Friday, October 19, 2007

Asylum (1972)

As I've intimated in many recent posts, things haven't been going too terribly peachy for me this past week, particularly on the home front. This is a new drama that has developed in addition to the previous stress of job hunting, and various other degrees of anxiety from a variety of sources. For the most part, I've been coping. Life is stressful, sometimes you get depressed, it's difficult but it's also something you can work through. Fortunately I have a very supportive family and alot of great friends who can listen to my bitching or give a pep talk every now and again. When trouble comes to the homefront, through, it's something different and much less seemingly manageable. Which is to say that the past few days have been exceedingly difficult, and alot of the time I've been left feeling very...blah.

Last night was particularly bad, and by the time I was able to kick back for my nightly horror fix, I was thoroughly exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and in a generally pretty foul mood. I knew I needed something kind of special to pick up my spirits, so I decided to dip back into the most fertile well that is the Amcius horror anthology films of the 1970s. A week or so ago, I wrote about "From Beyond the Grave." This time out, I chose an even stronger entry, "Asylum" (1972), directed by the legendary Roy Ward Baker, the man behind the masterful "Quatermass & the Pit," and a handful a great Hammer horrors- "The Vampire Lovers," "Scars of Dracula," "Dr. Jeckyll & Sister Hyde," plus for Amicus "The Vault of Horror" and "And Now the Screaming Starts." He also did the semi-noir "Don't Bother to Knock" (1952), with Marilyn Monroe, Anne Bancroft and the great Richard Widmark (who turns 93 this December!). This came out the same year as Amicus' "Tales from the Crypt," and although the stories aren't based on old E.C. comics tales, they did the next best thing and had the film scripted by Robert Bloch, the author of "Psycho" and numerous other horror stories and novels, scripter of several William Castle films, as well as episodes of "Thriller," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Star Trek" and "Night Gallery." Bloch also scripted an earlier Amicus Anthology, "The House that Dripped Blood" (1971).

"Asylum" has long been a horror favorite of mine, in part because of the excellent cast (Peter Cushing, Patrick Magee, Herbert Lom, Charlotte Rampling and Britt Ekland, among others), and also because of the super creepy first story, in which the various wax paper wrapped parts of a dismembered corpse come to life to torment the victim's killer/husband and his mistress. This segment, much like the killer Santa Claus story in "Tales From the Crypt" and the story with Terry-Thomas from "Vault of Horror," is simple and highly effective, playing on imaginative and creepy images. Just the sight of the paper-wrapped severed head, moving so slowly across the floor of its own accord...well, that's what horror is all about!

The rest of the film, meanwhile, is pretty solid as well. In the wraparound story, a young doctor arrives at a remote asylum where he has been assigned to work. He meets the strange head doctor, a wheelchair bound Patrick Magee (great as always! Here's a guy who moved effortlessly between horror flicks like this, Kubrick films and Beckett plays, a truly underrated classic talent), who tells him that his predecessor has in fact gone mad and is now one of the inmates. He challenges the young doctor to suss out which of the inmates is actually the mad doctor, and sends him up to the ward, where an orderly introduced him to four of the patients (including Rampling and Lom), who each tell him their stories, all of which have, of course, a macabre or seemingly supernatural twist.

After the so so so good first tale, we meet a tailor who has been contracted to make a most unusual suit for the mysterious and eccentric Peter Cushing, a woman (Rampling) with a murderous imaginary friend (Ekland), and a doctor (Lom) who is attempting to make mechanical dolls with organic inner workings. The ending, naturally, provides a few twists, as at least one of the inmates turns out to be at least slightly less insane than he (or she) seems, and the young door learns the true identity of his predecessor, much to his horror.

The stories, much like the E.C. comics tales that influenced them, are simple but work so well because of masterfully established atmosphere and great acting (I suppose the cinematic equivalent of E.C.'s typically excellent artwork). There is something distinctively British about these films, with their odd mix of the gothic and the modern. Truly, for any discriminating horror fan, "Asylum" and its Amicus brethern are a pure joy (with the possible exception of 1967's "Torture Garden," which I've found to be kind of a bore). Watching this last night reinvigorated me at least a little bit, a certainly provided a most welcome distraction for 88 fear-filled minutes. Watch it tonight, with the lights out!

Until next time, stay spooky (and safe!)...

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