"It was absurd, it was insane, it was — convincing."
The series began with Dr. Terror's House of Horrors in 1965, and continued with Torture Garden (1967), The House that Dripped Blood (1971), Tales from the Crypt (1972), Asylum (also 1972), The Vault of Horror (1973) and From Beyond the Grave (1974). As two of those titles make obvious, Amicus was also inspired by the EC horror comics of the post-war era; though Amicus was a British studio, Subotsky and Rosenberg were American ex-pats, and Subotsky was a fan. Like the EC comics, most of the stories in the Amicus anthologies are supernatural morality tales, in which the various misdeeds of its characters are punished in a brutal but oddly appropriate fashion.
The basic pattern of the stories was this: a group of ordinary people would somehow come into contact with one extraordinary — and possibly supernatural — individual. In Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, five men on a train encounter the fortune-teller Dr. Schreck and his tarot deck; in Torture Garden, five spectators attend the show of the carnival charlatan Doctor Diabolo; Tales from the Crypt finds five tourists lost in a catacomb with a hooded old man who calls himself the Cryptkeeper; and From Beyond the Grave brings various customers into an antique shop called "Temptations, Ltd.", where their attempts to swindle the proprietor show they really don't understand who they're dealing with. In each case, the "ordinary people" turn out to be full of ghastly secrets, all of which are brought to light by their mysterious host. The Vault of Horror follows the same general pattern, but omits the host: instead, five men find themselves trapped in a strange building that seems to be waiting for them, and tell their stories to each other.
Dr. Terror's House of Horrors introduced this formula. Torture Garden, which was scripted by the American author Robert Bloch (Psycho), repeated it and established the pattern. However, when Bloch himself went on to write two more of these anthology movies, he broke the pattern. The House That Dripped Blood got rid of the "random strangers" plot device, and replaced it with a framing story about a police detective from Scotland Yard investigating the disappearance of a famous actor. The actor's actual fate made up the fourth and final story in the collection, with the remaining three stories being told to the inspector by the local police: the unifying element is a house, from which the tenants never seem to leave in one piece. Of course, the police investigation plot doesn't really amount to a full story in itself, and its resolution is really part of the fourth story.
However, in Bloch's last anthology script for Amicus — Asylum — he changed the framework yet again... and in doing so made, if not the best, certainly the most unique of the seven films.
Young Dr. Martin (Robert Powell [The Asphyx, Mahler]), a psychiatrist, arrives at Dunsmoor Asylum for a job interview with the asylum's director, Dr. Starr. When he arrives, he's greeted not by Dr. Starr, but by Starr's assistant Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee [Dementia 13, The Black Cat]). Rutherford in unimpressed with Martin's credentials. Dealing with the incurably insane, he points out, is a very dangerous occupation, and one that's ill-suited to an inexperienced young man. As evidence of this, Rutherford points out that he himself was attacked recently by a patient, and now he is confined to a wheelchair. As further evidence, he tells Dr. Martin exactly which patient attacked him: Dr. Starr. The asylum director — that is, former director — had been driven mad by the demands of the job, and had suffered a complete psychotic break. He is now confined on the upper floor of the building, with no memory of his previous identity.
In fact, this situation gives Rutherford an idea for a test, to determine if Dr. Martin is really capable of working at Dunsmoor. What if he were to go up and interview each of the hopeless cases on the top floor? Could he determine, just by talking to them, which is the mad Dr. Starr? It wouldn't be easy: the doctor's old personality is now completely submerged behind a new one, which the patient firmly believes to be his real self. Oh, wait — did I say his? Who can tell if "Dr. B. Starr" is a man or a woman?
Dr. Rutherford, being wheelchair-bound, is unable to accompany Dr. Martin and observe his progress. But after he sends Dr. Martin upstairs to interview the patients, he calls the attending orderly, Reynolds (Geoffrey Bayldon, The House that Dripped Blood, Tales from the Crypt), to the intercom for some urgent instructions...
