Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Asylum (1972)

Hammer’s great rival in the British horror movie market in the 60s and 70s was Amicus Productions. Amicus specialised in horror anthology films, all of which are worth seeing, but in my view the best of all their films was their 1972 release Asylum.

Asylum was written by Robert Bloch, best known as the author of Psycho but an excellent and versatile writer of fiction in various genres. The director was Roy Ward Baker, one of the top British directors of the period (and a man who did some notable horror movies for Hammer as well).

Asylum benefits from a particularly strong framing story. Young psychiatrist Dr Martin (Robert Powell) has applied for a position as a houseman at an insane asylum. On arrival he discovers that the director of the hospital is now a patient. The assistant director sets Dr Martin a challenge. He has to interview four patients, one of whom is the asylum’s former director. If Dr Martin can correctly identify which patient is the former director he gets the job. Each of the four patients then tells his or her story, these stories being the movie’s four segments.

In the first of these, Frozen Fear, Bonnie (Barbara Parkins) is a young American having an affair with a middle-aged Englishman, Walter (Richard Todd). Since Walter’s wife (Sylvia Sims) controls the money and refuses to give him a divorce they plot to kill her. This proves to be more difficult than they expected, which may or may not be because the wife is a student of voodoo. It’s a nicely macabre story, very much what you expect from Robert Bloch. Parkins was a competent actress. Richard Todd’s career may have been on the downslide but he was an excellent actor and he does well here.

In the second part, The Weird Tailor, Barry Morse plays a tailor name Bruno desperate for money who is delighted when the mysterious Smith (Peter Cushing) offers him a huge fee for a rather unusual suit. The suit is in fact very unusual indeed. Cushing is delightfully creepy and, as he so often did, he makes Smith a figure who is both terrifying and tragic. Barry Morse (a fine and underrated actor) is able to make Bruno almost pathetic but not quite and he does a fine job in emphasising Bruno’s desperation for money which warps his judgment.

The third segment, Lucy Comes to Stay, involves a young woman named Barbara (Charlotte Rampling). Barbara has been released from a mental hospital after a breakdown but her brother George (the delightfully smooth and urbane James Villiers) is not convinced that she has fully recovered. He employs a nurse to keep an eye on her. He had hoped that they had heard the last of Lucy (Britt Eckland) but his hopes are to be sadly disappointed. Rampling was not yet a star but she already has that slightly odd quality that always made her so interesting. Britt Eckland has rarely received much respect as an actress and that’s a trifle unfair. Her performance is more than competent.

The fourth segment (Mannikins of Horror) features the inimitable Herbert Lom as Byron, a man who believes he can transfer his mind into a toy robot. 

One of this film’s major asset is the stellar cast. Apart from those already mentioned there’s Geoffrey Bayldon as the hospital’s unctuous porter and Patrick Magee as the assistant director, Dr Rutherford. This is a movie in which everyone is so perfectly cast that it’s hard to pick a single standout performance. They’re all so good.

Asylum is an example of just how good a modestly budgeted movie can be with the right people involved. Director Roy Ward Baker, cinematographer Denys N. Coop, editor Peter Tanner and art director Tony Curtis were all professionals and the results are very good indeed. 

Camera tricks like Dutch angles generally need to be used judiciously but in this case, given the subject matter and the asylum setting, they’re entirely appropriate and are used to good effect. While much of the movie was made as Shepperton Studios there’s a considerable amount of location shooting as well. Amicus, like Hammer, were able to make cheap movies that looked more expensive than they were.

Amicus, very wisely, did not try to copy the Hammer style directly. Hammer were the masters of gothic horror so Amicus concentrated on contemporary chillers. This gives Amicus’s movies their own distinctive flavour.

Robert Bloch’s screenplay adapted four of his own earlier short stories. Lucy Comes to Stay was a story that he considered to be a kind of dry run for Psycho.

Dark Sky’s DVD presentation includes a brief but quite informative featurette on the history of Amicus Productions and an audio commentary with Roy Ward Baker and camera operator Neil Binney. Their recollections of the making of the film are still vivid and they are clearly (and with reason) quite proud of it. The transfer is good although not outstanding.

There’s no gore but there’s plenty of suspense and a nicely creepy atmosphere of crazed weirdness. You just don’t need gore in a horror movie if you know what you’re doing. Asylum is one of the most enjoyable of all British horror movies of this era. Very highly recommended.

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