he is successful, Rutherford will hire him. Martin does not like it, but plays along.
Each patient is a lead in to another tale of the macabre. First is Bonnie (Barbara Parkins, Peyton Place), whose lover Walter (Richard Todd, The House of the Long Shadows) killed his wife Ruth (Sylvia Syms, Doctor Who: Ghostlight) when she would not grant him a divorce. The two plan on running away together-but unfortunately Ruth’s protected by a voodoo charm, and her body parts-wrapped in butcher paper-kill Walter and attack Bonnie, causing her to axe herself in the face while trying to get them off of her. Or did they?
A tailor named Bruno (Barry Morse, The Changeling) is desperate for money, so when a strange man named Smith (Peter Cushing, The Curse of Frankenstein) arrives at his shop and offers to pay top dollar if Bruno will make him a suit-using his materials and following his instructions to the letter-Bruno jumps at the chance. Exactly what Mr. Smith intends to do with his suit made to exacting specifications Bruno is shocked to find out….
Barbara (Charlotte Rampling, Zardoz) comes home from an asylum, but her suspicious brother George (James Villiers, Repulsion) keeps her under the constant watch. When her friend Lucy (Britt Ekland, The Man with the Golden Gun) arrives and encourages her to run away, and helps her kill to do so, not everything is what it seems….
Byron (Herbert Lom, The Phantom of the Opera) was a captain of industry who cracked under the pressure. Byron believes he can put his spirit in the tiny mechanical dolls he makes. While Dr. Martin condemns Dr. Rutherford and his methods, Byron takes control of his doll and begins to make his way downstairs to kill Rutherford, who is planning to perform a lobotomy on him….and there’s still one final surprise in store for Dr. Martin….
Asylum is one of the better Amicus horror anthologies, though it has many of the weakness they, and most horror anthologies, share. One, there’s a mix of the goofy (the butcher paper wrapped trunk of Ruth moving towards Bonnie is a threat how? the “dolls” that seem to be old battery operated robots with a specially made “Herbert Lom” head), the macabre (the chilling atmosphere of the tailor’s story, little touches like when the head of Ruth shows up in the doorway, then is gone) and the shopworn (Barbara’s story, which, while it has an effective dénouement, is both predictable and cliché). One way Asylum has a leg up is its framing device. The Martin/Rutherford contrast in methods is nice, the lead character is playing the guessing game along with the audience, the last twist is good (if not completely well executed) and the fact that all of these tales could just be the ravings of the insane (though we of course know better) puts a nice edge on the proceedings. Seeing Byron’s little doll come for Rutherford, and Martin realize that Byron can actually do what he said he could, really helped make an otherwise silly story more effective. The film is competently directed by Brit Horror regular Roy Ward Baker (The Scars of Dracula) though he might have done better with a more solid budget, and working from the tales of a single author (adapted by himself, no less) also gives the film a more consistent feel than some of the more scatter-shot anthologies. Considering they used well-known classical pieces, the film is scored quite well. A solid effort, worth a look by fans of the genre.
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