Asylum Review

This is the first of three reviews of films from the Anchor Bay Amicus Collection which will be uploaded today. I have not included any comments about the packaging or the booklet in these reviews but will be covering this in an overall summing up to be posted after the last review

By 1972, Amicus were well into their stride as a low-budget competitor to Hammer Studios. The longer-standing studio was having serious problems by this point and were thrashing about in all directions in the hope of finding an audience. Amicus, in contrast, carried on doing much the same thing they had been doing since the mid-sixties and still had some tricks up their sleeve. Somewhat surprisingly, two of their later anthology movies were among their best – 1973’s From Beyond The Grave and Asylum.

The film has a slightly stronger framing device than usual. I say that not because the narrative here is especially good but because the devices used in some of the other Amicus films – notably the dire Vault of Horror - are so weak. The setting is Dunsmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane where the young Dr Martin (Powell) has come to be interviewed for a job. He expects to be met by the leading practitioner Dr Starr but is greeted instead by Starr’s deputy Dr Rutherford (Magee). Rutherford explains that Dr Starr has been confined to the secure cells having gone completely bonkers some days before. Dr Martin, eager to get the job, receives an offer he can’t refuse – speak to four patients and decide which one of them is Dr Starr. If he chooses correctly, he gets the position.

This sets up the film rather nicely, assisted by strong performances from Powell and the idiosyncratic Patrick Magee. There is also a nice supporting turn from Geoffrey Bayldon as Max, the eminently helpful orderly. The quality of the stories is generally good although the second one is a big disappointment.

Frozen Fear

A rip-roaring opener, this story is a revenge plot worthy of EC comics in their heyday. Richard Todd plays, very amusingly, a cheating husband who has come up with an ingenious way of getting rid of his wife (Syms) so that he can go off with his American mistress (Parkins). The wife is duly disposed of, chopped up and placed in the new freezer, but her husband discovers that the spiritual necklace she bought might have stronger powers than he had considered possible.

OK, so it’s very easy to make fun of the deliciously low-budget special effects which come towards the end of this story. It’s even easier to make fun of Barbara Parkins attempts at what might pass for acting if she were a bit better at it. But the pace which Roy Ward Baker brings to the tale, the snappy dialogue and the splendidly caddish performance of Richard Todd make this one of the best stories in the Amicus canon. Although the anthology films are not exactly famous for being scary, there is a great ‘jump’ moment contained in this story which is bound to get a first time viewer. There’s also a cruelty which is, again, a lot more reminiscent of EC comics than Robert Bloch’s own work. As for Todd’s one-liner, after he has finished packing his wife into the freezer, it’s so bloody brilliant that I won’t spoil it for you. The main disappointment here, apart from Ms. Parkins, is that Denys Coop’s lighting is so TV-movie flat. The awful 1972 furnishings of the house don’t help – I swear that this house must be next door to the monstrosity which Terry-Thomas inhabits in Vault of Horror.

The Weird Tailor

The least interesting story in the film and, not coincidentally, the longest, this is crippled by miscasting and an apparent inability to find a tone which suits the material. The story concerns a poverty-stricken Jewish tailor (Morse) who is approached by a mysterious stranger (Cushing), who asks him to make a suit for his son. Not an unusual request in itself but it becomes increasingly peculiar when the stranger insists that the suit is made from an unusual fluorescent material and that it is only worked upon during the hours of darkness. The tailor duly produces the suit and delivers it, only to discover that the true nature of the stranger’s request is even more bizarre than he had imagined.

The story itself isn’t too bad and is, in fact, one of the better pieces in Robert Bloch’s collection The Skull of the Marquis De Sade. But in the original story, the tailor is a mean bastard and not the self-pitying schmuck presented here and this renders the second half of the tale more satisfying. In this film adaptation, the casting of Barry Morse kills the interest. It’s not that Morse is a bad actor, more that he is a very obvious and unsubtle one, and the character he creates is neither sympathetic nor nasty enough to deserve his fate. Peter Cushing is typically excellent – you would expect no less – but the strength of his performance unbalances the story and confuses our sympathies. Some derisory comments have been made about the special effects at the conclusion of the story but they’re not really all that bad – not by Amicus standards at least. On a positive note, Denys Coop’s cinematography is excellent throughout, creating some very atmospheric moments.

Lucy Came To Stay

Recovering from a nervous breakdown, Barbara (Rampling) returns to her family home where she stays with her brother George (Villiers) and Nurse Higgins (Megs Jenkins). She despairs of finding company until she is delighted to discover that Lucy (Ekland), her oldest friend, has managed to get into the house. Lucy explains to that her brother and the nurse are trying to imprison her and that urgent steps must be taken if she is ever to regain her freedom.

