Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part VIII): Asylum (1972) dir. Roy Ward Baker

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's fourth anthology, ASYLUM (1972). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

GR: As the lights go up and we see a car roaring up to the graveled drive of the dusky, imposing insane asylum, the rousing strings of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” blaring overhead, it seems like Amicus is revving up that great big Gothic engine that ran so many of their other horror vehicles. But a curious thing happens at the onset of the company’s fourth anthology film, the straightforwardly titled ASYLUM (1972), when Dr. Martin (Robert Powell) walks through the mist-shrouded, wrought-iron gates and steps into the main foyer of the madhouse. Director Roy Ward Baker (helmer of such Hammer fare as SCARS OF DRACULA [1970], THE VAMPIRE LOVERS [1970], and DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE [1971]) eschews the mad horror fever vibe for a more muted approach. The feeling that I received upon watching the film is that everything became very crisp and antiseptic, the usual gaudy colors and gallows humor almost completely disposed of in favor of a more clinical approach to terror. Some might see this as a detriment, a sign that everything is going to become as bland and tasteless as hospital cuisine. But if you ask me it’s a nicely revitalizing take that signals the new direction that’s being taken in the film, where even Robert Bloch’s adaptations of his own stories subtract any of the tongue-in-maggoty-cheek humor that was such a staple of his work.

I guess I just have a thing for quiet horror, and as much as I adore the high melodramatics of black-hearted Bedlam-keepers and savage forms of patient therapy, I find the sun-dappled, whispery quality of the insanity on display here to be much more unnerving than babbling insect-munchers in straitjackets. In my original review of the film, I made a comment that the inmates (more directly Baker, Bloch, and company) feel no need to play up the craziness of the surroundings just because there’s a newcomer taking the tour. All the patients go about their day doing exactly what they normally do; sewing invisible clothes; giggling in the mirror; playing with dolls. Even these moments are played with such casualness that one might not be entirely sure that these people are mad but rather the victims of some horrible universe that has seen it fit to punish them and lock them away. Whatever the case is, the patients are never fazed that an outsider is amongst them. They have far greater things weighing on their minds, for whatever is left of them.

For my money there really isn’t a sour note in the whole show. Each of the stories is icily framed and composed, moving along towards their inevitable climaxes where the main effect that seems to be striven for is not so much shock or disgust like other tales from the Amicus oeuvre as a spidery sense of dread that nestles at the base of the heart. There are still some of the “whacky” plot hallmarks that we’ve come to expect from the house of Rosenberg and Subotsky: phantom limbs that crawl about to enact justice for their dismemberment; a craggy-faced mannequin that comes to life thanks to a magical suit; robotic automatons that strut around like wind-up playthings. 

But all of these items are never given the flourish you see in other films like TORTURE GARDEN (I’m thinking especially of how Freddie Francis framed the diabolical piano Euterpe with his leering fish-eye lens and purple lighting). This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with those methods (for the record there isn’t and I freaking love them), it’s just that Baker’s tactics are different here. I don’t find myself grinning when the chopped-up body parts stir to life like I do when ol’ Euterpe gives Barbara Ewing the heave out the parlor window. I feel unsettled. I don’t mean to imply that Baker is making the supernatural occurrences in ASYLUM seem real, just that his downplaying of the humor and the seriousness with which he approaches the various ghastly apparitions suffered by the patients reminds us that these things are very real to them and thus helps to remind us that though their stories may be fabrications their damaged minds certainly are not. And that’s the real point at the end of the day for Dr. Martin, isn’t it? To find the mad wolf in sheep’s clothing. 

Were you game for the search of Dr. Starr, or did you find that ASYLUM drove you past the breaking point?

NT: A "muted approach" is certainly one way of putting it. A glum, humorless film, ASYLUM is-- in my estimation-- the worst anthology Amicus would produce. I call it humorless, but it's worth noting that the film nonetheless sends me into fits of laughter with its wriggling, butcher-paper wrapped limbs, animated mannequin in a technicolor dream coat, and murderous, mind-controlled, pint-sized silver Lego "mannikins." I know you see an unsettling dread in these objects, but I simply cannot. I think ASYLUM features some of the dumbest horror set pieces that Amicus would adapt from author Robert Bloch's particular literary madness. Yet, the film never acknowledges-- even in passing-- the absurdity of its sundry stories. Backpedaling furiously from the outright comedy of their last anthology's final segment, the divisive vampire chuckle-fest "The Cloak" from THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, the Amicus brain trust now appears to believe that the injection of any intentional humor or irony into their films would be taking the low road. Rather, they allow each of the film's segments to play out as if it were a mini-masterpiece of genuinely terrifying cinematic horror. This is an egregious error, again demonstrating Amicus's regrettable mid-life crisis of tone and direction. It's a simple equation, really: Ludicrous horror stories + Totally earnest presentations = Unintentional comedy. 

