Though perhaps not as technically or visually impressive as their Hammer counterparts, Amicus Productions’ slew of late-60s/early 70s horror output is often savvier and timelier. Aside from their superb anthology films, nothing in the Amicus catalogue proves this more than Jim Clark’s 1974 film Madhouse.
Paul Toombs is a horror icon who has made a career playing Dr Death in a slew of films written by his friend Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing). After his new fiancé is found murdered and all evidence points to him as the killer, Toombs spends 20 years in an asylum. On release, the star is dragged back to England for a new slew of Dr Death films but as soon as he arrives a spate of murders, done in the fashion of his classic character, put Toombs in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
There is perhaps no greater pleasure in the world of horror than to have not one, but two genre icons in leading roles. Madhouse is a film which knows its core appeal and never shies from giving Price the acidic dialogue he can carry so well (‘Miss Peters as they say in horror movies…you will come to a bad end!’) or pulling off gleefully guignol demises. It’s a deliciously camp affair with its tongue in its cheek, drawing on Price’s reputation for larger-than-life villainy.
Madhouse is also one of those early forays into the postmodern. Its clever pastiche grants it the meta-association decades before Craven’s Scream. Apart from being a film about the film industry and the making of a horror film, it’s fascinated by blurring boundaries. Old “Paul Toombs” films are screened (in reality; excerpts from Price’s earlier Poe adaptations), there’s an interview with Michael Parkinson (who wouldn’t be seen in genre films again until 1992’s Ghostwatch), and accidents on set turn guignol set-pieces into deadly murders.
It’s a film which considers the ways in which film can leak over into reality, especially horror films, but not in any dense or overly critical way. The self-awareness is a cute trick but no more than that. Madhouse is more interested in pleasing the crowd than making them think. Essentially, Madhouse poses the fan-bate idea of Vincent Price succumbing to the psychological pressure of his own CV: all those murderous villains erupting from his subconscious to wreak havoc in the real world. It also poses the idea of a potentially murderous competitive side to the Price/Cushing friendship, a fun concept since both men were notoriously lovely.
The titular Madhouse? Why, it’s the industry of course. Price plays one of the most nuanced versions of the hyper-theatrical lead he so often got lumbered with. This time around though he’s innately likeable compared to the host of total shits that populate the film. His interactions with the ever-charismatic Cushing are a joy, but shamefully light on meaningful chemistry until the finale. The reasons can apparently be traced back to the film’s producer Milton Subotsky, whose acts of barbarism in post-production left much dialogue on the cutting room floor.
Though not as vibrantly scored, or staged as the Giallo films it lifts its incoherence and colouring from, Madhouse delivers a tour de force finale worth its sometimes-sluggish runtime. The image of a scorched Price emerging from a cinema screen to exact bloody revenge on his ex-bestie is an inspired one. It gives the film a final note of sheer unbridled madness and Cushing an opportunity to deliver a screeching showcase of his potential for vindictive villainy. It’s a side of the horror icon’s career we saw rarely, but deliciously, in films like Corruption, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and of course Star Wars.
Madhouse is a classic example of 70s high-camp schlock; harmless, perhaps too soft, but so fun it’s a wonder the film isn’t lauded more. Though light on scares, Clark’s meta-horror heavy on the stylish trappings of Brit-Horror and has the undeniable boon of being the best thing Cushing and Price did together.
Dir. Jim Clark
Stars. Vincent Price, Peyter Cushing, Robert Quarry, Adrienne Corri, Linda Hayden, Michael Parkinson,