Drive-In Dust Offs: ASYLUM (1972)

2018/08/25 12:51:38 +00:00 | Scott Drebit

When it comes to anthologies, no one scratches my omnibus itch better than Amicus. From Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) to (my personal favorite) Tales from the Crypt (1972) through From Beyond the Grave (’74), time and again they served up slivers of ghoulish goodness, succinct and delectable. Asylum (1972) is no different; as a matter of fact, to its advantage it probably has the best wraparound of any horror anthology, which helps set it apart.

Released in the U.K. in July with a rollout stateside by Cinerama Releasing Corporation in November, Asylum did well in its homeland, but fared less with the critics; Roger Ebert’s bizarre (yet humorous) two star review focuses completely on producer (and Amicus co-founder) Max J. Rosenberg’s obsession with coleslaw. Splayed cabbage aside, Asylum holds up as a witty multistory film with a wicked denouement and (as usual) solid work from legendary writer Robert Bloch (The House That Dripped Blood).

Let’s start with that wraparound, shall we? Dr. Martin (Robert Powell – Harlequin) arrives at the Dunsmoor Asylum for the Incurably Insane for a job interview as the head head shrinker. He meets with Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee – Tales from the Crypt), who offers him the position on one condition: the former head, Dr. Starr, has himself been institutionalized. If Martin can identify Starr just by listening to the patients tell their stories, he’ll have the job. And so, Dr. Martin, with guidance from Max the orderly (Geoffrey Bayldon – Casino Royale), sets out to meet the inmates:

First up is Bonnie (Barbara Parkins – The Mephisto Waltz), one of the characters in “Frozen Fear”. It seems Bonnie has been having a fling with Walter (Richard Todd – Bloodbath), much to the disapproval of his rich wife Ruth (Sylvia Syms – Absolute Beginners). Walter’s plan is to murder Ruth, chop her into pieces, and stuff her bits done up in butcher’s wrap in the brand new freezer he’s bought her. He probably shouldn’t have thrown in that voodoo bracelet of Ruth’s though. She’s very attached to it…

Next, Martin pops in to see Bruno (Barry Morse – The Changeling), the title character in “The Weird Tailor”. Bruno, behind in his rent, is gifted one night with a visit from the mysterious Mr. Smith (Peter Cushing – Dracula) who will pay him $200 dollars to make a suit for his son out of a strange, glowing swath of cloth. When Bruno delivers the suit to Smith, he finds the situation ill-fitting…

Then the kindly doctor visits Barbara (Charlotte Rampling – Angel Heart), a kindly young woman who tells of a visit at home when her childhood friend “Lucy Comes to Stay”. Barbara’s brother George (James Villiers – For Your Eyes Only) feels very protective of her, but Lucy has other plans…

Finally, Dr. Martin is introduced to Byron (Herbert Lom – The Dead Zone), an ex-doctor who has a helluva lot of “Mannikins of Horror” in his closet. These creatures of his design, mechanized wind up robots with humanesque faces (including one of himself) are ready to live, according to Byron – he just has to will himself into his own doll; which would really come in handy because Byron has a big old beef with Rutherford to settle…

Truth be told, Asylum does not contain my favorite Amicus tales, but that wraparound, which the fourth story bleeds back into, is an all time keeper. The usual set up for these involves people (dead), a mysterious stranger (Satan) who controls their fate, and a final reveal (they’re in hell! Surprise!). Which is all well and good; it’s what we expect from the pages of EC Comics, and the framing device has always been just that: an excuse to trot out the dirty laundry of some despicable folk, with dire consequences for all involved. Instead, Rosenberg and Amicus co-chair Milton Subotsky add a mystery element that draws you back in after every morsel, looking for clues as to who Dr. Starr really is; this brings a continuity and flow uncommon to most portmanteaus.

As for the stories themselves, I think the bookends of “Frozen Fear” and “Mannikins of Horror” work best; mileage will vary from viewer to viewer, but director Roy Ward Baker (The Vault of Horror) treats each Bloch with equal aplomb and (when needed) reserve. “Lucy Comes to Stay” fits the latter description; the least effective due to a too obvious theme (even for an omnibus, where shorthand isn’t always a virtue), it still plays due to his commitment to the bit, and the performances he gets from his cast.

Cushing and Lom are the marquee players (Magee to an extent as well), but aren’t treated as such; it’s an ensemble piece in every sense of the word, especially as the works weave in and out in an organic way. Through every sentient limb, reanimated corpse and murderous windup, Asylum miraculously holds it together – especially better than its patients.

Asylum is available on Blu-ray from Severin Films.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: STRAIT-JACKET (1964)
Scott Drebit
About the Author - Scott Drebit

Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.