Dr. Martin's first patient is a young woman named Bonnie (Valley of the Dolls). Martin at first muses that "Bonnie" could possibly be "B. Starr", but as his remaining patients will turn out to be Bruno, Barbara and Byron, that supposition doesn't get him very far. Bonnie sits with her back to Martin and Reynolds, and refuses to turn around as she tells her story:
Once upon a time, Bonnie was the mistress of a wealthy man. Except the wealthy man wasn't actually as wealthy as she thought: the money was all his wife's, and when the wife found out about Bonnie she threatened to cut him off without a cent. Obviously that wouldn't do for a number of reasons, none of them healthy. Walter had pretended to go back to Ruth, but behind the scenes he'd plotted with Bonnie to kill Ruth and run away with Bonnie. When Ruth comes home from her spirituality classes — run by an African sorcerer — Walter surprises her with a brand new deep freezer in the basement... and a hatchet through her skull.
As Bonnie prepares to meet Walter, Walter goes to work dismembering Ruth and wrapping her various bits in heavy brown paper. Then he piles her limbs up in the deep-freeze, where he expects they won't be found until long after he and Bonnie have fled and assumed new identities. Just as he's finishing, he notices the little African trinket Ruth had been wearing on her arm — some sort of amulet meant to protect her from evil. It must have fallen off when Walter was hacking her corpse to pieces. Oh well — if it was meant to protect her, it can't have been a very effective amulet, now, can it? Walter tosses it into the freezer with the remains and slams the lid.
Surprise! This turns out not to have been a good decision.
Walter is much more shaken by the murder than he'd expected to be. So when he sees Ruth's paper-wrapped head roll out of the kitchen and into the living room, he can't be sure at first that it isn't the brandy making him see things. No, no — that's her head all right. So now nothing will do but to go back down into the basement and see if all her parts are still there. And when he opens the freezer lid, Ruth is happy to give him a hand...
Bonnie is surprised not to find Walter waiting for her when she arrives. She thinks she hears him moving in the cellar, but when she goes down to investigate, she finds a grisly welcoming committee waiting for her. Ruth's dismembered pieces go on the attack: arms darting across the floor on spider-like fingers; legs inching along like vast slugs; her torso wobbling out from the darkest corner; and worst of all, her head, bumping its way down the stairs, its breath puffing out the butcher's paper with a rattly hiss. When Bonnie ends up with a cold hand clutching at her face, she's willing to do anything, anything to get it off... anything, including grabbing the fatal hatchet and aiming it squarely at her problem...
The movie adaptation follows the short story reasonably closely, though the action has been transferred from the US to the UK, and the victim is now the daughter of a colonial official with ties to Africa, rather than a Louisiana Creole with a magical tradition of her own. One major change: in the story, the rolling head that appears on the kitchen floor is unwrapped, and actually speaks to her killer. The movie wisely decided to keep all the pieces wrapped: severed body parts (especially heads) are rarely convincing as practical effects in horror films... but equally importantly, the image of the wrapped-up head sitting at the top of the stairs — silent, yet breathing through the stiff paper — is far more chilling than the version we find in the story.
Unfortunately, after all the successful build-up, the movie pulls its punch for what could have been a big finish. When Bonnie finally does turn around and faces Martin, she should have revealed a raw ruin in the best EC comics tradition. After all, the film version of the story implies that all that we've seen may have happened only in Bonnie's imagination... that she murdered the man who murdered his wife for her, and consequently went mad. In the grand tradition of ironic punishment, it's only to be expected that she would permanently destroy her beauty. What we actually see comes as a terrific letdown.
Martin's second interview is with an elderly Central European tailor called Bruno (Barry Morse). Bruno is busily mending clothing with a needle and thread... except that the needle and thread he wields so deftly are as non-existent as the clothing.
Bruno, according to his own story, had been a down-on-his-luck craftsman in London, dealing not only with a lapse in trade, but with the fact that his entire profession is gradually becoming extinct. The rise of ready-made men's clothing and department stores has made it likely that customers will never be coming back to Bruno's shabby shop. As Bruno finds himself unable to pay his rent month after month, his landlord steps in and demands payment within one week, or Bruno will find himself evicted.
And then, suddenly, just when things seem bleakest, Peter Cushing walks into the shop.
OK, technically the enigmatic "Mr. Smith" walks into the shop, but "Mr. Smith" is played by the one and only Peter Cushing, and in a movie like this that's usually a very bad sign. Bruno is as yet unaware he's in a movie like this, though, so when "Mr. Smith" offer him a generous amount of money if he will make a suit to his exact specifications, the tailor is convinced his prayers have been answered.