Although the twist at the end of this story is pretty obvious to anyone who pays attention, this is a well directed and cleverly written episode. Charlotte Rampling gives an excellent performance, conveying desperation with heart-rending intensity. It’s a shame that Britt Ekland is so dismal in the role of Lucy. I can’t personally recall Ekland ever giving a good performance but I’m sure one of you will correct me if I’m wrong. There’s something about the way she reads her lines that suggests they’ve been written with the sole purpose of trying to confuse her. It wouldn’t matter in other circumstances but in a pivotal role like this it’s almost disastrous. Luckily, Rampling is good enough to save the day. The revelation of the twist is beautifully done as well, even though you will have worked it out by the time it comes.

Mannikins of Horror

Another good episode this one, although that’s got more to do with the actors and the direction than the writing. Herbert Lom plays Dr Byron, a surgeon who has become fascinated with the creation of small mannikins which contain real human organs. Byron believes that he can breathe his own consciousness into the dolls and this bring them to life. The story is concerned with what happens when Byron decides to get his revenge on the asylum which keeps him confined.

Interestingly, this story becomes entangled with the framing story in a way which is quite unusual for the otherwise quite schematic Amicus framework. This allows for some mildly intriguing debates about the purpose of asylums and the different methods adopted for treating patients. Herbert Lom is a major plus here of course, managing to make Byron unhinged without reminding you too much of his Inspector Dreyfuss character from the Pink Panther movies. Low-budget horror fans will be delighted by the deliriously silly animation of the dolls although, to be fair, it’s hard to think how they could look any more sensible.

The film concludes with the unmasking of Dr Starr and I have to confess that when I first saw the film in the 1970s I was pretty surprised by the revelation. Whether anyone else will be fooled is another matter. Mind you, it does allow for a marvellous final moment which is bound to raise a chuckle and, perhaps, a slight shiver. I don’t think that Asylum is the best of the Amicus anthology films, largely because of the weakness of the second story. But it’s well directed and written with an edge of wit that is characteristic of Robert Bloch. Fans of this sort of thing will have a great time and there is enough going on to make this worth a look for anyone who likes British horror and has a sense of humour.

The Disc

Asylum has been released in the UK previously by the egregious VIPCO on a disc which was of such poor picture quality as to be virtually unwatchable. This new Anchor Bay release, available only as part of the limited edition boxset, is a considerable improvement,

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. I can’t imagine any fan of the film being disappointed by the way it looks on this release. I’ve never seen it look as good as it does here. The colours are excellent and there is no problem with grain. A small amount of artifacting is visible here and there and the image occasionally looks a little softer than I would have liked, but these are small quibbles. Considering the age of the film, this is an impressive transfer.

There are three soundtrack options, the same which we have become used to on Anchor Bay’s discs. You have the choice of the original Mono, a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix or a DTS 5.1 remix. I have to say that I liked the original Mono best since it sounded more natural to these ears. However, the 5.1 and DTS remixes broaden the soundstage and, naturally, offer improved fidelity. I couldn’t hear much difference between the two artificially created tracks, although the DTS one is slightly crisper and the music comes across a little more strongly. Each viewer will no doubt have their own preference and it’s nice to have the original Mono included as an option for those of us who like to hear a film as it was originally made.

There are a couple of substantial extras included on this disc, along with some interesting film notes, biographies and an engaging stills gallery. We get a 23 minute documentary called “Inside The Fear Factory” which deals with the history of Amicus in a somewhat superficial but entertaining manner. Central to this featurette are interviews with a very aged Max J.Rosenberg, Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker. All concerned are worth listening to although there’s not much here which will come as a surprise to anyone who knows about the company. For something really meaty, we have to turn to the commentary which features Roy Ward Baker and camera operator Neil Binney, moderated by Marcus Hearn. Hearn is a very good interviewer who draws out lots of informative comments from the two men and ensures that there aren’t too many dead spots. Some of Hearn’s own insights are fascinating as well. I enjoyed this track very much, especially for the technical perspective offered by the camera operator, someone from whom one rarely hears despite the importance of his job on the film.

The film is divided into 18 chapter stops. Once again, no subtitles are offered for either the film or the special features. As I’ve said before, this shows a complete disregard for people who are hard of hearing and I really do wish Anchor Bay would consider changing their policy in this regard.

Asylum is a good example of the anthology format and has aged rather well. This DVD release contains a very nice presentation of the film and some useful, informative extras.

7 out of 10
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