is the mad killer in the skull mask in MADHOUSE?
Vincent Price was no stranger to the proto-slasher. From HOUSE OF WAX (1953) to THE ABOMINABLE DOCTOR PHIBES films (1971 and 1972) to THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973). However, MADHOUSE (which was shot under the title THE REVENGE OF DR. DEATH and was his swan song for AIP/Amicus) is arguably the most slasherific of all his films. It has one foot in the past and one foot very much in the then present (but also with an eye to the future) ...
Price plays Paul Toombes - who is famous for his Doctor Death
character, a popular horror film star (the flashback clips are to his
old films and feature cameos by the then long dead, but heavily
featured in the credits, Karloff and Rathbone). At a Hollywood party,
he hobnobs with friend and writer Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing) and
meets producer Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry) - who intimates that
Toombes' young fiancé was a blue movie star. After arguing with Toombes
she leaves the party in floods of tears, only for someone to don black
leather gloves, a fedora and skull mask. Toombes awakes with said
gloves on his pillow and goes to comfort his fiancée only for her
severed head to come off in his hands!
giallo? No, but you'd be forgiven for thinking so ...
15 years later, Toombes is released from psychiatric care and travels to Britain to take the part once again of Doctor Death at the behest of his old friend Flay and producer Quayle. He is understandably reluctant, but agrees whilst staying at Flay's gothic mansion - even after discovering an old flame in the basement (a wonderfully arch turn by Adrienne Corri, who's now hideously scarred and spends her days playing with her "children" - various creepy crawly arachnids). Soon, would-be co-star (Linda Hayden) turns up to try and win a part on the new Doctor Death TV show, but she receives a pitchfork in the neck for her troubles and is set afloat in a canoe on a nearby lake; only to be discovered by small children fishing the next day.
Publicity like this you simply can't pay for. Despite Toombes'
misgivings, the TV show starts prepping - even though the police are
keeping a beady eye on him as suspect número uno. As the cameras start
rolling the cast and crew of the new Doctor Death show start dying
one-by-one at the hands of the masked skull faced killer in black
gloves. Is Toombes' killing for real, or is someone trying to frame him
for murders that echo those in his old films .... ?
Hayden falls foul of the killer in MADHOUSE,
and unwittingly preempts a
thousand victims of the coming slasher movie.
MADHOUSE is a schizophrenic
beast to be sure, but there's lots of fun
to be had here. There's much in the way of in-jokes, with both Cushing
and Quarry spoofing their respective vampire roles of yore at a fancy
dress party. However, Price is perhaps less archly camp in this than
his other films of the period - although he certainly has his moments -
and nobly plays a man unable to escape tragedy. The film both
celebrates and parodies Price's horror career. It gives a lot of time
over to clips from his real life movies - and the film grinds to a halt
on a number of occasions to feature these flashbacks (most notably when
Price finds himself being interviewed by real life celebrity
interviewer Michael Parkinson). However, of most interest to readers of
this site is not so much the nods to Price's past (as entertaining as
they are) but how the film is structured and how it preempts the coming
slasher subgenre later that decade.
The other celebrated films of Price's in the early 1970s revelled in
their Grand Guignol nature - with each death scene more outlandish than
the last. However, MADHOUSE
goes that one step further towards
proto-slasher territory by making the film a whodunnit with definite
subgenre leanings; complete with chase scenes. The killer's skull mask
appears to nod to the Edgar Wallace Krimi - most notably THE PHANTOM OF
SOHO (1964). The black gloves and the fedora take one eye away
Germany and down to Italy and the (at the time) omnipresent giallo.
However, the film also looks to the future - once it dispenses with its
many gothic trappings. Scenes where the killer chases a production
assistant (Natasha Pyne) through the bowels of the TV studio could have
been lifted from any early 80s slasher movie.
Price's gothic meets the bodycount movie head on.
MADHOUSE was a joint
production between legendary companies American
International Pictures and Amicus (famous for their early 70s horror
anthologies including the trendsetting Santa slasher in the '... And
all through the house' segment from TALES
FROM THE CRYPT (1972)). As
well as spoofing the cast's gothic horror careers, it also has the same
vein of dry British black humour running through it that made Amicus'
earlier films so appealing - and works so well with Price's knowing
campiness. Apart from Cushing, whose work with Hammer needs no
introduction, Quarry also did a bit of reinvention himself in the early
1970s with his COUNT YORGA
films (1970 and 1971). Cushing also
appeared, playing against type as a sweaty sex killer, in the
surprisingly brutal proto-slasher CORRUPTION
(1968). Hayden is probably
best known for classic Brit horror THE
BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW (1971).
Executive producer Samuel Z. Arkoff - whose resume is mind boggling -
went on to produce notable subgenre pieces such as THE TOWN THAT
DREADED SUNDOWN (1976), DRESSED
TO KILL (1980) and THE FINAL
(1983). Price himself was considered for the head counsellor role in
MADMAN (1982), but alas that
never came to pass!
MADHOUSE nears its end with a fiery inferno; fittingly just like Price's trailblazing proto-slasher HOUSE OF WAX (1953 - which got its own remake with Paris Hilton in 2005!). Sadly, the film fizzled at the box office and effectively ended Price's 70s horror renaissance. Still, it's a title now worthy of rediscovery and deserves to come out of the considerable shadow of Price's PHIBES films - especially for fans of proto-slashers.
BODYCOUNT 8 female:5 / male:3
1) Female found decapitated
2) Female pitchforked through her neck
3) Female found hanged
4) Male crushed under prop bed
5) Female run through with a sword
6) Male run through with a sword
7) Female found stabbed through neck
8) Male stabbed and falls to his death