Outside of the juggernaut of Hammer, the British horror industry’s biggest name is almost certainly Amicus. Best known for their anthology movies, the producing duo Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky created projects that have since gone on to influence many anthology makers, including the team behind play-turned-movie Ghost Stories. One of the Amicus team’s best-known features is Asylum, which was one of several collaborations with Psycho author Robert Bloch, adapting several of his own short stories. It’s now on a shiny, remastered Blu-ray in the UK, allowing a new audience to experience its bizarre horror tales.
The framing device for this anthology follows newbie doctor Martin (Robert Powell) as he arrives at an asylum, which is being neglectfully managed by the callous Dr Rutherford (Patrick Magee). He is tasked with deciding which of the patients upstairs was formerly a doctor at the asylum. The first of these is Bonnie (Barbara Parkins), who recounts her involvement in a plot to murder her lover’s wife. Then, tailor Bruno (Barry Morse) reveals how he made an unusual suit for a mysterious stranger (Peter Cushing) and Barbara (Charlotte Rampling) discusses the malign influence of her friend Lucy (Britt Ekland), who may or may not be a figment of her imagination.
It’s a decidedly variable series of stories, which is somewhat to be expected from an anthology. The framing device is exploitation trash that is ultimately enjoyable if troubling in its depiction of mental health. Opening story Frozen Fear is perhaps the most inventive, in which a voodoo-loving woman fights back against her murderous husband even after he chops her up and puts her in a freezer. It culminates in a terrifically violent final scene with an impressive climactic image.
Few of the other stories match the silliness and fear factor of the first, with The Weird Tailor somewhat botching its execution despite an appropriately creepy Peter Cushing performance. The closest tale to matching the first’s energy is Lucy Comes to Stay, which features an early standout turn from a young Charlotte Rampling and allows Britt Ekland to bring some real malevolence to the table. There’s even a sly nod to writer Bloch’s most famous creation with a sequence that homages the murder of Arbogast in Psycho.
Watched in 2019, though, there’s something a little distasteful about Asylum. The setting of the framing device seems anachronistically mean-spirited given our increased knowledge of mental health conditions, particularly in the way the story ultimately resolves itself. However, this is an Amicus movie and one of the joys of the studio was its unashamed embrace of the fact that it made theatrical, campy genre trash.
While Asylum may not be the best of Amicus’ anthologies, it’s an enjoyably twisted selection of creepy tales packed with demented twists. The performances of the likes of Cushing, Rampling and Ekland elevate the material and, with murderous miniature automatons and body parts fighting back, there’s enough silliness to make this an enjoyable ride.
Dir: Roy Ward Baker
Scr: Robert Bloch
Cast: Robert Powell, Patrick Magee, Herbert Lom, Geoffrey Bayldon, Barbara Parkins, Richard Todd, Sylvia Syms, Barry Morse, Peter Cushing, Charlotte Rampling, Britt Ekland
Prd: Max Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky
DOP: Denys N. Coop
Music: Douglas Gamley
Run time: 88 mins
Asylum is available on Blu-ray in the UK from 6th January.