ASYLUM **** UK 1972 Dir: Roy Ward Baker. 88 mins
Played darker and more for straight chills than most of Amicus’ horror anthologies, this stand-out entry from the studio is rich with writer Robert Bloch’s malevolent sense of humour. The wraparound story – later cloned for the non-Amicus TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS – follows Robert Powell’s film-long search for the elusive “Dr. Starr”, a staff member at Dunsmore Asylum who is now apparently a patient within the same institution. Powell’s chats with other patients and his final discovery frame the four individual stories that follow.
“Frozen Fear” echoes Bloch’s PSYCHO fascination with corpse disposal as adulterous bastard Richard Todd buys his domineering wife a new freezer so he can hack her to pieces and store the body parts in memorably bland, neatly tied brown paper bundles. The grisly, wild climax (possibly an inspiration for the ending of PIECES) is followed by an effective change of pace, “The Weird Tailor”. Here, a poignant Barry Morse plays a meek, financially struggling Geppetto-like tailor, though it’s Peter Cushing’s portrayal of a grieving father with an odd request (a suit for his dead son) that dominates. Like his roles in THE GHOUL and TALES FROM THE CRYPT, Cushing invests the role with an almost painful glimpse into his well-known personal loss, and his depiction of a melancholic figure driven to extremes by the death of a loved one makes up for the inherent silliness of its finale. “Lucy Comes To Stay” is one of Bloch’s schizo tales of everyday madness, complete with a staircase stabbing and a twist that, after a decade of PSYCHO rip-offs, was never going to surprise many people. Its strongest suit is Charlotte Rampling as an unhinged former mental patient who returns home and is almost immediately visited by mischievous alter-ego Britt Ekland.
The stand-out here is “Mannikins of Horror”, which connects with the wraparound and plays like an inventive precursor to later horror hits like Charles Band’s PUPPET MASTER franchise. Herbert Lom is commanding as Dr Byron, the creator of an elaborate array of living mannikins modelled in his own image. It culminates with a memorably gruesome moment in which Powell stamps on a Byron creation, exposing miniature gut-spillage. It’s the best of a consistently compelling quartet of stories, and the film bows out with a familiar bit of Amicus fourth wall breaking after Geoffrey Bayldon has unleashed what might be the craziest laugh in British horror history.
Review by Steven West