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If there was one thing – one thing – I have taken away from 70s horror movies, it’s that “monster rallies” almost inevitably suck. I’m not talking about actual monster rallies, but movies that gathered together the gray eminences of horror stars in the same flick. Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing, John Carradine, any combination of the above should be marvelous. What they are, usually, is quite tedious. This may be a problem with the horror genre overall in the 70s, desperately trying to re-invent itself in a new era with real-life horror vomiting forth from living room TVs every night. Watch Bogdanovich’s Targets again and realize in how many ways it was a prophetic piece of work, not only cinematically, but in the real world.
Well, sometimes they’re not too terrible, perhaps in spite of themselves. Madhouse falls into this category.
Vincent Price plays Pete Toombs, an actor who has made his fortune playing a character named Dr. Death in a very successful series of movies (which always seem to look a lot like movies made by co-producers AIP in the 60s, hmmmmm…). During a fairly fractious New Years party “five years ago”, Toombs has a falling-out with his young bride-to-be, and later finds her decapitated body. It’s possible that he killed her in some sort of fugue state, and he spends several years in a mental institution.
In present day, he is called to England by his old friend, Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing), a former actor himself and writer of the Dr. Death flicks. Flay has joined with producer Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry) – who caused the falling-out five years ago – to produce a Dr. Death TV series. Toombs resists at first, still unquiet over his fiancee’s death, and above all, fearful of Dr. Death. “He frightens me. I’m frightened of what he can do.”
Well, needless to say, being a horror movie and all, it’s not long before the bodies start stacking up like cordwood. Toombs gets stressed out, closes his eyes, we see hands donning black gloves, and someone wearing Dr. Death’s costume kills someone else in ways reminiscent of the movies. A very real problem is that whoever the killer is wears a skull mask, so it’s obviously not Toombs committing the murders (if it was, why bother with the mask?). In fact, the culprit is pretty transparent from the get-go, though the movie tries to obscure this over the next 90 minutes or so. When the last line of a flick is, “It’s your favorite dish… sour cream and red herrings” that notice has been noisily nailed to the wall.
Yes, this is famously (and obviously) one of those movies where the script was being written even as scenes were being shot. Supposedly based on a novel by Angus Hall, Devilday, about the only things left over are the main character’s name and the fact that he was a horror star. Everything else was in an improvisational muddle right up to the end, which is just as confusing and unlikely as anything else preceding it. There is a reason this was the final collaboration between AIP and Amicus.
But another thing I learned from watching allllll these British horror movies from the 60 and 70s: even in the worst of them, the actors can be relied upon on to take the whole thing seriously. They do not camp or mince about, unless the material explicitly calls for it; even Christopher Lee, when he refused to say his lines as Dracula because he found them too gawdawful, once that camera was rolling and “Action” was called, hit his mark and made with the scary.
Every actor in Madhouse gives it his or her all, even though the script does not particularly reward them for it. Price is especially good, Cushing is sadly wasted, for the most part. Robert Quarry was obviously being groomed to replace Price as AIP’s horror guy, but increasingly it became obvious they had no idea how to facilitate that, which is too bad: he’s always solid. I was also pleased that I recognized Linda Hayden from Blood on Satan’s Claw.
The conceit of using footage from Price’s earlier movies as previous Dr. Death flicks allows us to enjoy sequences with Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone – and to ballyhoo their names in the opening credits as “Special Participation by…”
Leave it to AIP to find a way to exploit you after your death. It’s a device lifted from that earlier mentioned, Corman-produced Targets. Too bad AIP learned the wrong lesson from Corman, or, rather, badly misinterpreted it.