‘If stark terror were ecstasy… living here would be sheer bliss!’
On July 21, 2015, Kino Lorber released Madhouse on Blu-ray with an audio commentary by film historian David Del Valle, a new featurette and trailers.
Vincent Price plays Paul Toombes, a long-in-the-tooth actor who has made a particularly successful career as Dr Death, a recurring villain in a series of wildly popular horror films. He has been aided and abetted in this franchise by Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing), who has served as the writer of his films. At the height of his career and a fifth film in the bag, a party is thrown where he announces his intention to marry his fiancée, Ellen.
It’s at this juncture that blustering film director, Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry) informs him that she was quite a star on the smut movie scene. As she flees in tears, Toombes follows but finds his beloved future wife has been brutally beheaded (is there any other way?) and there is some doubt as to the role Toombes played in the act – regardless, he is despatched to an asylum for twelve years, returning refreshed and ready to return as Doctor Death again in a new British-made television series based on the character.
His fame has not eluded him and his is stalked by young Elizabeth Peters (Linda Hayden) on the ship to England and then at Herbert’s pile in the countryside, desperate to become his leading lady. Sadly, she meets her end via a garden fork and once again, there is a cloud of doubt as to whether it was Death/Toombes or someone masquerading as either who committed the crime. Lurking in the bowels of Chateau Flay is Herbert’s wife, Faye (Faye Flay!) played by Adrienne Corri (A Clockwork Orange, Vampire Circus), who is now bewigged, horribly burned but scatters memories of her times on Toombes’ like confetti.
The madness progresses and filming is stilted and punctuated by regular deaths, arguments and wistful reflections of Toombes’ greatest film moments, courtesy of film clips shoehorned into the plot. The finger points squarely at the beleaguered actor but there are herrings for all in abundance and the breathless and slightly wonky ending will leave you guessing to the last moments.
The draw here is, of course, the pairing of Price and Cushing. That AIP and Amicus fluffed their role in proceedings is not particularly surprising – the Americans flex their muscle by squeezing in as many clips of their works as they can credibly manage (The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, Haunted Palace, House of Usher, Scream and Scream Again and Masque of the Red Death are all on-show, also giving Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff – both dead – a brief run-out) whilst the British contingent somewhat haphazardly manage to conspire to make the most obvious and foolproof plot as ragged and endlessly revolving as possible.
Is it overwritten? Well, it’s partly based on Angus Hall’s novel, Devilday (1969), though you’d scarcely guess, Death replacing ‘Dis’ and Price’s angry, confused dedicated actor slightly at odds with Hall’s fat, guilty sex-pest.. The rarely seen again Ken Levison and Greg Morrison are credited with the screenplay but even Robert Quarry’s name is thrown into the mix, his journeyman career at least being apt (he plays up the role further by appearing as his own Count Yorga at one of the regular party scenes – Cushing finally donning some fangs in similar get-up).
Lovely Linda Hayden is surprisingly underused, as is Cushing – conversely, the bit-too-silly sub-plot of Faye in the cellar and the stilted nature of the film, clogged up with some ineffective wandering about and even talk show host Michael Parkinson cropping up to interview the famous star, make for an unbalanced film, coming at both the end of Amicus’ reign as one of Britain’s guiding lights of horror (it still isn’t as disappointing or frustrating as The Monster Club, their death rattle) and AIP’s run of horror successes, leading them to parody their own output with Vampira/Old Dracula and Abby.
Other titles considered for the film were The Return of Doctor Death and The Revenge of Doctor Death. It is possible that neither title was used because the producers did not want the film to appear to be a sequel to some other film, as well as another, unrelated, film called Doctor Death: Seeker of Souls had been released by another company – Freedom Arts Pictures Corporation – in 1973. A shame as both titles would have been more fun than Madhouse, a rather too literal accusatory finger point at Toombes.
Although in his interview with Michael Parkinson, reference is made to the actor having once played The Invisible Man (in The Invisible Man Returns), the history of the actor, though endlessly flashed on-screen through some slightly interminable ruses, still falls rather flat – with the actors clearly nearer the end than the beginning of their careers, a more joyous, celebratory tone would have served better. At times it becomes a bit, well, depressing. Director Jim Clark never helmed a film again, stepping into the editor’s office and doing a cracking job on films such as The Killing Fields and James Bond vehicle The World is Not Enough.
There are two particular highlights, however – Price’s stunning and iconic skull make-up by regular Hammer artist George Blacker is superb and still raises a shiver of delight 40 years on. Equally stunning is Douglas Gamley’s score, as thunderous as ever, the timpani player no doubt in need of a lie down afterwards. Gamley is one of the great under-sung voices of British horror, a force of nature who could grab you by the throat and lead you through a film and leave you battered but overjoyed. Listen out for Vincent himself singing at the film’s conclusion.
As feared, the film underperformed badly at the box-office, AIP essentially washing their hands of horror ever after. It has struggled for positive reappraisal in recent years but Price’s aged ham performance and Cushing in unpredictable form, it’s difficult to be too hard-hearted about it.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA
“The film turned out to be a poor man’s Agatha Christie, the diametric opposite of Theatre of Blood in production values and The Abominable Dr Phibes in originality. Morrison’s shooting script had ditched Devilday altogether in favour of retread of Grip of the Strangler…” Denis Meikle, Merchant of Menace: The Life and Films of Vincent Price, Hemlock Books
“More jokey than terrifying, the film gives Price a few over-the-top opportunities which he takes with zest and the film’s structure makes good use of clips from Price’s old AIP appearances…” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook
“It is interesting to watch then inaptly titled Madhouse in retrospect because there are sequences that have an unexpected Giallo-vibe, disorienting shots of patent leather-gloved hands slashing their lady victims, and the like. Yet, there is also a trippy baroqueness, not unlike Theater of Blood and the Doctor Phibes films.” J.B. Spins
“A few touches of grim humour help it along somewhat.” John Elliot, Elliot’s Guide to Films on Video
The Amicus Anthology – Bruce G. Hallenbeck, Hemlock Books
Faster and Furiouser: The Revised and Fattened Fable of American International Pictures – Mark Thomas McGee, McFarland
Cast and characters:
Vincent Price as Paul Toombes
Peter Cushing as Herbert Flay
Robert Quarry as Oliver Quayle
Adrienne Corri as Faye Carstairs Flay
Natasha Pyne as Julia Wilson
Michael Parkinson as T.V. Interviewer
Linda Hayden as Elizabeth Peters
Barry Dennen as Gerry Blount
Ellis Dale as Alfred Peters
Catherine Willmer as Louise Peters
John Garrie as Inspector Harper
Ian Thompson as Bradshaw
Jenny Lee-Wright as Carol Clayton
Julie Crosthwait as Ellen Mason
Peter Halliday as Psychiatrist
Pyrford Place, West Byfleet, Surrey, England
Twickenham Film Studios, St Margarets, Twickenham, Middlesex, England