MADHOUSE - US movie poster
3 and a half star   
directed by: Jim Clark
starring:Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Robert Quarry, Adrienne Corri, Natasha Pyne, Michael Parkinson, Linda Hayden, Barry Dennen, Ellis Dale, Catherine Willmer, John Garrie, Ian Thompson, Jenny Lee Wright, Julie Crosthwaite, Peter Halliday

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[review by JA Kerswell ]

  Who 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!

  A 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' serious 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 .... ?

  Linda 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 from 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.

  Vincent 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 TERROR (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  bodycount!   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