And the laughs come echoing off the walls of the asylum. I'd charge that ASYLUM, in its attempts to establish itself as a legitimate horror film, instead stumbles into the overwrought, the needlessly bombastic... for lack of a better term, let's call it the horror equivalent of melodrama. Remember when TORTURE GARDEN, the Amicus anthology with the most successfully balanced tone that we've watched thus far, used Chopin's "Funeral March" to put an ironic wink into its ridiculous yet sincere murder of Barbara Ewing by a grand piano? Here, we have "Night on Bald Mountain" opening the film in austere, Old Dark House pretentiousness. Seriously? (Even THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) is a deliberately funnier film than ASYLUM.) Case in point, examine the goofy, overlong scene in which Robert Powell stares in concentration at the pencil-sketched histories of psychiatric medicine adorning the asylum's front staircase. The rather poorly drawn figures and scenes are lingered upon as if they were depictions of genuine fright, while the pilfered classical score pumps away audaciously in the background. When the camera goes so far as to dramatically spin around and zoom in on one of the silly drawings, you might sense the over-seriousness I've diagnosed.

I'm not certain who to blame for all this. Director Roy Ward Baker is certainly no talentless hack (I don't think we'll see Freddie Francis enter The Criterion Collection anytime soon, unlike Mr. Baker), and he would in fact embrace the Amicus house style with his later, much more successful anthologies for the company (THE VAULT OF HORROR [1973] and THE MONSTER CLUB [1980]), but this initial showing is rough-going. The massive cast of esteemed actors (Robert Powell, Patrick Magee, Peter Cushing, Charlotte Rampling, Britt Ekland, and Herbert Lom) perform the material admirably, but the material does them few favors. Bloch is easier to blame, and producers Subotsky and Rosenberg easier still: these folks have been in this horror business long enough to have a sense of what works and what doesn't. Or at least you'd think so.

Believe it or not, I do actually admire some things about the film, though more in theory than in practice. Before I rant about all that, perhaps it’s better to turn it back over to you, so you can temper the taste of my bitter medicine with some sweets.

GR: Good God man, are you trying to spoon me lye?

Obviously, everyone has their own tastes and I can even agree with you on certain points, but I just can’t seem to see the “glum and humorless” aspects in ASYLUM that you do, besides the fact that it doesn’t ever really play for laughs which is something that’s not necessarily uncommon in a horror film. It does diverge from the typical Amicus style, but I don’t have any qualms about that whatsoever either. The creative forces attempted to take a more stoic (but not suspense-less) approach to horror and, if you ask me, they mostly succeeded in that task. I understand that my opinions may be taken into question after the dubious affection I showed for THE DEADLY BEES (1966), but I think ASYLUM proves itself to be worthy of its brethren and quite dark and disquieting during its best moments.

Again we have another spin on the “investigative wraparound,” here involving the aforementioned Powell being posed an unconventional task by the wheelchair-bound Magee in order to gain employment within the eponymous facility: he must interview a series of patients in order to determine which is the fallen Dr. Starr, former co-head of the institution who is now mentally lost due to some traumatic event. It’s these interviews that serve as the lead-ins to the quartet of terror tales.

The first, “Frozen Fear,” is the one that involves those infamous ambulatory parcels that feature so prominently in the film’s advertising. This is Bloch at perhaps his most comic book-esque, the story so short, sweet, and stingy that it’s quite easy to envision it under the artistic pen of Jack Kamen or “Ghastly” Graham Ingels from any one of William M. Gaines’ suspensbooks. Walter (Richard Todd) is the devious, cravat-wearing husband who loathes his voodoo-worshipping wife Ruth (Sylvia Syms) enough to murder her so that he may run off with perky brunette Bonnie (Barbara Perkins). But alas, that pesky magical amulet Ruth always wore makes it tough to stow her neatly chopped and wrapped body parts away in the new freezer… they just won’t stay still! Now, that description would lead one to suspect something indelibly silly is going to occur, but this segment is truly and honestly eerie, in no small part due to the sturdy conviction demonstrated in front of and behind the camera.

