Asylum (1972) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Movie

Asylum_(1972_film)Robert Bloch (1917-1994) is best-known as the author of the suspense classic Psycho and his tale of eternal horror, Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper. At the height of his success he was also an exceptionally prolific screen-writer, writing original screen plays for film and TV and also adapting many of his own short stories. Some of the best of these were included in the anthology films he wrote for Amicus, the company that competed most successfully with Hammer for horror supremacy at the box office. Asylum may be the best of them.

I submit this review for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Movie meme at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

“You have nothing to lose but you mind”

Robert Powell stars as Dr Martin, a young psychiatrist who is applying for a position in a clinic for the incurably insane housed in an old Gothic pile in the country. When he arrives he is told that Dr Starr, the head of the institution, has suffered a breakdown but that he will still be able to secure the position if he is able to identify who he is from four of the patients held in a secure wing (Martin has never met Starr before and doesn’t even know if the doctor is a man or a woman). He is let into the secure wing by an orderly (Geoffrey Bayldon) and interviews various patients, leading into adaptations by Bloch of four short stories that he had originally published in Weird Tales magazine.

Frozen Fear (Weird Tales, 1946)
Starring: Barbara Parkins (inmate), Richard Todd, Sylvia Syms
This is a tale of a love triangle in which a husband (Todd) kills his wife (Syms) and chops up her body, wraps the parts in brown paper, and sticks them in the basement freezer so he can inherit her money and be with his mistress (Parkins, who narrates). This leads to a silly but well-realised set-piece as the various wrapped sections take their revenge on the couple. Though it predates it, this tale of villains getting their just deserts would now probably be termed as being in the EC Comics style and works splendidly at that level.

The Weird Tailor (Weird Tales, 1950)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Barry Morse (inmate), Ann Firbank
Mysterious and melancholy Cushing asks impecunious tailor Morse, who is now in the asylum,  to make him a very special suit using material with magical properties, leading to another full-throttle horror finale. Cushing as ever is great value (though he does in fact only appear in two extended sequences).

Lucy Comes to Stay (Weird Tales, 1952)
Starring: Charlotte Rampling (inmate), Britt Ekland, James Villiers, Megs Jenkins
This is probably my favourite episode and is also the longest and most substantial, expanding very successfully on the fairly short original. Barbara (Rampling, who narrates) is brought home from hospital by her brother (Villers), who to her displeasure has hired a nurse (the always lovely Megs Jenkins) to look after her at home while she recuperates. But Barbara has a scary best friend, Lucy (Ekland, in excellent form here), and the two hatch a nasty plan to make a break for it. There are no supernatural elements in this tale, which benefits greatly from an excellent cast and the careful handling of director Roy Ward Baker, who exhibits all his customary expertise and adroitness here.

Mannikins of Horror (Weird Tales, 1939)
Starring: Herbert Lom (inmate)
This is technically the wraparound story, linked to the discovery of the identity of Dr Starr, features a very brief cameo by Lom (his scenes were all shot in a single day) as a man who believes he can will his personality into little mannikins he has created. While this part of the plot is somewhat daft (the little mechanical dolls aren’t especially scary, but then this is a modestly budgeted film) but in closing out the story it does deliver some nasty surprises too, which is probably why I think it has the edge over the other films that Bloch scripted for Amicus.

Asylum-poster

Amicus made all sorts of films, including musicals and Dr Who adaptations, but were best known for their horror titles. From the mid 1960s they specialised in the portmanteau style, which hitherto had tended to be more popular on the Continent than in the UK or US. Here we have an unusually strong narrative hook and what we ended up with is a very effective mixture of Dead of Night, the classic Ealing supernatural anthology, which was also producer Milton Subotsky’s favourite film, and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the silent classic for which, not coincidentally, Bloch had scripted the 1962 remake. The other Amicus anthology films are listed below – the cycle peaked commercially with Tales from the Crypt (1972), which many think is the best of the series.

