Madhouse (1974) [31 Days of British Horror Review]

Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January and the “31 Days of British Horror” in March , Jules is at it again in May, treating us to the continuation of his chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.

Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Adrienne Corri, Lynda Hayden
Director: Jim Clark

“What we saw in the darkness… the secret phantom feeding on death, creating death, exulting death!”

Loosely based on Angus Halliday’s 1969 novel Devilday, 1974’s Madhouse is a strange film. For one thing, its post-modern approach to having Vincent Price essentially play himself to allow commentary on the horror genre itself, feels remarkably forward thinking. On the other hand, it also feels very much like the beginning of the end of the classic horror era. Films like Night Of The Living Dead, The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had moved the goalposts so dramatically, it might have well have been a different sport.

Madhouse then, is a post-modern, retro, meta horror? Well, something like that. It’s era might be over, but it’s got something to say about it.

Iconic horror actor Paul Toombes (Vincent Price), most famous for his skull-faced Dr Death character suffered a career-ending breakdown when he finds his gold-digging and much younger fiancée with her head severed and placed back on her neck.

Returning to London after 12 years of treatment in a mental asylum, Toombes has been encouraged to come to the aid of his old friend screenwriter Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing), who has partnered with Quayle (far from Paul’s favourite person) to produce a Dr. Death television series for the BBC.

He’s not long back though, before the murders begin again. Worse, they appear to all be based on scenes from Toombes’ classic horror films. Has the actor gone insane? Is Dr Death real? Or is there another, more nefarious hand at work here?

Having appeared in Scream and Scream Again and Dr Phibes Rises Again but not having any scenes together, it’s a real joy seeing Peter Cushing and Vincent Price share so much screen time. Even if Madhouse was an absolute dud, it would still be worth watching purely for that.

Thankfully, it’s far from a dud.

We get to see Price in a very human and vulnerable role instead of a Machiavellian moustache twirler, reduced to a sad, broken man who’s sanity is hanging by a thread due to the real life horrors he’s forced to endure.

Every murder connects to him in some way, from the pushy young actress he meets on the boat from America (a sadly underused Lynda Hayden, who incidentally gives great corpse too) to his PR, co-star and her parents, with a signs pointing to Toombes, to the extent that even he’s not sure if he’s guilty. Price plays this uncertainty brilliantly, his pain and anguish at not just the deaths but his possible culpability writ large all over that expressive face of his.

The supporting cast is just as strong, with Cushing a perfect foil for Price, initially a warm presence as Toombes’ close friend and confidant, but in reality far from it, the great man cleverly works a steely undercurrent into his performance in the earlier scenes, subtly hinting at the hidden depths of his character.

It’s Adrienne Corri as Toombes’ old co-star and now Flay’s wife Faye who really steals the show though. Horribly disfigured and driven mad from a horrific car crash, she lurks in the basement of her house with her pet spiders, cackling like one of Shakespeare’s witches, but Corri injects no small amount of empathy into what is a truly tragic character.

That all sounds fairly grim, but Madhouse is also peppered with so many of those little post-modern touches that it propels the whole thing along as sheer entertainment. Clips of “Paul Toombes'” old films with Boris Karloff (The Raven) and Basil Rathbone (Tales Of Terror) are screened and discussed, while his interview with real life chat show host Michael Parkinson gives allows for a very meta discussion on why we love these films so much.

Madhouse wasn’t a huge hit, with AIP executive producer Samuel Z. Arkoff declaring it “the end of the horror cycle”, but in reality it’s a wonderful celebration of the art of the horror movie itself and features one of Vincent Price’s most layered performances. Marvellous.

Rating: 4/5.

JULESAVThe Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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