One specific element that surprised me was how bloodless the killing of Ruth was. The rest of ASYLUM is similarly free of splatter, but the death by hatchet could have easily been shot to its full exploitative level to satisfy the sanguine-thirsty audience, but Baker and Bloch appropriately opt to have the messy aftermath take place all in our minds, suggesting the gruesome aftermath only with the presence of some plastic tarpaulin, a mop, and of course those little parcels wrapped in brown butcher paper. If one is willing to suspend their disbelief and take the events that occur next as the visions of a mind crumbling under trauma, then the sight of the segmented Ruth moving in her crinkling wake towards the conniving Bonnie might not seem so ludicrous, but I find it all incredibly creepy no matter the context. How can you not suppress a little shudder when you see those twitching fingers tear from the paper to grab the air vent grating as they reach closer and closer to the screaming Bonnie? The only thing our little homewrecker can do is try to ward the grasping and gasping appendages away like so many hungry ants and just chop and chop and chop…

“The Weird Tailor” concerns the forces of black magic and the supernatural a little more directly than the incidental tag of “Frozen Fear.” An impoverished clothesmaker, Bruno (Barry Morse), is requested by the mysterious Mr. Smith (Peter Cushing) to stitch together a suit from a peculiar, glowing cloth following explicit directions outlined in a little black book riddled with pentagrams. The need for rent money overrides his sense of foreboding, but upon making the delivery to Mr. Smith’s abode, Bruno discover that clothes really do make the man—rise! 

As much as I do like this story, the only time that it really seems to sing is when Cushing is on the scene as the morose Smith. The pall of depression that no doubt still hung over the actor from the passing of his dearly beloved wife is so perfectly and poignantly captured in his performance. Only a man who has lost someone so beloved to him could so accurately embody the anguish that follows death. The entire segment is worthy for inclusion for Cushing’s final scene alone. Bruno enters Smith’s shadow-choked home to discover, propped in a casket and illuminated by the glow of black candles, Smith’s deceased son whom the suit was made for in order to bring him back to life (information which, by the way, is cleverly communicated to the viewer by a series of macabre illustrations from the little black book sans commentary). 

When Bruno first inquires Smith about what lies in the locked room, Cushing has this beautiful moment where you see it almost pains him to mention it. It’s only there for a second before he very calmly pushes past it and gently answers “Never mind.” Then of course when Bruno tries to flee the coop Smith holds him at the point of a gun, but Cushing’s attitude is more pleading than predatory and not for one instant becomes melodramatic. His red-rimmed eyes, the desperate tremor in his voice; it’s all painfully beautiful and Cushing truly elevates the material to poignancy in his brief moments onscreen. The closer with the living mannequin seems like a non-sequiter in comparison, an unnecessary twist that Bloch has to furnish his tale with because that’s his thing. What do we get for all the heartache and tragedy that Cushing brings to his role? A mustached dummy with an oatmeal face strangling Barry Morse. Not the classiest way to end things, but I do admit I’m an animated automaton/doll/ventriloquist dummy apologist.

I’m very interested to know what your thoughts are on the third tale, “Lucy Comes to Stay.” “Homicidal split personalities” was one trope that eluded the cutting edge of your scalpel upon your initial estimation of ASYLUM, so I couldn’t help but wonder if it holds any kind of clout with you. In it, young Barbara (Charlotte Rampling) comes back home after having a little nervous breakdown, one kickstarted by her best friend and (we will find out) alternate persona, Lucy (Britt Ekland). We only get a feel for Lucy’s tendencies in degrees, as she coaxes Barbara to stop taking her medicine and live a little on the wild side. 

There’s some more nice understatement implemented by Baker here that gently scores the ascent to Bloch’s admittedly foreseeable climax. Look for instance when Ekland sits in front of a mirror during one of their little talks; Rampling is framed in the foreground of the mirror’s reflection so that the effect becomes a sly nod that when Barbara looks into the glass she sees Lucy. This also neatly ties in with the concluding wraparound of Barbara’s tale. When Dr. Martin asks the lady where her friend Lucy is, Barbara acknowledges the mirror in her room (possible safety issue there?), laughing. “Lucy Comes to Stay” is the most subdued entry here, with hardly an absurd bogey to be found. That is, besides the gentle Swiss features of Miss Ekland. The uneasiness is nicely bumped up as the story goes on as Lucy cuts the phone lines in the house and gives poor George (James Villiers) an impromptu coronary operation during his evening paper. I think that at the very least you would agree that “Lucy Comes to Stay” is the most inoffensive, harmless yarn that’s also free of any unintended humor. For me, it’s a modest enough time; Lucy never overstays her welcome.