  1. Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965; written by Subotsky)
  2. Torture Garden (1967, written by Bloch)
  3. The House That Dripped Blood (1971, written by Bloch)
  4. Tales from the Crypt (1972; adapted by Subotsky)
  5. The Vault of Horror (1973; adapted by Subotsky)
  6. From Beyond the Grave (1974)
  7. The Monster Club (1981)

Asylum (1972)
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Producer: Max J Rosenberg & Milton Subotsky
Screenplay: Robert Bloch
Cinematography: Denys Coop
Art Direction: Tony Curtis
Music: Douglas Gamley (and Mussorgsky’s ‘Night On Bald Mountain’)
Cast: Robert Powell, Charlotte Rampling, Britt Ekland, Peter Cushing, Barbara Parkins, Patrick Magee, Sylvia Syms, Richard Todd, James Villiers, Megs Jenkins, Herbert Lom, Barry Morse, Ann Firbank, Geoffrey Bayldon

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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73 Responses to Asylum (1972) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Movie

  1. Santosh Iyer says:

    The entire collection of Amicus anthology films is available with me. I will see Asylum again before giving further comments.
    I highly recommend 2 such anthology horror films in Hindi: Darna Mana Hai (2003) and its sequel Darna Zaroori Hai (2006).

  2. This does sound like a very atmospheric and suitably creepy tale, Sergio! Sometimes those shorter ‘anthology’ tales pack the most proverbial punch.

    • Thanks Margot – i think this one works surprisingly well – some of it is supernatural, but the best of its is ‘straight’ which is why I thought it might be worth blogging about.

  3. tracybham says:

    These stories are too creepy for me but have some wonderful actors in them.

    • Fair enough Tracy, though the style of the time was exceptionally restrained as hey were primarily aimed at teens – there is literally not a drop of blood on the screen, no nudity, no profanity of any kind. Still scary though!

  4. Todd Mason says:

    This one does have a better cast than Subotsky deserved, but the fiddles made to Bloch’s scripts by Subotsky tended to infuriate him…and this one, with the repetitious reworking of PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION snatches in the soundtrack, iirc, simply didn’t deliver for me…I did think TORTURE GARDEN, even with Mirbeau’s title slapped on out of nowhere, was more successful on balance. “Lucy Comes to Stay” and “I Do Not Love Thee. Dr. Fell” were two of the stories Bloch o ften cited as his working up to PSYCHO and similar non-supernatural suspense fiction. The stories more effective in prose, though I do tend to like Ranpling. (“But I’ve never rampled!”)

    • Thanks for that Todd (Rampling romping notwithstanding …). Yes, the emphatic use of the music on top of Gamley’s score is a bit odd (and is almost certainly a Subotsky ‘touch’). I really like the way that a proper narrative ties up the stories here though I have not seen Torture Garden in a really long time (I remember loving it as a kid and the tie-in paperback probably got me more into Bloch than Psycho). Bloch was quite nice about how ‘The Cloak’ was played for laughs in House that Drips Blood.

      • Todd Mason says:

        That I had such strong childhood memories of THRILLER (the Robinson/Karloff/often Bloch-scripted one) probably didn’t help my teen viewing of the Amicus anthologies as kindly as I might, even if I hadn’t read Bloch in interviews about his lack of love for Subotsky’s attempts at rewrite…one with Bhob Stewart in Calvin T. Beck (the primary model for Norman Bates’s personality)’s CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN magazine,iirc

        • I have seen precisely one episode of THRILLER, of course a Bloch episode (Yours Truly) – I would love to get the DVD sometime as it seems like such a good set. They are plastered all over the web, but I try to ignore those …

  5. Colin says:

    I used to have mixed feelings about Amicus films back in the day, feeling they never quite lived up to Hammer movies. Nowadays, I think if you set them up against the material Hammer was putting out in the 70s, I’m not sure that they’re really inferior.

    It’s been some time since I saw this particular one, although I do have it around here somewhere. I reckon it’s one of the stronger efforts as well despite a couple of pretty ridiculous moments. The success or otherwise of an anthology film isn’t so much dependent on the quality of all the stories contained – although if they are all weak, then it’s problematic – as it is on the strength of the linking arc. And that’s where this films works so well, the tale wrapped around the four short pieces is strong and does deliver.