His optimism falters a little when Smith starts giving him the details of the task: first, the suit is not for Smith himself, but for his son; and his son is absolutely not available for a fitting. It's to be a surprise. Next, the suit is to be made according to a very precise pattern — unusual, unfashionable, probably uncomfortable... but precise. Smith is also supplying the fabric, a weird material with a texture that Bruno has never seen before, and which seems to be of all colors and none at the same time. Finally, the suit must be made by hand, and Bruno must only work on it at times and dates specified by Smith: always at night, and never after 5 AM.
Bruno has misgivings, but his situation is so desperate that nothing would make him turn down such a generous payment. His long-suffering wife Anna is warier. There is something sinister about "Mr. Smith" and his peculiar instructions, she says; Bruno would be better off leaving this job alone.
Nevertheless, Bruno goes ahead with his task. When he attempts to work beyond the permitted schedule, the garment actually resists. Still, Bruno manages to finish the suit the day before his rent is due, so he rushes off to Smith's house to deliver it and collect his payment.
He's a bit put out when he discovers the run-down neighborhood his client lives in. Smith meets him at the door holding a candelabra: the candles are the house's only source of light. The house is mostly bare, except for Smith's study. When Bruno demands his payment before he will hand over the suit, Smith confesses he doesn't actually have the money yet; he is penniless, in spite of his fancy clothes and diamond ring (a fake — the real ring pawned long ago). He spent his entire fortune to obtain the book — the only one of its kind in the world — that sits on the desk in his study. Everything will be fine once his son returns, but for right now the tailor must be content to wait for his money.
And there, in an open coffin surrounded by candles, is a rotten cadaver.
Shaken, Bruno sneaks back to his shop. Nobody must know he was out today, he tells Anna, and the suit must be burnt. While she takes the suit into the shop, Bruno forces open the mysterious book he's taken from Smith's house and reads it with growing horror. Rushing into the shop, he finds the fire cold: Anna has disobeyed his instructions, and put the suit on the dummy to attract new customers (Otto, she calls the dummy. Sometimes she talks to him, when Bruno is busy with his work and she is lonely). As Bruno explains why nobody must ever know abut the suit, it's Anna's turn to go cold with horror. Bruno must go to the police, she insists. Smith's weird book is evidence he was unbalanced; the police must believe him. Bruno knows nobody will take the word of a poor immigrant tailor, but Anna tells him they can't live with such a burden of guilt.
Well. If Anna can't live with it, then Anna won't live with it. Bruno grabs his wife by the throat and begins to strangle her. But as he does, the hands of Otto the dummy begin to twitch...
It's hard to tell what Bloch was thinking when he adapted this story for Asylum. He'd already done a version for the TV series "Thriller" in 1961; that version needed to be expanded to fit the TV show's hour-long time slot, so Bloch changed the focus from the tailor to the grieving father. The result was a totally different story: in the TV version, the viewer is always aware of the purpose of the Suit. Still, the tailor of the TV version is much closer to the character we see in the story: a brute who abuses his wife. It's true, Asylum's Bruno is telling his own story, so we could expect him to lie about himself and his relationship with Anna. We also expect him to lie when he says that the cause of Smith's death was an accident during the struggle. In the TV version it's clear that the tailor murders the other man as soon as he gains the upper hand. The tailor of the short story falls somewhere in between: it's plausible that he is so panic-stricken that he doesn't realize what he's doing, but it's also hinted, Bloch style, that he knows very well, but is telling himself something different.
The "Thriller" adaptation, for all its differences, remains faithful to the story in one other important way: it concentrates on the dummy. The very first paragraph of the story introduces us to the dummy: "Otto" is only meant to be an approximation of the human form, and in its beaten and worn condition, its slight resemblance to a real person makes it ghastly. The last paragraph of the story echoes the first, with its ironic intent now clear. In the TV show, the dummy plays a big part in the action: it's almost always in the frame somewhere when we see the tailor at work, and we see how Anna pours out her heart to it when her husband is cruel to her. Finally, when the thing comes to life at the very end, its appearance and movements are so uncanny as to be extremely disturbing. By contrast, the dummy in Asylum is introduced almost as an afterthought. We do see it at various points in the story, but its true importance doesn't register with us until the very end. When it starts to move, its motions are merely stiff, rather than suggesting the movements of something that is completely unfamiliar with its own limbs. Furthermore, since Bruno is never seen abusing his wife in the film version, the fact that she speaks to it like a confidante doesn't mean very much to us; and in any case, we rely on Anna to tell us about it, rather than seeing it for ourselves. All in all, Bloch seems to have undercut the effectiveness of his own story.
