VHS Revival returns to the wonderful realms of horror anthology with Roy Ward Baker’s 1972 classic Asylum
From Italian maestro Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath to the traditional Japanese folktale terrors of Masaki Kobayshi’s Kwaidan, or George A. Romero’s distinctly American Creepshow, the portmanteau format has proven popular in horror cinema from around the world. Usually consisting of a handful of short films loosely linked by a ‘wraparound’ story, the subgenre was arguably inaugurated by the British studio Ealing with their 1945 compendium Dead Of Night. However, the multi-story horror movie is probably most closely associated with another independent UK-based production company: Amicus. The company, set up by Americans Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg in an attempt to rival Hammer’s successes, made several classic portmanteaus including Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and From Beyond the Grave. To my mind however, their finest effort in the field is Roy Ward Baker’s 1972 Asylum, which turns fifty this July.
Promoted with the frankly deranged tagline “Come to the Asylum…to get killed,” the film’s screenplay is by the US author Robert Bloch. Although undeniably best known for his 1959 novel Psycho, Bloch had an extraordinarily prolific career, writing over thirty books and one hundred short stories, ranging from science fiction to horror to crime, as well as scripting episodes of various TV series including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the original Star Trek. Asylum was his fifth screenplay for Amicus, having previously penned the portmanteaus Torture Garden and The House that Dripped Blood, as well as the features The Psychopath and The Deadly Bees. (Although 1965’s The Skull was based on one of the writer’s old short stories, it was actually scripted by Subotsky.)
Bloch’s four stories are encased in an unusually ingenious and coherent wraparound tale (often the most forced and awkward element of the subgenre). The youthful, idealistic Dr Martin (Robert Powell) has arrived at Dunsmoor Asylum to be interviewed for the position of senior houseman. Expecting to meet a Dr Starr, he is instead questioned by Starr’s associate, Dr Rutherford (Patrick Magee). A somewhat hard, cynical man, Rutherford is contemptuous of Martin’s inexperience and optimism, cautioning him that the patients at Dunsmoor “can’t be cured; they can only be confined…We’re a long way from Harley Street here.” It transpires that the absent Dr Starr has suffered some kind of psychotic breakdown and become a patient in their own institution, taking on a whole new personality. Rutherford issues Martin (and the viewer) with an irresistible challenge: meet the inmates and decide which is or was Starr. If Martin guesses correctly, the job will be his. With the orderly Max (Geoffrey Bayldon) as his avuncular guide, the plot follows Martin as he meets the patients in turn, all of whom have their own singular stories to tell.
While it is fair to say that Asylum does not showcase a particularly sensitive or enlightened attitude towards mental illness, it does take its own game-playing approach satisfyingly seriously, resisting the urge to include the comic relief story common in many other examples of the format. Although probably chosen largely due to its proximity to Amicus’ Shepperton Studios home, New Lodge in Winkfield, Berkshire makes a suitably imposing exterior for Dunsmoor. The interior décor matches its foreboding façade, not least the series of unsettling etchings Martin passes as he ascends to the ward (though hopefully no real institution would display such disturbing images for their visitors!). The art direction and set dressing by Tony Curtis and Fred Carter is superb given its thrifty budget, creating a distinctive look for each tale, while Douglas Gamley’s score mixes his own eerie soundscapes with obvious but highly evocative selections from Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition. Hammer and Amicus stalwart Roy Ward Baker takes a steady directorial hand to proceedings, largely favouring psychological chills over explicit gore, without skimping too much on the more bizarre and grisly aspects of the film.
The first story, ‘Frozen Fear,’ is perhaps the closest in tone to the classic E.C. comics which inspired Amicus’ Tales From the Crypt, released earlier the same year. The Crypt-Keeper’s darkly humorous tales are full of obnoxious characters getting their just desserts for their wicked deeds, and Asylum’s opener cleaves closely to this mould. Dunsmoor inmate Bonnie (Barbara Parkins) relates her murderous affair with middle-aged cad Walter (Richard Todd), and the disastrous consequences of their plan to kill his wealthy wife Ruth (Sylvia Syms). The script sets up both the dysfunctional marriage dynamic and the crucial Voodoo elements with sharp-eyed economy, skilfully working some potentially clunky exposition into just a few barbed lines, assisted by the assured performances of Todd and Syms. The eventual revenge is handled with a pleasing mix of ghoulish mischief and visceral horror. Presumably adopted to avoid the limitations of both censorship and budget, the decision to have Walter wrap his disembodied wife in brown parcel paper proves inspired (if impractical in terms of a realistic crime); the sound of crackling paper becomes deliciously sinister, and the sight of the parcel-wrapped head breathing is memorably surreal and grotesque.
