Madhouse (1974)

"If stark terror were ecstasy…" claims the slightly over-the-top poster for this little gem, " here would be sheer bliss!"

Not quite sure what they were getting at with that little tag line, but although Madhouse doesn't really have a great deal of terror, there are a few blissful moments - not least of which is one of the few chances British horror cinema actually gave stars Cushing and Price to interact.

Price is horror movie star Paul Toombs (get it?) and Cushing is his writer. Together they've created a film franchise based around the exploits of a certain Dr Death (played by Toombs, being played by Price - keep up) - a psychopath in skull-like face paint, whose raison d'etre is pretty much glossed over throughout the film. He's a nutter, that's probably all you need to know.

Madhouse begins with Toombs celebrating the fifth Dr Death film with a party, when he also announces his forthcoming marriage to a busty blonde. However, things go immediately pear-shaped when slimeball director Robert Quarry arrives on the scene, introducing himself by sensitively revealing to the star that his bride-to-be used to get 'em out in porn films.

Toombs understandably chucks a mental at this, and his fiancée runs off crying. She's immediately attacked by a nutter wearing black gloves, and when Toombs eventually goes to find her an apologise, he discovers she's lost her head (literally).

This leads to a mental breakdown from Toombs, who, when asked whether he did it by a doctor, replies, "I… don't… know…"

Cut to the present day, and we find Quarry determined to lure Toombs back to England to star in a new series of Dr Death films. "There's a new cult today for Dr Death… and I've got him. I have got Dr Death!" he exclaims in the kind of hammy way Quarry does so well.

Meanwhile, Toombs is on his way (by boat). He wakes up to find a young girl (Linda Hayden) has somehow managed to get into his cabin, and leaps up, revealing a rather fetching pair of pink jim-jams. She's an aspiring starlet, and reckons the quickest way to get into films would be to latch onto an ageing mental case with a history of alleged violence towards women. Young girls, eh?

"Miss Peters," Toombs warns her. "As they say in horror movies, you will come to a bad end…"

Giving her short shrift on arrival in port, Toombs goes to Cushing's house, where he is welcomed back with open arms.

"You have been living in the coffin of the past… or the Toombs of the past… for years," Cushing tells him. "Paul, I brought you here to bring you back to life."

But Toombs reveals that he's not altogether happy about resurrecting his greatest creation. "He terrifies me. I'm terrified of what he's done, and I'm terrified of what he still may do…"

And it's not long before Dr Death (or someone pretending to be him, we suspect) is up to his old tricks - Hayden has followed Price to Cushing's house, and soon ends up with a pitchfork through the throat for her trouble. Meanwhile Price has heard strange noises from the cellar, and investigates only to find a bald Adrienne Corri down there, mucking about with spiders. She's Cushing's wife, and once starred with Price in a Dr Death film. She explains she was once pretty, before she started having affairs and got badly burned in a car fire that was somehow related to her philandering ways.

Hayden's body is found, and the police re-open their investigation into the deaths surrounding Toombs (which seems to consist of them watching old movies on a Super 8 projector - nice work if you can get it). Price is also re-introduced to Quarry.

"I don't make that cheap crap any more, I'm in television," Quarry explains.

"I thought television was a family medium," replies Price. Ho, ho ,ho.

Price ends up agreeing to the new Dr Death television series, but it immediately doesn't live up to his expectations.

As more deaths occur (one in a gym, a double-impaling on a sword, a marvellous bone-crushing four poster bed), Toombs begins to fear that perhaps he is the murderer, actually telling police: "Is it me? I don't know. Do you?" and then rather brilliantly finishing this little almost-confession with "You can't keep me here, you know!"

Madhouse is top-notch 70s nonsense, with everyone hamming it up for the cameras. Price is endearingly nutty throughout the film, although it's hard to see how this dreadfully over-the-top old luvvy can be the same person who made Witchfinder General - especially during his delivery of the line: "Now I must play the final scene… the death of Dr Death!"

There are some lovely cameos by the likes of Hayden, and most bizarrely, Michael Parkinson ("Who's he?" asks Toombs) nearly 20 years before he really scared the crap out of everyone in Ghostwatch. And in a true piece of cheapo moviemaking, Madhouse claims to star both Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff - although they get round this by showing clips from Toombs' (ie Price's) back catalogue of films, including Masque Of The Red Death and The Raven.

There's also some suitably bizarre touches - Price insists on carrying a full candelabra to light his way around the house (come to think of it - mid 1970s - power cuts), and you've got to love any film being made within a film which has full working props (the bed which crushes the unfortunate studio worker to death). There's also those final scenes - with a character actually stepping out of the cinema screen, and the ultimate in Brit horror crossovers, Cushing and Price appearing on-screen in the same place at the same time. Don't believe me? It's a cracker. As is Madhouse itself, in all its not-scary, camp deliciousness.

Last updated: February 24, 2010

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Madhouse 1974

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