Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part XIV): Madhouse (1974) dir. Jim Clark

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 MADHOUSE (1974). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

GR: As we sashay away from the penny dreadful ghoulies of Amicus’ previous effort, we enter the gay and glitzy world of Hollywood (or London serving as Hollywood anyway) for a brief moment at the start of MADHOUSE (1974). An interesting creature MADHOUSE is, it being a co-production with Amicus’ Yankee equivalent American International Pictures. The familiar Shepperton settings are moved over to Twickenham Studios for this go-around, but that’s not the only change here. 

Take for instance the presence of the irrepressible Vincent Price--who had previously made such delicious fare as the Dr. Phibes films for AIP--and his co-star Robert Quarry, himself the monstrous star of his own mini-franchise, the Count Yorga pictures. As a side note, the company had previously pitted the two stars against one another in DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972) as villain and anti-hero. This is their second production together and, amongst the other sly winks that MADHOUSE includes at the world of horror movies, there’s a costume party scene that has Quarry dressed up in full vampire gear, which is perhaps the closest the world ever got to getting DR. PHIBES FACES COUNT YORGA. Not only that, but the original COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) allegedly started out as a pornographic film, which makes Quarry’s role here as smut-producer Oliver Quayle a rather sharp jab at his ribs.

MADHOUSE (1974) is certainly not my favorite film about crazy actors killing people (queue up THEATER OF BLOOD [1973] for that, please), but in re-viewing it this past weekend and letting its eccentricities stew in my mind I was fairly surprised by how fairly adept it is at having its fun with its satirical asides and creating multiple moments of genuine suspense so that the two are never either slight or overbearing. There are so many diverse elements, some that are soap-operatic and others that are just plain bizarre, but when you put all of them together it somehow works and the final product coalesces into… what is this anyway? A slasher? A gaslight thriller? A parody? All of the above? With so many sundry voices babbling in the halls of this madhouse, it’s a wonder that the whole affair is as harmonious as it is. 

Lord knows though that MADHOUSE has enough kooks and kinks and quirks to make you dizzy. From a blackmailing couple who speak like Tweedledee and Tweedledum to an insane, scarred woman who lives in a basement purring to her pet spiders, MADHOUSE is certainly intent on making its pulpy tale of a thespian being stalked by his own murderous, onscreen character into something distinctly weird-tasting, like sour cream and red herrings. But before I launch full force into the film’s jovialities and general bat-shitteries, I think I’ll take five and lounge on Dr. Death’s operating table.

NT: Up until this point we’ve foolishly neglected to mention the secret history of Amicus Productions. Although producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg certainly made quite a few pictures under the Amicus banner, they seemingly weren’t content enough to keep their fingers out of various other grave worm pies. With MADHOUSE we see them working with AIP, but this wasn’t the first collaboration between the two productions companies: that honor would fall upon the utterly bizarre SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970), also starring Price and Cushing but with the added bonus of Christopher Lee. Though the film would only be released under AIP’s header, both Rosenberg and Subotsky’s names can be found in the opening credits. Of additional note is that Subotsky and Rosenberg co-produced the Christopher Lee witchcraft flick THE CITY OF THE DEAD (a.k.a. HORROR HOTEL) way back in 1960 in a collaboration that perhaps spurred their eventual endeavor as Amicus a couple years later. And then, after ending their business relationship, each man added several more noteworthy credits to his name: Rosenberg executive-produced films like BLOODY BIRTHDAY (1981), THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN (1977), and CAT PEOPLE (1982), while Subotsky returned to America to co-produce several Stephen King adaptations (CAT’S EYE [1985], MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE [1986], THE LAWNMOWER MAN [1992]). Further fun fact: The last film we’ll be covering in our Amicus retrospective, 1981’s THE MONSTER CLUB, isn’t even a genuine Amicus film, though it is often mistaken for one and is a Subotsky production released under a different company of his. 

This is all to say that the Amicus machine was beginning to wear down as it neared the mid-1970s. The definable characteristics of the company’s established brand were being jettisoned in the interest of keeping the company afloat and of ensuring their ability to continue making movies. The partnering of AIP and Amicus for MADHOUSE signals a cost-saving financing measure, but what it results in is not an Amicus film, despite the presence of Amicus regulars like composer Douglas Gamley and cinematographer Ray Parslow. MADHOUSE is an AIP film, through and through, in the American drive-in tradition of the PHIBES and COUNT YORGA films as well as groovy contemporary numbers like the zombie revenge flick SUGAR HILL (1974). This shift away from the elements of Amicus's wheelhouse (self-serious horror, corny humor, a denial of the existence of sex) is no detriment to MADHOUSE. Rather, the film is one the liveliest associated with their name, boasting finely demented performances, a modicum of brutal violence, and a playful intelligence.