As if this film weren’t atypical enough of what we’ve seen from the folks at Shepperton Studios, ASYLUM introduces its fourth story, “Mannikins of Horror,” as not an isolated narrative but one that is directly integrated in the wraparound with Powell and Magee. This may very well be the first (and only that I can think of) instance of something of this nature occurring in a portmanteau horror film (WAXWORKS, the silent German picture from 1926, incorporated a somewhat similar idea when the poet character who created that film’s vignettes found himself face-to-face with Jack the Ripper in the “final story,” but this was found out to be a nightmare so one wonders if that truly counts). Anyway, Herbert Lom is the patient here, Dr. Byron, who spends his idle hours making miniature, robotic figures that possess molded clay facial features and steel bodies (a cheaper route than fully clothed humanoids, no doubt). Byron claims that these figures are completely anatomically correct (besides the, you know, robot bodies) and that through the incredible power of his mental will, he is able to inspire animation and control in their cold little heads.

As defensive of ASYLUM’s rights as I am willing to be, I will concede to you that of all the stories “Mannikins of Horror” is the one that is the easiest target of giggle fits. I can sympathize with your sentiments of the film’s over-seriousness as it shows especially in this segment. Lom gives it everything he’s got, commanding in his booming voice even as he shows us his cabinet full of toys. Seeing Little Lom make its sloooow approach to Magee’s parlor (even using a dumbwaiter as a means of transportation!) extinguishes much of the terror that could be generated from the premise; compare the automaton here to the quick-as-lightning and ferocious He Who Kills from Dan Curtis’ contemporaneous TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975). The dolly used here is much more patient in its attack, inching that long, sharp pin closer and closer to Magee’s neck. As gripping as Olga Karlatos’ meeting with a huge splinter? Probably not. But it does give you a slightly queasy feeling for what’s to come, and the smashing of the automaton to reveal its very real and very red insides complemented by Lom’s agonized screams briefly brings us back to the old Amicus world (not to mention showing you how fond Bloch was of recycling; see “Sweets to the Sweet”). It’s a bit of a downer too because the original “Mannikins of Horror” is a legitimately original and creepy story that gets sadly shoehorned into ASYLUM, skimping out on the loving details that Bloch gives to the anti-hero’s careful construction of his prized figurines and how he fancies himself a Frankenstein. Now there would’ve been a story!

Somewhat surprising (and silly) too is that, despite the great terror that Powell depicts at seeing the brutal remains of Dr. Byron, he seems relatively okay by the next morning, not at all the kind of composure one might have upon discovering that dolls can kill, an odd note that would have been eradicated had “Mannikins of Horror” been a standalone yarn that just ended right at the discovery of the mutilated doctor. That one aspect is sloppily handled, but we forget (or are made to forget) this once Powell finds out another of the asylum’s dirty secrets and here the story does end. For him. By the time the final stinger comes, we already have a good idea of what’s going to happen next, in order: New victim arrives, sinister figure acknowledges the audience, cue creepy music. So yes, ASYLUM is by no means a perfect film, but I don’t think it deserves to be committed for reasons of inanity. It might lack the color and gusto of Amicus’ other notable films, but if the spirit is willing there is enjoyment to be had. 

Call me crazy. 

NT: You’re crazy.

I don’t really mean that. Maybe what I mean is that I’m the crazy one. See, my problem is that I’m psychologically incapable of seeing an Amicus portmanteau film as “dark” or “disquieting.” My doctor tells me it’s a problem of expectations. I’ve seen all the other Amicus portmanteau films, so I know that they’re brightly hued, wickedly humorous testaments to the fact that horror cinema can be messy fun when it wants to be. This is a good thing; this is what I watch Amicus films for. But then I see ASYLUM, and what I glimpse are the same pulpy, over-the-top components that those other films possess, but here they’re employed without the slightest whiff of irony. The jolly good time that could be had with them is perverted and diminished by the truly frightful grasps the film makes at horrific legitimacy. 

Try as you might, neither you nor the filmmakers will ever convince me that a motorized mannequin leg wrapped in butcher paper and wriggling towards its bug-eyed victim is an object of disquiet. I sense through our conversations so far that you’re more forgiving of ludicrous concepts when they’re carried out with conviction. (The entirety of THE DEADLY BEES notwithstanding, I think we see in your much-loved “Creeping Vine” segment from DR. TERROR a problem similar to that which I see in ASYLUM’s tales.) I don’t fault you for this appreciation, but I can’t agree with it. I think filmmakers should be aware of their limitations and work around them. With a script this hackneyed and effects this goofy, those involved in the making of ASYLUM should have known better than to shoot for 1960s Hammer levels of grandiosity and sincerity. Can so many people on set have taken a look at the finished “mannikin” sporting Herbert Lom’s pint-sized head and all at once thought to themselves, “There, we’ve done it: we’ve created terror incarnate”? The mind boggles.

