Asylum

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Year: 1972
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Writer: Robert Bloch
Starring: Peter Cushing, Herbert Lom, Robert Powell, Patrick Magee, Geoffery Bayldon, Barbara Parkins, Charlotte Rampling, Britt Ekland, Barry Morse

I think it’s a disgrace. This institution, the way it’s run, everything about it.

Like I had mentioned in the Monster Club review I am addicted to the portmanteau film style, especially those released by the Amicus studios in the 1960’s through the 1970’s. This film like Monster Club is also directed by Roy Ward Baker but his screenplay writer is none other than Robert Bloch, most famous for writing the novel, Psycho. Though a little research shows that he penned a few episodes of the original Star Trek, and the Boris Karloff hosted Thriller (Still can’t find that series on DVD locally). Bloch adapted four of his own tales, Frozen Fear, The Weird Tailor, Lucy Comes to Stay, and Mannikins of Horror for the film and included a framing story for them.

As we begin the movie we are introduced to Dr. Martin (Powell) as he drives through the English countryside to his destination, the Dunsmoor Institute for the Incurably Insane, you actually learn the full name of the asylum in the director’s commentary. All the while Night on Bald Mountain is thundering through the opening credits. It would seem that Dr. Martin is indeed expected as when he knocks on the door he is lead by a nurse to the head doctor’s office. Upon entering the office we meet a wheelchair bound Dr. Lionel Rutherford (Magee) who Martin mistakes upon first meeting as Dr. Starr, the man who asked him to come and interview for the senior houseman position on the staff. Dr. Rutherford informs him that he is head doctor. Dr. Rutherford insultingly tells the young man, “I’ve read your report…but it doesn’t tell me what I need to know. Your background qualifies you to set up a fashionable psychiatric practice. To hold wealthy old ladies by the hand as they tell you about their horrible husbands. But we are long way from Harley (possibly Hawley) Street out here…this is an asylum for the incurably insane.” Dr. Martin advises that if he is being warned about the dangers of mental patients, Dr. Rutherford needn’t worry as he has dealt with such in his training. Dr. Rutherford inquires by what methods he has done so and the younger man responds, “Kindness, understanding…insight.” Dr. Rutherford agrees those were his method as well when he was a younger man but now he is not so sure, he is quite positive that the inmates above in the asylum cannot be cured but merely confined. Dr. Starr it turns out is upstairs as well, which Dr. Martin asks if he is with a patient, and the older man informs him that the doctor is a patient. Dr. Starr had attacked Dr. Rutherford a few days ago without warning and thanks to the aid of an orderly and nurse was transferred to a ‘room’ upstairs. The older man is unable to travel upstairs due to the wheelchair but the orderly gives him regular reports on the inmates and Dr. Starr’s condition, who is rational now but a new personality has taken over, with its own name and its own life story. As part of a test to see if he will get the position, Dr. Rutherford tasks Dr. Martin to speak with the four inmates upstairs to see if he can deduce which is Dr. B. Starr, when Dr. Martin responds that he’ll have no problem figuring out who he is, Dr. Rutherford states he never said Dr. Starr was a man. He uses his intercom to inform the orderly, Max Reynolds (Bayldon), that the young man is going upstairs and he is to escort him to each guest but to give no clue as to which of them is Dr. B. Starr.

As Dr. Martin climbs a staircase up to the second floor he pauses to look at the collection of rather disturbing illustrations detailing a 19th century incarceration of a man to a mental asylum. He is met by the jovial Reynolds and directed to the first patient…

Bonnie (Parkins) faces the windows, singing to herself as she plays with her hair. Reynolds introduces the young doctor to her but she makes no attempt to turn and face him, dreamily asking to be left alone. When Dr. Martin explains he only wants to speak with her she responds that people like him ever do is talk, the young man replies he also can listen. Bonnie says he will not believe her story but she’ll tell him her tale anyway. We are then introduced to Walter who is talking to Bonnie on the telephone, it seems that they have concocted a plan to do away with his wealthy wife, Ruth. His wife returns home from meeting with her spiritual leader, a Voodoo priest, who has given her a bracelet to protect her from harm. It is pretty evident with the way they speak to each other that Walter and Ruth do not have the most ideal of marriages. We even learn that Walter had been caught cheating with Bonnie, who he tells Ruth that he has never seen again nor shall he. Ruth doesn’t seem to really buy that but Walter changes the subject by telling her he has a surprise for his wife, he leads her into the basement and proudly reveals a deep freezer. Something that Ruth says she has wanted, Walter picks this time to reveal another surprise…a hatchet. Too bad about that bracelet, it would seem that the protection didn’t quite work…or has it? End of spoilers for this tale.

