Tuesday, July 3, 2018
The Fallen Star: Madhouse (1974)
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Robert Quarry
As a youngin', my only exposures to the talented Vincent Price were his Inventor role at Edward Scissorhands and that one voice over narration during that one Michael Jackson music video involving dancing zombies and a werecat. It wasn't until I got into high school when Price got re-introduced to me, still in voice over form, through the Tim Burton animation Vincent (1982) as a bonus short from the Nightmare Before Christmas DVD I bought for my sister as a Christmas gift. It was also around that time I was starting to get in touch with my slasher fanaticism again, which lead me to my first feature length Vincent Price-starring movie, House of Long Shadows (1984)! (Also my first Peter Cushing and John Carradine film)
From that point on, I sometimes add some flair and class in my slasher collection by seeking out his other bodycount friendly titles such as his original House of Wax (1953), the two Abominable Doctor Phibes movies and Theatre of Blood (1973). It wasn't until the later blogging years of my current life, however, that I heard about this film, an obscure proto-slasher that have Vincent play not a fiendish avenger with a lust for blood, but a broken man trying to escape a haunting past. Sign me up as intrigued.
A celebrated horror actor famous for his role as Dr. Death, Paul Toombes lives a luxurious Hollywood life with his young fiancee and a plethora of adoring fans (and enemies) both within and outside the limelight. At a party celebrating his 5th Dr. Death film, though, it all comes crumbling down when after finding out his fiance' once starred in adult films, Paul lashed out at the young woman for her career choices and sends her running to a room in tears. Things got a whole lot messier when Paul wakes up in the same room, apparently not remembering when and how, and discovers his young wife-to-be decapitated, much to his horror and shock.
Some years later, Toombes is released from psychiatric care, still blaming himself for the murder despite not remembering how he did it. Acquitted of the killing, though, he finds himself being offered an acting role at jolly good England where they'll be filming a new Doctor Death TV series. Once there, old wounds start to reopen as one by one, staffs and actors involved end up dying in a grisly manner, killed by a maniac in a skull mask and black leather gloves. With Toombes waking up after each death, is he killing for real again? Or could this be the work of a real maniac on the loose?
Based on a 1969 Angus Halliday novel Devilday, Madhouse is a proto-meta-slasher that celebrates and parodies horror careers (particularly Price's), throwing in nods and winks to then's horror community with well-known horror stars such as Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry showing up as wonderful supporting casts, as well as showcasing clips from selected Vincent Price movies as in-universe films. It's structure, though, leans more on a solid slasher outing with whodunnit-style horror drama, as we watch Price's character do further and deeper into maddening dementia as the murders continue and the blame goes far beyond controlled.
With its themes of psychological torment and high rise bodycount, Madhouse definitely has its influences from the Italian Giallo and German Krimi, but it quite fun to note how this film is also ahead of its time with a couple of chase scenes and brutal killings strikingly similar to that of an 80s slasher. Gothic undertones are also ever-present, curiously implemented through the stylish Victorian settings wherein the Dr Death series is being filmed, some odd anachronistic set-pieces (oil lamps in 1970?) and the inclusion of a red herring that came in the form of an old crone, driven mad from a horrific car crash and now lurking in the basement of her own house with her pet spiders. The film can get cheekily hammy with its bounds of campiness and post-mortem wit (even more if we start to consider its dry and dark British humor. I mean really, who continues a TV production after this much death on set?), but its strengths lies within the curveball portrayal of Price's character, far from the fiendish Machiavellian villain and more of a victim himself, trapped in a cycle of madness that appears to be out to get him. (Or, worse, take over him!)
Curiously, the very fact that the movie tries hard to create a sympathetic character out of Price opened a lot of possibilities that the murders are being committed by somebody else due largely on the matter that the story contains so much red herrings and convenient writing. As a whodunnit, this may sound lacking and unimaginative (and at times, it is), but I will at least admit that the reveal is unexpected, albeit slightly cheesy once we also knew the motive. If there's anything I can nitpick about personally is that we really got to see the Dr. Death movies per se, just clips from old Vincent Price movies. I would have been a treat for us genre fans to at least see some original footage of this so-called popular cult character in action, but it hinders the movie hardly so it isn't much of an issue to ponder about.
It's kinda dated, yes, but the fun of this movie comes from the people involved and the strange yet workable direction it possesses. Madhouse is a must see for all slasher fans, a rough gem worthy to be recognize as one of Price's more intricate performance and a fun hodge-podge of goth horror and bodycounting murder mystery.
1 female found decapitated
1 female hacked on the neck with a pitchfork
1 female strangled, later found hanged with a jump rope
1 male crushed by a lowering prop bed
1 male and 1 female skewered with a sword
1 female found stabbed through the neck with a knife
1 male knifed to death