Considering that you’ve already covered the film’s four tales in great detail, I’ll dispense my pills of wisdom succinctly:

As much as I’ve already poked fun at it, “Frozen Fear” is easily the most enjoyable of the lot. As you note, it features the same sort of exaggerated domestic violence and supernatural karmic revenge that would make it a perfect fit in Baker’s next Amicus film, the EC horror comics adaptation THE VAULT OF HORROR. Alas, a certain devilish spark that would bring this episode fully in line with those later adaptations is absent: it simply doesn’t know that it’s funny. How can a character, after chopping his wife into bits and shoving her into the freezer, say to himself, with seemingly no self-awareness at all, “Rest in pieces”? The humor is obvious in the material, but the presentation appears blind to it. The above line does not inspire a giggle from his audience, but a groan. Later, I laughed when those “chilling” bits of reanimated frozen meat would have had me scream. The moment when a lady started chopping herself in the face with an axe serves as an appropriate metaphor for my frustration with this segment.

Similarly, any potential “The Weird Tailor” could have had is foiled by a bizarre concept and crummy execution. The notion of an astrologically powered technicolor dream coat isn’t unsalvageable, but this tale has no idea how to end in a way that pays off the established emotional poignancy. The impoverished tailor (Barry Morse) is sympathetic in his desire for the collection of money owed for services rendered, and his accidental murder of the crazed but equally sympathetic Cushing (as a grieving father) makes this resolution a tricky one. Rather than exploring this moral quandary, the filmmakers shove in that (as you so aptly put) oatmeal-faced living mannequin to lead us out. Ugh. What if, instead, the tailor had used the magical suit to cover up the murdered Cushing’s body, and what if this resulted in Cushing rising from the dead and being horrified to discover that the astrological power had been wasted upon him rather than his beloved corpse of a son? The tailor, in dumbstruck silence, watches this all in horror and regret. There. I wrote in two lines and two minutes a better ending than our filmmakers could muster.

You noticed the omission of “Lucy Comes to Stay” from my previous lambasting of the film, but rest assured this wasn’t because of any affection. I agree that it’s inoffensive and free of unintentional laughs, but that actually makes it more difficult to sit through than the silly ones. This segment, in its generic slog, is almost totally unremarkable. Thus, I will spare myself the effort of remarking upon it any further. A waste of Rampling and Ekland’s considerable talents.

Lastly, there’s “Mannikins of Horror.” Ah, “Mannikins of Horror.” What can I say about the segment that can’t be made immediately apparent to any viewer who lays eyes on the miniature Herbert Lom doll? It’s an extremely lightweight segment, but its central idea isn’t a terrible one (astral projection and the transference of consciousness in the hope of committing nefarious murder by proxy!) While I haven’t read Bloch’s original story, it’s not difficult to see that much has been omitted in order to fit it into the confines of the frame narrative.

And that frame narrative is what really interests me about ASYLUM. This is as complex as their wraparounds will ever become, and I think it’s incredibly effective, at least conceptually. If you recall, one of my beefs with THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD is that its frame story, though similarly ambitious (and also integrated with the final tale), was given little screen time to develop. Conversely, ASYLUM nearly forgoes a fourth story entirely in favor of further exploring Powell’s search for the insane Dr. Starr. There are easy gripes to pick with this wraparound, as you note, and these problems significantly devalue it. (The revelation of a cackling, just short of drooling Dr. Starr also harms the “casual insanity” aspect you argued early on.) However, I quite like the implication provided by the intertwining of the frame story with the “Mannikins of Horror” segment: supernatural occurrences are a reality. The fact that Lom really can project his mind into a killer Lego man is proof of this. Thus, we’re encouraged to re-examine the three tales that Powell’s character has already heard and casually dismissed through psychological diagnosis. Were these patients perhaps telling the truth about their supernatural experiences? Wisely (or perhaps by sheer accident), the film doesn’t provide us an answer, and we’re left to consider it on our own as the credits roll.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to consider the possibilities, as I was preoccupied by the happiness that overcame me at seeing those credits begin. I had (and have) checked out of the ASYLUM for good.

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