Much of my interest in the film rests upon its delightful metacinematic twist: Paul Toombes (Price) is a veteran horror film actor being haunted by the specter of his most famous prior role, the fiendish, Coffin-Joe-by-way-of-Baron-Samedi-looking Dr. Death. This haunting is both literal (someone is trying to gaslight Toombes into believing that he is a killer under the psychopathic sway of his alter ego) and symbolic (Toombes is unable to escape the role that defined and ruined his career, despite whatever initial success it brought him, and that cut his marriage and sanity short-- or, in the case of his marriage, cut his bride-to-be's neck a little short). We could draw easy comparisons between Paul Toombes's meta struggle with Dr. Deaths both real and imagined and the typecasting the real Vincent Price experienced throughout his career, having portrayed a menagerie of similarly grotesque villains in the PHIBES films, THEATER OF BLOOD (1973), HOUSE OF WAX (1953), and (naturally) that weirdo Amicus-AIP co-production SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN. Yet (and I may be mistaken here but) I've never heard Price lament the direction his career took or the proliferation of campy horror roles offered to him, so any potential poignancy to be gained from all of this winking self-awareness goes unrealized. We watch Paul Toombes watching Vincent Price on the silver screen in old roles (like the magic duel with Boris Karloff from THE RAVEN [1963]) as if he we were watching himself, but this doesn't imbue the character or the moment with pathos. Instead, it's visual trivia for horror buffs.

I enjoy MADHOUSE for all the reasons you’ve mentioned, but in a pinch I’d also choose THEATER OF BLOOD over it. The latter film is a brilliant and cutting satire wrapped up as a bloody Jacobean revenge play, while the former is a quirky, hysterically pitched drive-in feature. Both entertain, but only one of them is a film I'll continually return to. Hell, I once wrote an essay during my MA about how THEATER OF BLOOD and Joel Reed's BLOODSUCKING FREAKS (1976) serve as the natural cinematic descendants of the stage tradition of English revenge drama. Is anybody going to write a scholarly paper on MADHOUSE? We’ve already scribbled out far fewer words than we usually do in these initial responses, and if we have trouble talking about it then surely the film is cursed.

GR: Your brief history of the production company’s existence, in addition to being enlightening, puts MADHOUSE in a proper light, I think. As you said, it seems to be quite clear that this is more AIP than Amicus, but for some reason the film’s British qualities seemed to stick out more for me than the American. But you’re right: this is straight up drive-in fodder, more wild and loose and kitschier than anything those stodgy ol’ crumpet-munchers could dream up in their archaic nightmares. MADHOUSE is of a piece with AIP’s filmography, a picture where sexual relations are described frankly (but not as lasciviously as, say, the Count Yorga movies) and the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink nuttiness that was a hallmark of many other features from James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff (think of the murderer in the ape costume from MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE [1971] swinging over the theater audience!) is served up on a spider-filled platter. 

The glimpses we get of the real Price’s past films (all AIP movies, natch) are merely filler, because not only do they lack the added metafictional depth of Boris Karloff’s similar musings from Peter Bogdanovich’s TARGETS (1968), but one never becomes quite convinced that Toombes as a character is fed up with his being listed as a horror actor. It might be because of the actor. Karloff was certainly no slouch and always performed admirably and professionally, but his characters always generated a weariness and a pathos that you could feel. Price, however, was more commonly known as the jovial prince, the rogue with the funny mustache and cackling voice whose glee was always apparent even when playing the wickedest of villains. 

More than likely though, it was the film itself that hampered this potentially touching aspect of Toombes’ character because, as we saw a scant year earlier, Price brought a genuine sense of tragedy to his portrayal of Edward Lionheart in THEATER OF BLOOD (1973), his hammy theatricalities accenting his character’s wounded soul even as he gallivanted about in a happenin’ afro wig. Price does have a wonderful little monologue as Toombes though, speaking of Dr. Death as “The sleeping phantom we roused” before lighting the set up in hellish fire. 

