Saturday, October 29, 2011

Madhouse (1974): or, Making a Killing in Show Business

October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 28!

On New Year's eve, movie star Paul Toombes (Vincent Price) throws a party with three goals: to celebrate the annual changing of the calendar, to premiere the latest in his successful series of horror flicks in which he plays macabre supervillain Dr. Death, and to announce his engagement to his much, much younger lover Ellen (Julie Crosthwaite). Things are spoiled when Paul's former lover Faye (Adrienne Corri, of the previously reviewed sci-fi funfest Moon Zero Two [1969]) interferes with some cutting remarks, and Ellen's old beau, adult film producer Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry) reveals to Paul that his new fiancee has a history doing the belly-bumpin' boogie for the camera. 

This news shocks the old man into spurning his soulmate, going upstairs, and collapsing in a depressed heap on the bed. A bit later, a man dressed in a very convincing Dr. Death costume sneaks into Ellen's room and dispatches her, gaining style points for perfectly balancing her head atop her severed neck for Paul to discover later! Paul is accused of Ellen's murder, and sentenced to twelve years in a mental institution.

When he gets out, he is offered a job by his old friend and screenwriter Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing)--who is also Faye's brother and her sole caregiver after a fiery car accident left her disfigured and insane--reviving the Dr. Death character for a television series. However, as the Hollywood bloodsuckers come out of the woodwork and the temperamental old actor adjusts to modern moviemaking, he suffers further bouts of unconsciousness and wakes up to find more corpses, killed just as Dr. Death would have done. Is Paul a closet psychopath, using his cinematic alter-ego to avenge himself on those he hates? Or is there something more sinister afoot?

With a real all-star cast of horror heavyweights (in addition to Price, Cushing, and Quarry, we get "special participation" by Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff! Though this participation is limited to archive footage from other films), Madhouse is pretty much guaranteed to please. The plot is a little threadbare and silly (the cocky TV director being pressed like a grape in one of Dr. Death's props is just one example), but Price goes at it gamely as always, and Quarry makes an excellent big Hollywood baddie. Cushing is fun as the milquetoast writer who may know more than he's saying, and Corri steals the show as the former beauty whose tragedy has somehow made her a basement-dwelling, spider-coddling old crone. If nothing else, the Dr. Death makeup is simply wonderful, and will make fans of Price wish he actually had made a few films as the character.

There's no actual madhouse action to speak of in Madhouse, but the climax is MAD enough without it. Light on gore and scares, but nonetheless a fun matinee-style horror flick. 2 thumbs.

"The Doctor's on smoke break, baby. Blow."
 (image borrowed from the excellent horror-centric tumblr, Where Beauty and Terror Dance. Check it out!)

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