What saves this episode is the quality of the performances. Barry Morse is excellent as the desperate tailor; and Peter Cushing, as the even-more-desperate father, brings unexpected depth to a role that in other hands might have seemed like a hollow plot contrivance.
The third inmate of Dunsmoor that Martin interviews is a woman named Barbara (Charlotte Rampling, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore). Barbara seems almost normal at first glance. She mistakes Martin for the lawyer she's demanded: can't anyone see she doesn't belong here? It wasn't her fault — it was Lucy's fault. She explains:
Barbara had been in some unspecified care facility. We're neer told exactly what the problem was, but we soon find out it had something to do with drugs, and a certain bad influence named Lucy. As Barbara comes home after her successful treatment, she's startled by the conviction that someone else is in the house. Could it b Lucy? Her brother George reminds her that shes promised never even to speak of Lucy again... but she's right: there is someone in the house. George has hired a full-time nurse to look after her now that she's home.
Barbara is taken aback. She's even more distressed when the nurse escorts her to her bedroom and insists she take a mid-day nap. She starts to realize her brother wants to make her a virtual prisoner in her own home — and it is her home: she had inherited everything, and now her brother is using her condition to wrest it all away from her.
Barbara fakes taking the sedative the nurse gives her. Shortly thereafter, the downstairs phone rings, and the nurse gets a very peculiar message: it seems her aging mother has been taken to hospital in the city, and it's very important she should come at once. Barbara watches her brother leave to take the nurse to the train station, and when she is sure she's alone, after a brief internal struggle, she goes to her secret hiding spot and retrieves her very last cache of illicit pills.
No sooner has she taken one, when Lucy shows up.
She's been waiting. It was she who telephoned from the extension in the garage, hoping to get the others out of the house. Now that they're alone, Lucy tells Barbara not to worry: they'll run off together and escape from George's clutches. They'll be free! They can't leave until night-time, when George is safely asleep, but that gives Lucy time to put her plan into action. Lucy urges Barbara to leave everything to her.
George returns home to find Barbara safe in her bed and seemingly asleep. As he settles in to read by the fire with his nightly coffee, the phone rings: it's the nurse, telling him the call had been a mistake of some sort, and that she will be comingg back as soon as she can. While George is taking the call, a lithe hand upends Barbara's packet of sedative into his coffee and gives it a gentle stir...
Lucy rushes into Barbara's bedroom: the plan has worked. She's got George's car keys, and the nurse won't be back for hours. She urges Barbara to get ready while she attends to one last thing... and here Lucy picks up a heavy pair of scissors. To cut the phone cord, she says brightly. Just an extra precaution to prevent the nurse from calling the police until they're safely away.
But when Lucy returns, she finds Barbara again fondling her hidden stash of pills. Lucy is furious. She's had the choice between freedom and dependency, and once again she's chosen dependency. Lucy could get her away from George, but if Barbara insists on choosing drugs over her, than she's finished. Lucy tosses the pills in Barbara's face and storms out.
That's when Barbara begins to discover that Lucy's plans have been a little more thorough, a little more... permanent that Barbara had expected...
If Bloch loved word games, he also enjoyed creating characters who were themselves human puns: one person with multiple possible readings. But you don't have to be familiar with Bloch's work to realize that "Lucy" is essentially a Psycho riff. Frankly, that would have been obvious even to a moderately sophisticated viewer in 1972. If we didn't get the hint about Lucy's true identity from the very first time Barbara mentions her name, we would certainly understand it from the circumstances of her first appearance. The story's resolution even depends on the shock-reveal of a dead body in a chair!