    • Thanks for that chum. I know what you mean – with Amicus films being nearly always set in contemporary times I always thought of them, as a youngster who was often quick to rush to judgement, as being less imaginative and more workmanlike but I’ve come to enjoy them more and more. Having said that, Hammer made a lot more films than Amicus ever did, even at their height, so one can pick and choose more. I do want to see TORTURE GARDEN again – it has been decades but I remember liking it a lot.

      • Colin says:

        I haven’t watched any for a good long while now. When it comes to horror stuff I’m very selective and don’t watch a huge amount all told. This type of film does have its attractions though and just talking about it makes me nostalgic for creepy, chilling and suspenseful storytelling, where you came away with a satisfied thrill rather than a sense of depression or nausea.

        • I agree 100% – I find most horror cinema incredibly depressing and just don’t enjoy it. Some of my best friends adore horror, with zombies as a special favourite, but mostly I just don’t get it. On the other hand in the case of Hammer, Val Lewton, Universal from the 30s and 40s, I’m in there like a shot! I should add that there she some pretty outrageous film that I really enjoyed, like Takashi Miike’s Audition, Re-Animator and Society and am a huge fan of John Carpenter and I still think David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly is amazing – so I am clearly a bit fickle …

          • Todd Mason says:

            I suspect that you aren’t a mindless-splatter/gore fan, as I am not. either. I have a running argument with at least one correspondent who chooses to see satirical intent in the likes of HOSTEL, when I see it as well, but find the execution, in all senses, puerile at best. While the likes of MARTYRS or DEAD ALIVE I like just fine…even if I tend too prefer the kind of horror inherent in ONIBABA or THE HAUNTING or, in its slightly less powerful but creditable way, IT FOLLOWS. I will spray on HUMAN CENTIPEDEs without mercy, in feline fashion if necessary.

          • God no, I could’t watch any of those – mind you, I have no problem with De Palma (but am quite selective when ti comes to Argento) and I loved AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON – I think it helps if you can actually connect to the characters a bit. But no, cannot enjoy the likes of HOSTEL or HUMAN CENTIPEDE

          • Todd Mason says:

            Intelligence and craft beyond the fx also helps.

          • I remember thinking this when I first saw THE HOWLING – did you ever see Dante’s adaptation of Tiptree Jr’s SCREWFLY SOLUTION? Thought it was really good.

          • Todd Mason says:

            Not yet. MASTERS OF HORROR wasn’t the directorial masturbation-fest TALES FROM THE CRYPT the series was, but there certainly were so many script-lite episodes that I take them in only occasionally. I’ll check it. (Then sequel series FEAR ITSELF had the same attitude, with NBC broadcast censors hovering…though still managed an effective episode or so.)

          • The two Dante episodes of MASTERS OF HORROR, both written by Sam Hamm (the other, HOMECOMING, is very funny) were the cream of the crop for me.

      • Todd Mason says:

        Having seen TORTURE GARDEN again in the last several months, dubbed off TCM, it’s hammy in bits, the Yanks particular going broad in their performance, but still my choice of the best of the Amicus Blochs.

  6. Santosh Iyer says:

    Here, the linking story is also prominent and thus we get 5 stories.
    My favourite is Lucy Comes To Stay.
    In Mannikins of Horror, the dolls simply look like mechanical robot toys and never give the impression of being alive and as you mention are not at all scary. In the original story, the dolls are made of clay.
    The original short story The Weird Tailor is available here for reading and downloading
    https://www.unz.org/Pub/WeirdTales-1950jul-00006

  7. Patti Abbott says:

    I don’t think I have seen any of these. But I did find a wealth of old British movies on Amazon Prime. I reviewed one today.

  8. John says:

    Is this the first in a series on the Amicus horror anthology movies in the same fashion as your Hammer horror series? (hint, hint) ASYLUM is probably my second favorite of these films.

