Monday, 11 February 2013

Madhouse (1974)


A Vincent Price horror movie about Vincent Price horror movies.  Whenever Vincent Price falls asleep, 'Dr Death', his character's most famous character comes to life and commits foul murders.  But is it really Vincent Price behind the mask and gloves?

As you may note, I find something satisfying about so much as typing the name Vincent Price.  He's a very enjoyable fellow, and in his element here - and the metafiction, using scenes from his older films as the back-catalogue of the actor he plays here, renders the whole thing more self-aware and more interesting than a plain murder mystery.


'Aaaaaaaaaaarrrrrghhhhh!'

So, 'Dr Death' kills Vincent Price's fianc√©; she quite literally screams her head off (see directly above) but this doesn't cause anyone from the party downstairs to pop in and check she's ok, or the film would be over in the first five minutes.  Everyone assumes Vincent Price did the deed.  Even Vincent assumes this, and the odd suggestion seems to be that there was no real police investigation or public outcry - but it sets his career back somewhat and he has to be persuaded out of retirement by Peter Cushing to resurrect his old movie character for a British commercial TV channel - with murderous consequences, as the killings begin.

This film is full of people looking in big mirrors
while failing to spot things right behind them

For some while it seems that this might not be a murder-mystery at all, but rather an open-and-shut case.  Vincent Price seems to be the only person with both opportunity and motive.  But it seems - or seemed to me, in any case, likelier and likelier that the great Vincent was indeed doing the murders during some series of blackouts and mental breakdowns.  There are quite a lot of other candidates, of course, all just antagonistic, or just eccentric enough for them to privately be crazed murderers, but none of them quite seem far-gone enough to be behind this spate of wild and outrageous killings (one girl has her head cut off with a pen-knife, apparently.  Another is hanged with her own hair, and so on.  All shocking and ridiculous, rather than gory and terrifying, but tense nonetheless).  Is our hero also the villain?

A cameo from Michael Parkinson as himself interrupts the action finale

As the film pressed on I swung back towards the idea, even the hope, that perhaps Vincent Price was behind it all.  It would seem clean, appropriate, that his character had gotten out of hand.  That he had created a monster even within himself.  We don't quite get the ending I wanted.  It becomes apparent that there are two Doctor Deaths: Vincent Price in costume for his new TV series, and the murderer, impersonating him.  What would have seemed more satisfying and fitting, to my mind, would be for our hero Vincent Price to remove the villain's mask to reveal that it was himself, another Vincent Price.  It wouldn't make a great deal of sense, but it's what I was holding out for - that he might have created another self in Dr Death, detached from himself to exercise those murderous instincts he so finely details to Michael Parkinson.  Sadly Dr Death doesn't murder this real-life interviewer - a missed trick, if ever there was one.

One of too few nice shots

It's not a very visually exciting film, and seems to belong more in the past than in its own time.  This is a seventies in Britain that looks, fashions aside, a lot like the sixties - two decades between which I've always placed an artificial division.  Perhaps it's a deliberate nostalgia for Vincent Price's past, or at least his character's, but it seems odd when the man's clearly in his prime.  Thankfully the strength of his performance, and the mainly-believable grotesquery that surrounds him, keeps the film lively and fun.  Characters walk with blissful stupidity into situations in which they'll obviously be murdered, and this is very pleasing.  The use of old footage in the character's screenings and memories allows us cameos from Basil Rathbone and  Boris Karloff, from beyond the grave, which seems appropriate.

I fear I've given away a fair bit of the film's mystery in these comments, but there's still plenty I haven't revealed, so if it sounds appealing, you may find some strange delight in it.  Incidentally, the title 'Madhouse' is quite irrelevant, and could apply equally well to every other film I've seen this year.  'Idiosyncratic Studio' would be far more accurate, and considerably less generic.

P.S. This was yet another of Opai's  grab-bag of unusual suggestions - the good senor also recommended me 'Way Out West' (1937), 'Daisies' (1966) and the frightful 'Na Srebrnym Globie' (1977).  When other people have made me multiple suggestions I've openly chastised them, but these have all been intriguing, unlike one another, and unlike any film I've chosen for myself.  My apologies to those of you who've made suggestions that I haven't yet reached - I hope to cover most in time.

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