Madhouse [1974]

Years ago, horror B-movie actor Paul Toombes was accused of having murdered his wife. He was acquitted, but spent time in a mental hospital due to stress. Ostensibly retired, his old friend Herbert Flay has coaxed him back to action to star in a British television series about his most famous character, Dr. Death. But within hours of his arrival, more people associated with him are murdered–and once again, the evidence points to him. Is Paul Toombes really responsible for these murders? And if not, who is–and why?

If the premise of Vincent Price–who plays Toombes–returning from “hiding” to commit a series of themed murders (in this case, the killings emulate the ones Dr. Death carried out in his films) seems a bit familiar, it’s because Madhouse is the fourth film Price made over the space of as many years for AIP, in England, with that same basic setup. (The other three are 1971’s The Ambominable Dr. Phibes, 1972’s Dr. Phibes Rises Again and 1973’s Theatre Of Blood.) Madhouse doesn’t really feel much like its predecessors, for any number of reasons–the biggest difference being that it’s pretty obvious that Toombes isn’t the killer. (I agonized for  a while over whether that constitutes a spoiler, as I don’t know if the filmmakers seriously intended for the audience to believe he was the murderer. If they did, they did a terrible job of it.)

But it’s still hard to escape the feeling that by this point, the creative partnership between Price and AIP was running on fumes. And there are parallels between the plot and real life: just as the Dr. Death show’s producer (played by Robert “Count Yorga” Quarry, also Price’s foil in Phibes Rises) is eager to dispense with Toombes as the star, Sam Arkoff didn’t have any intent on continuing to work with Price after his contract expired (and AIP was grooming Quarry as his successor). In fact, Madhouse is the final movie Price made for Arkoff.

Very little about the plotting and the story is memorable–it’s not bad, per se, but it’s the sort of movie that slides out of your mind a few days after you see it. It also shamelessly recycles footage from earlier Price/AIP projects under the guise of them having been part of the “Dr. Death” series. (Some of this footage also stars Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff, who are credited with “special participation” even though they’d both been dead for several years by 1974.) The attempts by the filmmakers to “fake out” the audience as to the identity of the murderer are also nakedly obvious. (If you were to look at the cast list and make a wild guess about who the killer is, you’d more than likely be right.)

Price himself doesn’t seem fully engaged with the material; he holds back a bit too much and a bit too often. I don’t think he needed to be as over-the-top as Toombes as he was with Anton Phibes or Edward Lionheart, but a bit of hamming seems to be necessary to the character. I also didn’t really buy Toombes’s mental breakdowns, although I’m not entirely sure whether that’s Price’s fault or the screenwriters’.

While I was disappointed with Price’s performance, there were several delightful supporting performances. Peter Cushing (as the affable actor-turned-writer Herbert Flay), Adrienne Corri (of A Clockwork Orange and Vampire Circus, here playing Flay’s unhinged wife) and Quarry (as the slimy agent-turned-producer Oliver Quayle) both routinely steal the show from Price. Natasha Pyne (as Quayle’s PA Julia) and Linda Hayden (as an opportunistic actress) provide the requisite eye candy but also play their characters to the hilt. John Garrie and Ian Thompson play a pair of eccentric Scotland Yard coppers a bit more credible than the ones in the Phibes movies; even though they don’t have much to do in the proceedings, they liven up every scene they’re in. Standing out the most, however, are a couple of minor characters, parents of one of the victims, played by Ellis Dale and Catherine Willmer, who attack their broad comic-relief roles with gusto.

Jim Clark’s direction is competent but largely uninspired, although one scene–an attack that’s intercut with scenes from Toombes’s films and a television interview with the actor–is uncharacteristically bold and suspenseful, and one wonders what the result might have been if Clark had chosen (or been allowed?) to take a few more creative risks. The visual aesthetics–which are always something I look for in an AIP film of this vintage–are more muted and less striking than I’d expected…although this is perhaps unsurprising in  the midst of the “realistic horror” boom, it is a bit unfortunate that the most memorable visuals come from the archive footage.

Don’t get me wrong: for all my criticisms, there’s still a lot to enjoy about Madhouse. (Although there isn’t a madhouse anywhere in the film. Frowny face!) And it certainly isn’t the worst film Price ever made for AIP, or even at all. But it could have been a bit better, and it’s a shame that the relationship between the actor and the production company ended on something of a bum note.

My rating: 5 of 10.

91 minutes. Directed by Jim Clark. Starring Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Robert Quarry, Adrienne Corri, Natasha Pyne, “with special participation” by Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone.MADHOUSE poster

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