Asylum seems to split popular opinion right down the middle. Depending on who you talk to, or what you read, it’s either film company Amicus’s greatest masterpiece or their dullest folly. There doesn’t seem to be any halfway house. Quite what it’s done to deserve anyone’s wrath is beyond this humble reviewer – as far as I can see, not only is Asylum a flawless example of an Amicus compendium, but it’s also a pretty top-notch example of a British horror film as well – with laughs, scares and enough action to keep any viewer glued to their seats from the moment Robert Powell turns up in his funky orange MGB GT and groovy sunglasses to the point where his successor arrives in his grey Mini and paedophile specs.
Compared to the other Amicus anthologies, which can be patchy, to say the least, Asylum has it all. Great stories, a wonderful cast and, most importantly, an actual, sensible(ish) linking story which (almost) makes sense. No fortune tellers, empty houses, broken lifts or careless tour guides here. Instead you’ve got a “hero” who has a reason to be where he is, and a reason to listen to the stories, and even the stories have a reason to be scary (it’s up to you to decide whether they’re all true or just made up by a bunch of nutcases).
Dr Martin (Powell) has been invited to the asylum of the title to be interviewed for a doctor’s job. Things are looking promising, but rather than just checking out his CV and phoning a few of his references, his prospective boss Dr Rutherford (Patrick Magee, who seemed to get typecast as a doctor in the early 70s, despite looking more like a particularly unsavoury patient) has other things in mind. After revealing that the place is “an asylum for the incurably insane”, Rutherford explains why he’s in a wheelchair (“Never turn your back on a patient”) and then reveals that his associate, Dr Starr, has jumped psychiatrist ship and joined the mentalist ranks housed in the rooms upstairs. Starr has taken on a dual personality.
“If you can recognise who is - or was - Dr Starr, I’ll consider you for the position,” growls Rutherford.
Martin makes his way into the bowels of the hospital past a series of lithograph prints depicting old methods of mental healthcare, that get more bizarre the further he goes.
He’s greeted by “Max Reynolds” (Geoffrey Bayldon) the orderly, who shows him to the first of the four patients he must interview, a girl called Bonnie, and the fun begins in earnest...
Bonnie (Barbara Parkins) is having an affair with a Walter (Richard Todd), a middle-aged man with a predilection for tight fitting shirts and floral scarves. Walter’s wife Ruth (Sylvia Sims) is “taking voodoo lessons from a black charlatan” (like the ones you can sign up for at your local village hall), and what’s more, she’s refusing him a divorce. Walter wants Ruth’s money, but Ruth has other ideas. “You are mine,” she tells him, “and I’ll never let you go”.
However, he soon lives to regret that bit of levity, and has to raise an eyebrow when the head, still wrapped in paper, follows him back upstairs. When he goes to check the freezer again, he sticks his head right in so a hand can reach up and grab him...
Soon, Bonnie arrives, and in one of those moments you only get in this kind of film, goes straight to the basement to look in the freezer. Of course, her beloved’s in there, and it’s not long before she’s being menaced by sundry body parts - including a still-breathing head, a waddling torso and a comedy leg. She attacks them with the axe, but makes the mistake at having a go at the hand which grabs her face...
Back in the “real” world, Bonnie reveals her face to Dr Martin – it is hideously mutilated. Reynolds hurries him along to his next patient, Bruno, who’s busy making imaginary clothes in his room.
The Weird Tailor
Bruno (Barry “Space 1999” Morse) is an anachronistically old-fashioned tailor who appears to have stepped out of a Dickens novel (via the Dick Van Dyke school of comedy accents). He’s also broke and needs to pay the rent. Enter Mr Smith (Peter Cushing), who appears to be the answer to the cash-strapped tailor’s prayers with his request for Bruno to make an expensive suit for his son out of shiny disco material. However, there are stipulations - Bruno can only work on the suit after midnight. “I happen to believe in astrology... there must be no mistake,” explains Smith.
Bruno starts to work on the suit, and immediately breaks the rules about when he can work – although the second he goes past the astrologically imposed deadline, he spikes his finger on the needle. The blood seeps onto the material and disappears. He decides not to make that mistake again.
