October Horrorshow: Asylum (1972)

The October Horrorshow continues here at Missile Test. The good, the bad, the unwatchable, it doesn’t matter. If there’s blood, there’s a place for it at the October Horrorshow. Today’s film is from Amicus Productions, a Hammer Films clone that made a number of portmanteau horror films in the 1960s and ’70s. Among these were the first screen adaptions of EC Comics horror staples Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. Asylum, from 1972, follows in the same vein.

Helmed by veteran television director Roy Ward Baker (who would go on to direct one of the most bizarre horror films of all time a couple years later — The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires), Asylum tells the stories of multiple inmates of an insane asylum in the English countryside, and how they all came to be there. The thread that ties all these stories together is Dr. Martin (Robert Powell), a psychiatrist who has arrived at the asylum seeking employment. He is set a task by the assistant director of the asylum, Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee). Upstairs, in one of the patient rooms, is Dr. Starr, the head of the asylum, confined after having a breakdown of his own. A new personality has manifested itself, hiding Dr. Starr behind delusion and insanity. If Dr. Martin can identify which patient is Dr. Starr, he will have the job.

Dr. Martin meets with four patients, and their stories are all but identical to what a viewer could find in any random episode of Tales from the Crypt. No surprise there, considering how Amicus had been making their money prior to filming Asylum. Nor is there anything original. What keeps Asylum interesting is the seriousness with which it takes itself. It’s packed to the gills with serious English actors (and one Czech), including Peter Cushing in a quick role that probably paid his gas bill, or maybe even a full weekend at a country manor. The score is overwrought and loud, incorporating Night on Bald Mountain for dramatic effect, and failing miserably.

Unfortunately, neither Baker’s direction nor Robert Bloch’s screenplay could keep up with the cast. This becomes hilariously clear in the film’s final segment, Mannikins of Horror. In this segment, mad doctor Byron (Herbet Lom) unleashes a tiny doppelganger of death, a six-inch tall wind-up robot with murderous intent, upon the staff of the asylum. It’s a precious moment in the film. One where a viewer can tell the crew knew they were putting a real disaster on film, but there was nothing they could do about it. They were short on budget, short on F/X talent, and a scowling child’s toy was the best they could do. Up until this act, I was underwhelmed by Asylum, but the tiny killer robot made my day. No joke, it turned my autumn melancholia around, and reminded me why I enjoy watching shitty movies. Good job, Roy Ward Baker. Your movie made me howl with laughter, something Alien: Resurrection has never done.