Scary Movies: ‘Asylum’ (1972)

‘Never turn your back on a patient.’
An anthology film consisting of four tales (“Frozen Fear,” “The Weird Tailor,” “Lucy Comes To Stay,” and “Mannikins of Horror”) with a framing story, Asylum is from Amicus. Based in world famous Shepperton Studios, Amicus produced horror from 60’s and 70’s (as well as the only Doctor Who feature films to date). They are primarily known for this type of anthology movie which is an economic treat as it offers up numerous short stories whereas most movies provide just the one.

The framing tale centers on Dr. Martin, a young man attending the weirdest job interview ever at a mental institution. He visits four patients and listens to their ramblings as the viewer is taken along for a flashback. It’s yet another case in a long line of films in which the mentally ill are presented as incurably demented and lost and the treatment is barbaric. That said… gripping stuff.

Written by Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame) and directed by Roy Ward Baker who had previously worked on the excellent Quatermass and The Pit as well as the controversial Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Asylum is a portmanteau piece starring luminaries of horror and cult film such as Peter Cushing, Patrick Magee, Britt Ekland and Barry Morse. The asylum itself is a test of sorts as Dr. Martin must guess which of the patients is former Doctor Starr, who recently lost his marbles and is now incurably insane.

In fact, all of the patients are deemed incurable. Luckily they also have tantalizing tales to tell explaining how they ended up at the asylum. It’s all traditional fare in the vein of Poe or the pulps, but the segments are told with aplomb and directed with a remarkable eye for the fantastic.

The performances are by and large downplayed with a few exceptions such as Barry Morse (of Space 1999) playing the part of the down on his luck tailor constructing a suit made from otherworldly material for Peter Cushing (the stand out part of the film for me).

‘Georgy Girl’ starlet Charlotte Ramping is stunning as a young woman losing her mind as she pops pills and is visited by Britt Eckland (we should all be so lucky) and Richard Todd finds a unique (though tried and true) method of divorce… with disastrous results.

A fun and witty romp, Asylum is full of creepy yet entertaining moments (the clockwork homunculus is both stirring and side-splitting) and features a remarkable cast and a sharply written script. The violence is mostly downplayed and the usual titillation found in movies of this era is absent, making this a relatively tame horror flick. If you are a fan of other Amicus films of the 1970’s, this is right up your alley and the perfect way to spent a cold October evening.


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