    I saw TORTURE GARDEN a few years ago for the first time and loved Burgess Meredith as Dr. Diabolo, the “host” of the tales. Jack Palance does a foppish English gent (!) with an attempt at an accent that fails miserably, but he’s actually the highlight of the entire movie.

    I have a special fondness for the gruesome stories in TALES FROM THE CRYPT which gave me nightmares as a teen. Some of the other movies have some very well done sequences and entertaining performances like the Margaret Leighton’s over-the-top psychic in FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE and Terry-Thomas and Glynis Johns in the loopy segment in VAULT OF HORROR. But they’re all kind of uneven to me. Some sequences are dull while others are predictable. There’s
    always one story that stands out rather than all the stories being of the same quality.

    WARNING: I would avoid THE MONSTER CLUB if you’ve not yet seen it. Yeech. Reminded me of those horrible unfunny comic vignettes that were thrown into on the last couple of episodes in the final season of Night Gallery. Not even Price or Carradine redeemed it with their tongue in cheek campy humor.

    Also, you ought to know that the last two movies exclusively use stories written by horror writer R. Chetwynd-Hayes which you didn’t notate in your list.

    • Thanks for that John – might do House that Dripped Blood certainly! I actually saw Monster Club on its initial cinema run and I agree, it’s not up to much though I still think the striptease sequence in silhouette is a really nifty idea, but that’s about it really. Yeah, I just noted the ones that either Bloch or Subotsky had credits on. I recently re-watched The Skull and thought it held up remarkably well. The razor blade sequence from Tales from the Crypt is probably my favourite ever!

      • John says:

        Aha! well, this was a post about Bloch at the movies. Should’ve figured that out.

        Yes, the blind men with the razor maze and the horrifying surprise at the heart of that maze! That gave me nightmares and few movies ever did when I was a kid. The entire sequence is firmly embedded on my movie memory bank.

  9. John says:

    A sudden related afterthought: I have a slew of contemporary horror movies coming my way via Netflix including THE HALLOW and THE WITCH both of which I wanted to see in theaters but missed for one reason or another. If any of them are worthwhile I’ll be sure to write them up at PSB. Never heard of SOCIETY. Off to read about it at imdb.com.

    • I think you might like Society a lot – it is predominantly a comedy (it gets away with some really extreme makeup effects but not showing any blood ever). Babadook is the one I am really sorry to have missed at the sinema.

  10. Colin says:

    Great discussion of all things Bloch that has developed here, most entertaining. Have you ever seen the TV movie The Dead Don’t Die, which he wrote? I remember seeing it on TV (probably one of the Irish channels) many years ago and thinking it was deliciously creepy.

  11. Santosh Iyer says:

    A more faithful adaptation of Mannikins Of Horror is the season 1, episode 23 of the TV series Monsters (1989). Here the dolls are made of clay and look more realistic and alive and scary.

  12. Sergio, I enjoyed reading your review of ASYLUM and the overall lively discussion on the Amicus horror movies. I take this as a motivation to read Robert Bloch, an author I have never read before.

  13. Santosh Iyer says:

    SPOILER ALERT !

    I have just read the story Lucy Comes To Stay. In the book, Miss Higgins is not attacked. Thus this story is more terrifying in the film !

  14. Santosh Iyer says:

    I also have a similar horror anthology film Tales That Witness Madness (1973) directed by Freddie Francis. It is not Amicus but its structure is similar to Asylum (1972). It also involves an asylum and 4 mental patients.

  15. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have just seen The Monster Club (1981). I found it mediocre and not worth seeing, though the striptease sequence idea, as you mention, is very good.
    Incidentally, it does not seem to be an Amicus production. As per the credits, It is Chips Productions.

    • Yes, Subotsky and Rosenberg had (acrimoniously) parted company by then, so it was just Subotsky but I thought it deserved to be included here – though I don’t remember all that much about it really 😉

  16. Pingback: Scream and Scream Again (1969) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film | Tipping My Fedora

  17. Pingback: The House that Dripped Blood (1971) | Tipping My Fedora

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