Vincent Price goes from the madhouse to the insanity of watching life imitate his most legendary role.
In this 1974 movie, Price plays a horror movie star that’s past his prime. He returns to acting on TV after being suspected of murdering his fiance, after a nervous breakdown, and a subsequent stay at a mental asylum, where he occasionally acts out scenes from his own movies. Price is coaxed back to acting by Peter Cushing, who plays the longtime writer and possessive creator of Price’s best known horror character Dr.Death. When Price starts work on the new series, he’s implicated in a string of murders carried out exactly as they appeared in his old films.
No matter that the movie doesn’t live up to the promise of these stars and this concept, and bogs down in a few places; with people like Price and Cushing and numerous nods to past films, you can’t help but enjoy. These actors usually brought their A game to even the worst of their movies, because they were (as Price’s daughter Victoria wrote in her biography of him) dedicated, determined and proud of their profession. Despite seeming a bit tired, Price does wonders with shifty suspicious side glances, tormented screams and even some action as he keeps finding the grisly murder victims, soliloquizes over the meaning of their demise, and tries to evade Dr. Death in the labyrinth of hallways and sets in the TV studio.
The killer’s mask and costume is one of the best of the genre, a misshapen skull, vivid and effective against the billowing black cape and wide black hat. The murder chases are creative, cartoonishly violent but not terribly realistic or gory, more like a bit fake with some gaffes like a dead person’s eyes moving, but that’s an acceptable part of the fun. As the police investigate we watch them review the previous Dr. Death films, which are actually clips from real Price movies, so you get fun “cameos” of Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone, and an opportunity for you to test yourself by naming the movie clips. There’s also a great bit at a costume party with full make up that has Cushing, cinema’s most famous Van Helsing, dressed up as Dracula, and the whole movie just has that familiar rich, colourful look of the era’s horror output. Bonuses: Price singing, and finding the basement tarantula lady, played by Adrienne Corri. With character names like Toombes and Flay, and generous camp, Madhouse feels more like Scream and the other fun, self-aware pictures of the 90’s slasher revival.
Madhouse was the last movie directed by Jim Clark, who subsequently went on to editing (Marathon Man, Memphis Belle and The World is Not Enough). Madhouse was also a joint venture between Amicus films, recently emerged from Hammer’s shadow when the latter had money troubles, and AIP, where Price had made so many of his 60’s horror movies. Price was in his last year at AIP when Madhouse finally gave him the chance to share scenes with Cushing (not nearly enough for my taste–Cushing’s absent for much of the film’s middle). The smarmy TV producer is played by Robert Quarry, Price’s co-star from Dr. Phibes Rises Again (to name just one), who’d recently been signed at AIP with hopes that he’d take over from Price in the genre.
Here’s the trailer