Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Bloody Hell! It's British Horror Week! - Asylum (Roy Ward Baker, 1972)

So my plans to have a belated Halloween blogathon went right out of the window but no matter, there's always next year! On the watching films front I've been busy as ever though and for the next week/possibly till the end of the month, I'm gonna be talking about an area which has been shamefully neglected by me up until recently... homegrown horror!

While there are certainly many British horror films I love, some of which have been firm favourites for years, for some reason I still haven't checked out as many of the classics of the British horror canon as I no doubt should have. This recent kick I've been on started somewhat accidentally with the film I'll be looking at today, but when I discovered that Hammer are celebrating their 80th anniversary this month, I decided to start immersing myself in as much Anglo-horror as possible.

I'll be getting to Hammer in due course over the next week (including a write up of a moviethon I had to celebrate said birthday) but the first few films are courtesy of Amicus...

The first thing that struck me (and stuck with me afterwards) while watching the opening titles is the use of music. While credited to Amicus regular Douglas Gamley, the majority (as will be obvious to classical music fans and anyone who's seen Fantasia) is actually by Modest Mussorgsky. The piece that bookends the film is Night on Bald Mountain, which was most famously put to moving pictures back in 1940 by Walt Disney, and there are a couple of bits from Pictures at an Exhibition ("Gnomus" and "The Hut on Hen's Legs"), which Gamley apparently created a full orchestral version of, so clearly he was a big fan. Music trivia aside, what of the actual movie?

Asylum is, like many of the titles Amicus is famed for, an anthology film. The framing story, which is one of the best I've seen from the form, concerns Dr. Martin (Robert Powell), a psychiatrist who arrives at the eponymous institution for an interview for the position of top shrink. Things seem a bit dodgy right off the bat frankly, with him being met by a Dr. Rutherford (played by Patrick Magee, which should always set alarm bells ringing) rather than the Dr. Starr he was expecting to see. It turns out that the latter went mad (by proxy perhaps?) and is now an inmate... and furthermore he was apparently responsible for the fact that the former now needs a wheelchair. Eschewing the usual conventions of job interviews, Dr. Rutherford tells Dr. Martin that if he can guess which of the four incurable patients they have is Dr. Starr, the job is his.

After a extremely ominous trip up some stairs, past plenty of damn creepy prints of asylums of old (all to the tune of the aforementioned "Gnomus", which I also recognise from The Big Lebowski, of all movies), Martin is met by an attendant called Max (Geoffrey Bayldon, who, if my research is correct, replaced Spike Milligan at the 11th hour), who takes him to see the four patients. Martin tries picking Max's brain for clues but it's clear he's been given the heads up by Rutherford and is keeping his cards close to his chest as a result. And as is no doubt obvious, the four patients relate the stories that comprise the majority of the movie.

One issue often observed regarding anthology films is that the quality of the stories is, most of the time, somewhat inconsistent. Personally, I didn't find that to be the case in Asylum. While some may arguably be stronger than others, none seemed like a weak link to me. And there's a good mix on display, from the overtly supernatural to the more subtle and psychological. The first story, "Frozen Fear" falls into the former category, being an E.C. comics-esque tale of revenge from beyond the grave. Occult forces are also at work in the second story, "The Weird Tailor", which is perhaps my favourite, no doubt largely due to the presence of Peter Cushing, who gives a characteristically scene stealing performance... and like in Tales from the Crypt from the same year, it has an undercurrent of heartbreaking reality about it, no doubt due to the passing of his beloved wife Helen the year before. 

The third tale, "Lucy Comes to Stay", is more of a psychological thriller, but as I said earlier, this variety is most welcome and one of Asylum's strongest suits. And the final story, "Mannikins of Horror", is the probably the weirdest of the lot (though "The Weird Tailor", unsurprisingly, gives it a runs for its money), which is no bad thing in my book... and without giving anything away, this tale works its way into the overall wraparound, which is something I don't think I've seen in many other anthology movies (if any). 

Speaking of the wraparound, I wasn't completely taken with it the first viewing, no doubt due to some confusion regarding the order of events caused by seeing the movie so early in the morning and in such an intoxicated state (to be fair I had been at a wedding all day!). But re-watching it recently it all made much more sense and I can see why some call this their favourite Amicus anthology. I've a few to see yet before I can make that call, but currently I think I'd say the same. For one thing, I love how the film is bookended, as underscored by Night on Bald Mountain... and like at least two other Amicus anthologies I've seen, the very end has a cheeky bit of direct address to the audience. 

Add to this excellent performances across the board from a thoroughly committed (so to speak) cast (including the likes of Powell, Magee, Cushing, Sylvia Syms, Barry Morse, Charlotte Rampling and Herbert Lom, to name just a few), an ingeniously constructed script by Robert Bloch (adapted from four of his own stories) and some directorial flair from Roy Ward Baker. All in all a superlative example of the anthology format and already, after only two viewings, a firm favourite of mine.

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