In the story's defense, though, a Psycho riff from the actual author of Psycho is a different matter from a Psycho riff from anybody else. It's also worth noting that "Lucy Comes to Stay" predates Bloch's original novel by several years("Lucy Comes to Stay" first appeared in "Weird Tales" in 1952), so if anything Psycho could be considered a riff on "Lucy". "Lucy" may not be as significant a literary achievement as "Psycho", but surely we're entitled to at least one movie version of the earlier story.
Barbara's vice is alcohol in the story, and the man she's so anxious to get away from is her husband rather than her brother. But the most significant difference between the story and the film is that the film version is somehow flatter and less interesting. It's missing Bloch's careful use of language to buid suspense. In the story, we realize something's off with Barbara from her first use of the word "scissors", and that word keeps coming back at strategic intervals to suggest something terrible is coming.
Finally, Dr. Martin goes to interview Dr. Byron (Herbert Lom). The fact that he admits to being a doctor piques Martin's interest, and thee form of his obsessions interests him still further: Byron is creating miniature people, complete with accurately-modeled brains, eyes and organs. He believes that he will one day be able to breathe life into his creations — not, perhaps, ex nihilo like God, but by infusing them with a fragment of his consciousness. Oh — but Martin thinks he's mad, doesn't he? Just like that comfortable idiot downstairs, Dr. Rutherford! Well, go on, then! Go back to Rutherford. They'll see... they'll ALL see!
This episode is derived from Bloch's early story "Mannikins of Horror" (1939). In the story, the mad doctor's nemesis is known as "Dr. Starr"; in Asylum, Dr. Rutherford steps in to take Starr's place and share his eventual fate; whereas Dr. Starr is really... well (ahem), you will have to see the movie to find out. Bloch's original Mannikins of Horror are made of clay, with intricately modeled internal organs including eyes and brains. Stop-motion animation might have been very effective to bring these creatures to life on-screen, but that would have been a very expensive process for a low-budget studio like Amicus. The toy robot used in the film version seems a little silly, and would have seemed silly even by 1972 standards. But the movie seems aware of that, and embraces the silliness. Yes, it looks like a child's wind-up toy, but thanks to the movie's skilful editing and camera work the toy gradually seems to us less and less ridiculous. In fact, its overall effect is likely to linger in the audience's imagination more than the rather less skilfully managed tailor's dummy from the second episode.
The 19th-century theologian Frederic Farrar coined the term "the abominable fancy" to describe the belief, apparently common in the early Christian church, that one of the perks of going to Heaven was the entertainment provided by the eternal sufferings of the damned. That term might just as well apply to most of the Amicus anthologies. The diabolical glee with which the stories mete out justice to sinners suggests an almost puritanical morality working behind the scenes. The guilty will be punished: in the Amicus world, God and the Devil are equally committed to that idea, and they share a sick sense of humor. And we get to watch.
But Asylum is different.
In Asylum, there is absolutely no sense that an outside force is directing things toward an inevitable judgment. The first tale fits the old model best; the second fits better if we read between the lines (or read Bloch's original story); the third doesn't really fit it at all. But we're always conscious of the fact that the asylum inmates are unreliable narrators. One of them, in fact, we assume to be an entirely fictional character, created from the broken mind of a brilliant psychiatrist. Thus we can never be sure how much of what we're shown is karmic retribution, and how much is the workings of a sick and guilty conscience. There's only one supernatural tale we're forced to accept at face value — the last one — and even that story suggests human justice, not divine retribution.
Asylum itself has a sort of split personality. It's both comfortably familiar and uncomforatbly familiar. On the one hand, it shows that Robert Bloch was anxious not to fall into formula, even if Amicus wanted him to; but on the other hand, to create something new and different, he relied on previously-published stories from "Weird Tales", the newest of which was almost twenty years old. That odd pendulum swing between old and new is even more pronounced now, as the film rapidly nears its fiftieth anniversary. Asylum seems extremely tame by today's standards: in spite of all the stabbing, hacking, strangling and general mayhem going on, there's just about no blood on display. Even the first story, which is the most overtly horrific, is likely to evoke more laughter than genuine fright (and to be fair, the sight of a dismembered woman's paper-wrapped torso bobbling its way across a room is funny, in a ghoulish sort of way). And yet, though it may be hopelessly old-fashioned even by the standards it sets for itself, it's still remarkably entertaining.