Jim Clark, 1974
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Robert Quarry, Adrienne Corri
In a lot of ways, Madhouse marks the end of an era. A coproduction between American company American International Pictures and British studio Amicus Productions, it didn’t perform particularly well in the box office, possibly because it's a particularly campy blend of comedy and horror, quite divergent from Amicus's portmanteau films or their generally grim, realist-themed features like The Psychopath or What Became of Jack and Jill? It was also one of the very last horror films for both AIP and Amicus. For the latter studio, it came hot on the heels of anthology films Tales That Witness Madness and From Beyond the Grave, and it was followed by just one horror title, The Beast Must Die. It was also Vincent Price’s last horror film until The Monster Club (1981) several years later, though Madhouse is sadly his last starring role in a genre film.
Though somewhat inferior to the similarly themed AIP title Theatre of Blood, Madhouse is a fun film that is lovable despite its faults -- and, at least for me, seems to get better with each viewing. The glorious Price stars as Paul Toombes, an aging actor who stars in a horror film franchise. His character, Dr. Death, is at the height of his popularity and Toombes is about to marry his lovely costar. On the night of their engagement party, his fiancee is murdered. Toombes is suspected, but instead of being formally charged, he is committed to a mental hospital for having a breakdown. Years later, he re-emerges from the hospital and tries to start up his career again, but the murders resume. Has Toombes totally cracked? Or is someone setting him up?
This is a rare Amicus production starring Price and, like most of their films, is entertaining despite its flaws. Admittedly, this feels far more like an AIP production and even lacks the theme of a despicable central character being punished for their transgressions. Though Toombes is so full of himself as to be unlikable, he has really become the unfortunate target of a much more dangerous, homicidal adversary. These themes of paranoia, conspiracy, and narcissism are balanced by some delightfully cheesy moments. Overall, the plot doesn’t go out of its way to make a whole lot of sense, but that hardly matters and there is still a lot to like about the film. There are some beautiful, vividly-colored set pieces (in typical AIP fashion) that manage to be both creepy and campy at the same time. Though light on plot and believability, Madhouse is like a fond farewell to the glory days of Price, AIP, and even Amicus. It has a lot of great moments of meta-theatricality and in-jokes for fans of Price’s earlier horror films, which should endear it to the actor's die-hard fans.
Madhouse also benefits from a great cast. There's an appearance from the sexy Linda Hayden, a young British actress known for her genre work in the '60s and '70s, such as Taste the Blood of Dracula and Blood on Satan’s Claw before she moved onto sex films. There are also great cameos from Peter Cushing as a pathetic writer and Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire) as a sleazy producer. Quarry is even forced to make an appearance in his Count Yorga costume, which is a nice in-joke for genre fans. Scream queen Adrienne Corri (A Clockwork Orange, Vampire Circus) also pops up as a crazy spider lady who lives in a spooky old house and, in my opinion, she's one of the best elements of the film.
Price is fittingly sad as the pathetic, confused Toombes. He clearly doesn't know whether or not he has been committing the murders and this keeps the suspense (and humor) going. There is also a nice twist at the end of the film and Toombes’ attempts to investigate only serve to get him into more trouble. As I mentioned, there are numerous references to Price’s earlier horror films with AIP and some of them are actually shown as clips in place of the Dr. Death films, while others are echoed in the death scenes, all taken from Toombes’ films.
Director Jim Clark was better known as an editor and made his career working on films such as one of Britain’s finest, The Innocents (1961), the Hitchcockian Charade (1963), Bond film The World is Not Enough (1999), and many more. His work here is competent and assured and it's a shame that it was only one of very few films he helmed as a director. Madhouse was loosely based on Devilday (1969), a novel by Angus Hall. In it, Toombes’ character is far more unpleasant and lacks the charming, sympathetic qualities Price brought to the film. While this is more in line with Amicus's themes, I believe I prefer the film as it is, with Toombes ultimately winding up a pathetic, if begrudgingly likable figure who is victimized by a far more sinister force.
Madhouse is available as a single disc split feature with Theatre of Blood and in the same format as part of the MGM Vincent Price Scream Legends box set. It comes recommended, particularly if you want a creepy comfort film light on actual scares, but heavy on the black comedy. I've really come to love this film, primarily because of the outrageous interplay between Price and Cushing -- who have lost none of their vim and vigor by this point and engage in a real battle of scenery chewing -- as well as the colorful side roles by some true '70s horror luminaries.