‘The Weird Tailor,’ the story of a strange supernatural suit, contrasts sharply with the opener. Where the first tale was set in a bright, modern, well-to-do 1970s home, everything here is dim and dingy, long past its best. The lead characters are tragic, driven to their fates by despair and cruel circumstance rather than any inherent greed or evil. Tellingly, the most unlikable figure, the heartless landlord Mr Stebbins (John Franklyn-Robbins), emerges unscathed – just desserts are no longer on the menu. Barry Morse turns in an affecting performance as the downtrodden tailor Bruno, matched by Peter Cushing as his mysterious, grieving customer Mr Smith, and Ann Firbank as Bruno’s lonely wife Anna. The outstanding leads invest the story with a biting sense of sadness, helping to balance its outlandishly bizarre aspects with a surprisingly strong emotional punch. Even ‘Otto’ (Daniel Johns), the shop-window dummy, achieves a certain pathos by the end, condemned to forever wander the city streets, purposeless and utterly alone in his monstrous animation.
According to the writer David J Schow, interviewed for the 2019 Second Sight UK Blu-ray release, Bloch originally wanted the third instalment, ‘Lucy Comes to Stay,’ to open the film, feeling that its stealthy menace would draw the audience in gradually, allowing the more aggressive horror to increase story by story; Amicus favoured the more gruesome assault of ‘Frozen Fear’ first and overruled the writer. Regardless, I think the third tale’s change of pace works well, adding a refreshing unpredictability to the film’s tone. A more slow-burning psychological chiller, it tells the story of Barbara (Charlotte Rampling), a troubled young woman returning from hospital to the home she shares with her older brother George (James Villiers), only to be disturbed by the return of her mysterious friend Lucy (Britt Ekland). It has several striking parallels with Bloch’s Psycho: like Norman Bates, both Barbara and George seem stuck in a kind of unnaturally extended childhood, still living at the isolated family house long after their parents are gone; there are two murders, with the second occurring at the head of the stairs; and appearances prove not only deceptive but delusional. Rampling’s Barbara is both sympathetic and unsettling, her saturnine face expressing dark depths and contrastingly effectively with Ekland’s smiling, confident Lucy. The sinister dynamic between them is intriguing and well-played, even if the eventual twist is relatively easy to foresee.
The final tale ‘Mannikins of Horror’ initially appears surprisingly brief, before it dovetails neatly into the wraparound story and sets the horrifying conclusion in motion. Herbert Lom brings an erudite, cultured quality to the role of Dr Byron, making his convictions and his sudden rages all the more unnerving. His ‘creation,’ which could easily have looked laughable, takes on a truly nightmarish quality as it shuffles inexorably towards its victim. As in ‘Frozen Fear’ and ‘The Weird Tailor,’ the sheer oddness of the narrative works beautifully with the slightly clumsy special effects to strike exactly the right uncanny note, the low budget turning into an accidental strength, a triumph almost in spite of itself.
While I think it would probably be a stretch to assign any profound overarching meaning to the four stories beyond their intention to frighten and entertain, they do share common themes, concerning fractured family units under strain and patriarchal legacies. Ruth in ‘Frozen Fear’ has inherited her wealth from her deceased father, a former British governor-general in Africa. Her husband’s plan to violently annul their dysfunctional marriage is foiled by his sneering disbelief in the protective powers of her anawanga bracelet – a direct link to her father’s colonial past, gifted to her by a further paternal figure, the unseen spiritual leader Professor Kalanga. In ‘The Weird Tailor,’ Mr Smith, who appears to be the only living member left of his family, fails in his desperate quest to revive his son. Instead, he inadvertently bequeaths a monstrous offspring to the apparently childless Bruno and Anna in the form of Otto (who promptly attacks his ‘father’). The deceased patriarch in ‘Lucy Comes to Stay’ has overlooked his eldest son and left his wealth to the younger Barbara. This directly fuels her suspicion that her sibling is imprisoning her in their childhood home for his own gain, with Lucy embodying her desire to escape from her brother’s repressively paternal attentions. Lastly, the conflict between Dr Byron and Dr Rutherford in ‘Mannikins of Horror’ could be interpreted as a battle for control between opposing ‘fathers’ of the institution. Both are rejected by the junior Dr Martin, only for him to be deposed by the elusive figure of Dr Starr, claiming final control of the Dunsmoor Asylum ‘family.’
Although the final revelation may seem predictable to some, the reveal remains satisfyingly chilling, with Starr’s breaking of the fourth wall leaving the viewer queasily complicit in the film’s macabre games. Armed with a top-quality cast playing it admirably straight, strong design and direction, and memorably strange tales from Bloch, Asylum stands as an almost perfect showcase of the classic portmanteau style and of the Amicus era itself, hitting the sweet spot between the playfully ghoulish and the seriously unsettling with style and intelligence. Just don’t forget to close the door before watching – it keeps out the draft, as Dr Starr used to say…