After leaving Bonnie’s room, Dr. Martin is guided to the next door where Bruno (Morse) resides. As the young doctor enters we can see that Bruno is sewing some imaginary needle and thread a suit or perhaps a dress. By the way, Morse does an incredible job of miming this bit, it really does look like he is threading something. Reynolds introduces the young doctor to Bruno and when he inquires if perhaps he is working on a surgical gown the man replies he can make the young man whatever he might wish…it could be a surgical gown or a shroud. When Dr. Martin mentions that a doctor can stitch, Bruno merely says he is a tailor and has always been such. As he tells his tale we see Bruno working in his tailoring shop, it looks as if it has seen better days. The landlord arrives for the month’s rent and though the tailor promises he will make him a fashionable suit in exchange for the month’s rent, the landlord rudely says he wouldn’t take a suit from him anyway. He gives Bruno until the end of the week or he must vacate the shop where he and his wife, Anna, have lived for so many years. Luckily for Bruno, a stranger then arrives. Mr. Smith (Cushing) commissions the tailor to construct a suit, made of a special fabric that constantly glows a myriad of colors. Bruno must also follow the directions that Mr. Smith has written to the letter, the suit must only be worked on after midnight and the work must cease by five in the morning. Bruno is very relieved when Mr. Smith tells him that he’ll pay four hundred pounds for the work. The tailor agrees and sets to work on the suit that evening after midnight, deciding to push it past the five am stopping point, Bruno jabs himself sharply with his needle causing blood to drip on the fabric…he looks on it in fear as the blood vanishes into the fabric. End of spoilers for this tale.

Upon leaving Bruno, Reynolds escorts the young doctor to meet Barbara (Rampling). The young woman turns from looking at her dresser mirror as she see Dr. Martin, asking if he is a lawyer. The young man admits he isn’t her lawyer, and Reynolds informs her that he is a doctor. Barbara seems quite calm and asks if Dr. Martin cannot see that she is quite sane and needs to be able to leave the Institute, besides it wasn’t her fault. When she begins her tale we see Barbara being driven home by her brother, George. He asks how she feels and remarks that she looks marvelous, the young woman tells her sibling how wonderful it feels to be going home and promises it won’t be like the last time…she is sure of it. Upon arriving home Barbara stops for a moment as she notices someone watching her from an upstairs window, George asks if all is okay, and his sister remarks she thought it might be Lucy (Ekland). George reminds her that she is not to mention’s Lucy name again, to forget her. As they enter the house, Barbara is greeted by Miss Higgins, a nurse. Barbara protests that this is her home and we later learn that when their father passed away he bequeathed everything to his daughter. So it would seem that George is the acting custodian of Barbara and the family fortune while she is unwell. Barbara is put straight to bed by Miss Higgins and given a sedative to help her sleep but while the nurse is called away for a family emergency and her brother drives the older woman to the station, she finds some of her old pills hidden in a bathroom drawer. She is being watched though, Lucy is sitting in the corner of the room, Barbara’s friend explains that she was the one who called Miss Higgins and arranged for the two of them to be alone. When Barbara questions how she got in, Lucy says it wasn’t easy because she had to hide in the garage. We can see that Lucy is quite crossed with Barbara for using the pills she had found and explains that George is trying to put his sister away for good. Barbara doesn’t believe it at first but when Lucy reminds her how much he would gain if he merely called the doctors back at the hospital and told them his sister had a relapse. Lucy has a plan for them both run away together. End of spoilers for this tale.

The fourth patient that Reynolds introduces to Dr. Martin is or was also a practitioner of the medical arts. We meet Dr. Byron (Lom) who seems to be given a bit more leeway than the other patients as he is constructing a small automaton figure, he explains to the young man that he will use his will power to bring the mannequin to life. Dr. Byron tells the young doctor that the automaton possesses inner workings that are organic and an exact match of his own viscera in miniature. When Dr. Martin expresses doubt the older doctor becomes furious and we learn of his hatred towards Dr. Rutherford. The young doctor informs Reynolds that he is ready to announce his decision to Dr. Rutherford.

End of further spoilers. You’ll want to catch this enjoyable film by either putting it on Netflix or even watching it online from the AMC website, from their b-movie list. Though I would suggest the Netflix route as the online version seems to be from a bad print and not remastered like the DVD version. Asylum while enjoyable isn’t quite as awesome as the Monster Club, so I bestow four pumpkins out of five to the film.

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VicSage

Editor at Retroist
Searching through the alleys for useful knowledge in the city of Nostalgia. Huge cinema fanatic and sometimes carrier of the flame for the weirding ways of 80s gaming, toys, and television. When his wife lets him he is quite happy sitting in the corner eating buckets of beef jerky.

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