MADHOUSE lacks that kind of poignancy but more than attempts to make up for it in shock and sensation. The story is pure pulp, perhaps epitomized best in the segment where Toombes, in full costume—a costume which, I must say, tickles my fancies for capes, skull faces, and dashing evening wear all at once—faces off against the “real” Dr. Death who snares his prey in a Phibes-like move by trapping the actor on a bed that comes equipped with a crushing top! The exploitative elements are ramped up here, moreso than they surely would’ve been in Shepperton’s delicate hands. The company did well with the high theatrics of AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS (1973), but MADHOUSE is a different, wilder beast altogether, one where the first murder’s lead-in with the killer adorning black leather gloves and removing a gleaming scalpel from a velvet case, all the while breathing heavily, brings to mind Italy’s gialli and the slashers still yet to come in the States. And would Amicus have given us the utterly trashy reveal of Toombes discovering his fiancé’s corpse, with the head rolling off its shoulders with all the grace of a decapitated mannequin? Heaven forbid! I will say this though: that bizarre, slow motion yawn-scream that Price does here and later in the film is oddly unsettling. The other murder sequences are just as feisty; Paul’s co-star strung up on a noose to the mad orchestra of blaring juke boxes and whirring pin ball machines; the batty blackmailers skewered by a sword ala Mario Bava’s A BAY OF BLOOD (1971) and Sean S. Cunningham’s FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980); the death of the plucky Julia (Natasha Pyne) left to our imaginations as she screams her last as Dr. Death’s cape slithers through the elevator doors that he has now cornered her in. I think it’s safe to say that when day is done and shadows fall, MADHOUSE must surely take home the blue ribbon for sassy homicides. 

I could probably go on about all of the movie’s remaining surrealness, but being we may be running low on conversational fuel as it is, I will instead defer to you and retreat into the darkness of my arachni-cellar to listen to my gramophone. 

NT: We’ve covered most of it, but here are a couple of stray observations I find to be worth typing up:

Speaking of zany homicides, how about the death of Toombes’s friend and rival, Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing)? I’d hazard a guess that this climactic demise takes the spider-filled prize. Picture it: Flay is sitting victorious in his own screening room, watching Dr. Death films in celebration of the fact that his friend, Toombes, has recently burned to death (or so he thinks). What a surprise, then, when Toombes steps out from the projected images on screen to confront his viewer, just like the bloodsucking Count would to his audience decades later in “The Tale of the Midnight Madness” from ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK? (This action would eventually be called “pulling a PURPLE ROSE.”) After some heated conversation and old man tussling, Flay is stabbed in the back (quite literally) by the wife he keeps locked in the basement (spatially confused Mr. Rochester-style), which sends him tumbling down into his wife’s spider terrarium. Once there, his body is immediately eaten up by the many spiders crawling over him, leaving naught but bone after a lap-dissolve with no indication of the passage of any time. Those were some hungry, hungry arachnids. After this, we witness the creepy development of Toombes creating a Peter Cushing mask to wear for his new role of a lifetime (thus allowing us a glimpse of Cushing’s best jowly/scowly Price impression). Finally, we watch as Toombes and his new old face have dinner (sour cream and red herrings [?!]) with his new old wife as a record of Price himself singing a schmaltzy ballad spins on the gramophone. It’s all very joyously macabre, we might say, and serves as further support for our placement of MADHOUSE in the nutty AIP camp.

And as much as we’ve knocked MADHOUSE for failing to use its metafictional self-awareness to any ends beyond the merely clever, I think there’s one aspect of the film that complicates that reading. With the past and aborted future of Toombes’s fiancée Ellen (Julie Crossthwaite), we observe the film’s oddly playful critique of the movie making business’s lack of opportunities for young actresses trying to break in. We learn that an actress like Ellen has two options: she can be an adult film starlet or the nubile victim in a horror film. Both choices are degrading, and both are looked down upon by those in charge. Witness Toombes’s disgusted, judgmental reaction when he discovers that Ellen chose to act in adult films early in her career. And if you think that indicates that he and others in the business believe that acting in horror films is the classier option, just consider the fate of Faye (Adrienne Corri), who acted in a Dr. Death film only to see herself be immediately forgotten and abused rather than launched into stardom by those above her in the moviemaking world. Pretty young actresses have a bad lot in film, MADHOUSE reminds us, as is true of Julie Crossthwaite, the actress who plays Ellen, who here chooses death over sex in one of her earliest major film roles, though which of the two she had chosen probably wouldn’t have mattered much. Guess how much longer Julie Crossthwaite’s acting resume is? It started promisingly, perhaps, but like so many it had its head lopped off in the first act.

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