Bruno finishes the suit and takes it round to Smith, who turns out to be quite bonkers. He was rich once, but is now broke, having spent all his money on a book which details how this very suit will bring his extremely dead son back to life.
Bruno, understandably aggrieved at the man’s bare-faced cheek, refused to hand over his work, but Mr Smith produces a gun. “You can’t stop me now... no-one can stop me now!” he screams. “Give me that suit!”
There’s a struggle, and Smith gets shot. Back at the shop Bruno explains to his wife what has happened, and tells her to burn the suit. Instead, she puts it on the dummy in the shop window, and the life which should have been given to Smith’s son is breathed into the mannequin, which sets off on a murderous spree…
Martin is moved on again, into a room where a sane-looking Barbara (Charlotte Rampling) is waiting. She might look normal, but she’s hiding a dark secret etcetera…
Lucy Comes To Stay
Barbara arrives home with her slimy brother (James “Typecast” Villiers) after a period in the nuthouse. However, it’s not long before her friend Lucy (a swinging Britt Ekland) puts in an appearance, and stabs both Babs’ brother and her nurse to death. “I say…” she exclaims. “This is a lark, isn’t it? There, Barbara, now you’re free. Free of all of them.”
Once again, Martin’s on the move. This time to a patient who also happens to be a doctor. Could this be the elusive Doctor Starr? Well, no. That would be too obvious.
Mannequins Of Horror
This patient, Doctor Byron (Herbert Lom) sits in his room making strange little people. “These are not ordinary figures,” he explains. And he’s not kidding. Even by Amicus budget standards, his miniature robots aren’t what you’d call “cutting edge”. But perhaps that’s the point.
“You talk about them as if they’re alive,” says Martin.
“That’s the final step,” Byron replies.
He reckons they are perfect replicas of the human form (providing the human form is silver and square shaped) and that all he has to do is “will” them into existence.
Powell makes his excuses and leaves. Whilst he undergoes the formality of his final interview with Doctor Rutherford, upstairs Byron sits and stares at the mannequin which bears his own face. The mannequin springs (slowly) to life, makes its way (slowly) downstairs and stabs Rutherford (slowly) in the back of the neck with a scalpel (it has to be said that even with a fair amount of willing suspension of disbelief, the idea that this rubbish little clockwork toy could make it further than Byron’s door in the space of an evening is pushing it somewhat). An astonished Powell catches the mini psychopath as it trundles off on the lam (rather exposing the major flaw in Byron’s plan) and stamps on it, revealing that its little metal torso is packed full of blood and guts. He hurries back to Byron’s room to find that Byron has been crushed too, and when he runs past Max Reynolds into the orderlies’ office to phone for the police, he finds yet another corpse, leading him to discover the biggest secret of all.
Asylum is a fantastic film, which is in no small part due to its stunning ending, with Doctor Starr’s final reveal being a particularly nifty unexpected twist. It’s a film about playing God, and bringing life to inanimate objects (Ruth’s body parts, the tailor’s dummy, Byron’s mannequins, Britt Ekland), with writer Robert Bloch playing with the “be careful what you wish for” motif to great effect. The tagline for the film was “Come to the Asylum… to get killed”, which is, frankly, rubbish. A far better one might have been: “Don’t muck about with fate, because it’ll come back and twat you one with a sharp instrument”.
Updated: February 10, 2010
Not only does Asylum deserve an extra special amount of pages devoted to it on the site, but it has its fair share of classic sound bites too. Listen in wonder to Peter Cushing's powerhouse performance as Mr Smith, Patrick Magee's dodgy voice as Dr Rutherford, some casual racism and Geoffrey Bayldon's mad laughter.
Even Britt Eckland's performance as the scissor-wielding Lucy doesn't sound too bad.
Unfortunately, there aren't any sounds from Mannequins Of Horror, mainly because no bugger says much in it. Even Herbert Lom.
The Weird Tailor
(Listen to the anguish in Cushing's voice when he says "It's for my son")
Lucy Comes To Stay
Manic giggling 87k
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All photos, posters, sounds and videos are reproduced in good faith with the sole intention of promoting these films. Why should I be the only one to suffer watching them? If any film makers feel particularly strongly about abuse of copyright on the site, they obviously haven't got anything better to do. You could try Watchdog, but frankly, I think they've got bigger fish to fry...