Another day, another anthology. This time it's the intriguing Amicus joint Asylum starring basically every British actor ever. No? Okay, how 'bout this: Peter Cushing, Barry Morse, Herbert Lom, Britt Ekland (oh man), Patrick Magee, Charlotte Rampling (oh MAN!), and a bunch of other people you've probably never heard of but would recognize if you've watched anything from Amicus/Hammer from the '60s/'70s or essentially anything on the BBC from that time.
The setup for this one is a
doozy - Dr. Martin (Robert Powell) sets off from London to take a new
job at an asylum for the incurably insane, although the doctor who
greets him (Magee) is not the doctor who summoned him there in the first
place. No, Magee's Dr. Rutherford informs Martin that Dr. Byron has
himself gone mad and is now confined upstairs with the other patients.
And if Martin can figure out which of the patients is Dr. Byron,
Rutherford will consider him fit for the position. And off we go...
is greeted by the orderly, from whom he tries to extract clues as to
the personage of Byron, but the orderly knows better - the game is
afoot! From there, we are taken into each of the four patients' rooms,
each with a different story of how they came to be there in the first
place. And for once, the framing narrative is actually just as, if not
more, compelling than the individual stories themselves. Not to say
that they are inferior to other Amicus anthologies, but they do at times
seem to drag.
The first story (Frozen Fear) concerns
Bonnie (Barbara Perkins), who was conspiring with adulterer Walter
(Richard Todd) to bump off his voodoo-obsessed wife Ruth (Sylvia Syms)
so they could go on the make together. Well, as one would expect from
this EC-styled segment, Ruth bites it, and is hacked to pieces by
Walter. However, the body parts (presumably aided by some sort of
voodoo powers) arise and destroy not only the unfaithful husband, but
also gets to Bonnie, who, in an attempt to save herself, hatchets away
at her face to remove the disembodied hand clinging to it. And we're
brought back to the asylum, where Bonnie shows off her scars, rather
delightedly, to Martin. Is this Byron? Martin is unsure, which takes
us to the next patient...
Behind door number two, we
find Bruno (Morse), who at first gaze appears to be fashioning the
emperor's new clothes, complete with invisible needle and thread. What
has caused this madness? We find out, in The Weird Tailor. Bruno is an
old-school tailor who is behind on the rent, and his displeased
landlord gives him until the end of the week to come up with the cash or
find new digs. Bruno is at a loss: how to get the money? Ah, but lo
and behold a very distinguished and somewhat mysterious gentleman enters
the shop as if to answer Bruno's prayers. Mr. Smith (Cushing)
commissions a suit made of a strange glowing fabric (Hypercolour FTW!),
with very strict specifications that the suit only be worked on between
the hours of midnight and 5 am. And the handsome sum of 200 pounds is
promised to Bruno upon the suit's completion, more than the tailor needs
to settle his rent. All week Bruno toils in the dead hours of the
night and finally completes the suit. Upon delivery to Smith, he
discovers that dark purpose for the suit that involves raising the
dead. He also discovers that Smith has no money to pay him. Anyway,
things turn out real crazy and a mannequin in the tailor's shop on which
the suit is placed ends up coming to life and nearly destroys Bruno.
At least it destroys his mind. Martin is still unconvinced that he has
met Byron, and asks to see the next patient, the ravishing...
(Rampling). Barbara is the first to seem sane, at first. Then comes
her story (Lucy Comes To Stay), which is weakest of the bunch, but makes
up for it by featuring both her loveliness and the swingin' sexpot
styles of Britt Ekland (naked Wicker Man wall-hump,
anyone? Start at 1:15). This one isn't really worth recounting, but it
involves a scheming older brother trying to get his hands on Barbara's
inheritance by proving she's either insane, addicted to pills, or both.
At the end of the segment, I didn't really care, I just wanted more
Rampling/Ekland action. I think the producers knew that this story was
the weakest of the four, and compensated by upping the pulchritude
power. Martin is getting antsy at this point, thinking he's being
strung along by Rutherford, and asks to see the final patient, in what
is the shortest and most gonzo of the tales...
brings us to Dr. Byron's (Lom) room, for the segment Mannikins of
Horror. Byron seems sane enough, but soon reveals he's out of his gourd
by showing off his collection of miniature robots with very lifelike
human faces. Each of these, he informs Martin, represents a different
real life person, and is exact inside down to the very last detail. His
latest creation is a tiny robot in his own likeness, which will soon be
given life through "the power of concentration"(?). Thank you, says
Martin, I've seen enough. He and the orderly make their way out of the
ward, and Martin returns to Rutherford. Martin exclaims that he will
not choose and does not appreciate being subjected to the whimsical
games of the doctor. While they argue, we see cuts to Byron's room,
where he lies in darkness, eyes focused on his little doppelganger,
concentrating life into the little guy. Well, goddamn, it works!
Through a series of improbable (given the robot's lack of great
mobility) events, the robot enters Rutherford's office and stabs the doc
in the back of the neck with a scalpel! This segment is just so
bizarre it needs to be seen.
Directed by the venerable
Roy Ward Baker (who helmed countless Hammer and Amicus films, and who
sadly passed away just a week ago, aged 93), and written by Robert Bloch
(Psycho), Asylum is a
fun little romp. The actors all pull off their roles with great
aplomb, and while some of the stories are weaker than others, the whole
thing is kept interesting by the overarching narrative. Which, it must
be said, is fairly easy to figure out (I guessed correctly at the
conclusion five minutes into the film). If you're a fan of anthology
horror, mysteries, Charlotte Rampling and/or Britt Ekland, check it
out. I'm not going to say it's a "must see" because, frankly it's not;
however, you won't feel like you've wasted your time when it's all said
and done. Don't rabidly track it down, but if you see a lonely copy
gathering dust at your local independent video store, give it a whirl. You won't be disappointed.