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