Asylum, 1972. 7/10

The British seem to have knack for the horror anthology movie. This one has four episodes, and a good cast. The premise, as the title implies, concerns an asylum where a new doctor has to conduct a series of inmate interviews as part of his training.

The frame story concerns Dr. Martin (Robert Powell) and Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee). Barbara Parkins, Richard Todd and Slyvia Syms are in Frozen Fear. Peter Cushing, Barry Morse, John Franklin-Robbins, Ann Firbank, and Daniel Johns in The Weird Tailor; Lucy Comes to Stay has Charlotte Rampling, Britt Eklund, James Villiers, and Megs Jenkins. There’s a bigger cast in the final tale, Mannikins of Horror, Frank Forsyth, Slyvia Merriot, Geoffrey Bayldon, and Herbert Lom. Drs. Martin and Rutherford, and the reptilian orderly Reynolds (Geoffrey Bayldon) wrap it up here too. As is usual in this genre, the last story completes as well as complements the frame story.

The prospective employee Dr. Martin is a bit taken aback to learn that ‘Dr. Starr’, whom he thought was the director, is actually a patient. It’s Dr. Rutherford that he deals with. If Martin can, in the course of interviewing patients, discover which one is Dr. Starr, then Martin gets the job. It’s very much a game: the orderly Reynolds refuses to give Martin any clues about Starr.

The first patient is a dark-haired woman Bonnie (Parkins). We see, via flashback, Walter and Ruth (Parkins) arguing; she’s sort of a new age acolyte, he’s an alcoholic.”You’re content to live off my money” and she’ll never grant a divorce…Well, his “lovely surprise” to her is a freezer. Before she can completely enjoy its usefulness, he takes an axe to her. Good thing he got the size big enough for chopped-up wives.

“Rest in pieces” he tells her, that is, her pieces–that’s a cold one! (my bad pun hopefully doesn’t diminish the script’s genius pun). He’s on the phone to his lover, the future patient. The body disposal run is set. Immediately, though, there’s a problem. The body parts are loose…examining the freezer, he’s pulled in by the severed arm. Girlfriend shows up, goes down to the basement–sees Walter’s corpse. The wife’s head and other body parts seek her out like so many worms. They surround her. The head is especially creepy, breathing under its paper wrapping. Back to the asylum. Bonnie has axe scars on her face. Hmm, wouldn’t an axe dip a bit deeper? When she turns around to face Martin, I thought she’d be horribly disfigured.

Next up is Bruno (Morse), the taylor. His flashback: landlord (Franklin-Robbins) duns him for the rent. Bruno wants to bargain a suit for it. Instead the landlord gives him until the end of the week, but no bartering. His wife Anna (Firbank) is desperate. Smith (Cushing) shows up out out of the blue–he wants an expensive suit–which would solve Bruno’s money problem. Weirdly–well, it is a Peter Cushing character–he’s given instructions that are absurdly exacting.

Bruno hasn’t got much choice on the terms, so he begins. Blood stains appear and disappear on the fabric; but, in a few days he’s finished, and delivers it to Smith. That is, to a gothic mansion lit by candles. The hitch is, Smith has no money, at the moment. He explains that he spent all of his money on a book. Bruno, frustrated, looks around, opens another room, viola! There’s what we half-expected–a corpse, that is, it’s Smith’s son, for whom the suit is intended. Smith pulls a gun on Bruno, but Bruno gets the better of his cadaverous antagonist, and manages to shoot him. Bruno skulks out of there, toting the suit and the mysterious book.

He tells Anna to forget about the suit, to burn it–she doesn’t. Opening the book he finds a diagram showing a corpse in the same kind of suit he just made for Smith. Anna wants him to go to the police, they argue. At that point, the mannikin, who now wears the fancy suit, comes to life, and strangles Bruno. Or, not fatally, otherwise Bruno couldn’t have come out of the flashback to tell Martin. He thinks Smith/the dummy is still alive.

Next up is Barbara (Rampling). Her story: she’s with her brother George (James Villiers), apparently returning from an undefined convalscence. She’s immediately at the mercy of George and the frosty nurse Miss Higgins (Megs Jenkins). A Lucy (Eklund) is alluded to, but not seen. Higgins is called away; Barbara downs a bunch of pills. Suddenly, there’s Lucy; they’re best friends, we learn. Is she supposed to be dead? Which would explain George’s denial that she’s in the house.

Lucy asks her about taking the pills, which Barbara denies. Also, Lucy warns her that she’ll get put back in the hospital if she ‘rebels’ against George. But they hatch an escape plan for that night. Lucy drugs George, and takes his keys. Lucy gets a huge pair of scissors to cut the pbone line. Barbara does more pills, “the pills always win” Lucy tells her, scornfully, and leaves.

It would all seem an hallucination if not that George has been stabbed. And then, on the stairs, Higgins too. Barbara stands next to Lucy, who either has never left, or just slipped back in. As we segue back to the aslyum, Barbara insists that she didn’t do anything, that Lucy killed them both.

Is Lucy a convenient alter ego for Barbara? Yes, because when Barbara insists that Lucy is right there in the room with herself and Martin, he sees nothing. But in the mirror, we see only Lucy, speaking for, in fact being, Barbara. Reynolds even suggests that not only was there never a Lucy, there may not ever have been a Barbara. I’ll have to think about that…it only makes sense if Barbara is Starr.

Anyway, on to the last tale, Byron’s (Herbert Lom). Byron seems to have a model/miniature hobby. “These are not ordinary figures” he tells Martin of his robot-like creatures. They have human heads, and supposedly brains and such. One robot in fact has his face. In other words, he’s a Doctor Frankenstein. That’s all we see before the orderly and Martin leave him. I’m thinking that Rutherford is Starr.

Back in Rutherford’s office, Martin says the obvious–that there’s no therapy at the asylum, it’s an outrage, and so on. But Byron’s not quite done. He animates the ‘Byron’ robot, which tootles out of the room, and lets itself downstairs. He hides under the tea cart, and jabs Rutherford with a scalpel in the back of neck. Martin basically picks the robot apart, which, of course, has human organs.

We’re not quite done. Not surprisingly, Martin doesn’t get away. With Rutherford out of the game, the only obvious Dr. Starr, Reynolds, reveals himself, showing Martin the corpse of a previous applicant, and now becomes Martin’s assailant. That murder taken care of, who shows up cheerily the next morning? Yes, another applicant, for the very vacant position. Reynolds is smacking his lips, so to speak, getting excited at the prospect of more macabre doings at the asylum.

This was entertaining, but a bit disappointing. The premise is great, the plots, difficult to weave together in the anthology format, were, for the most part (not so much with The Weird Tailor), adroitly handled; the pacing worked, the performances were consistently good as well. The atmosphere, particularly at the asylum and in the Cushing’s creepy house, were generally appropriate for each story, as well as for the frame story. Still, some reservations.

Usually, I like short movies, but this format tried to tell four stories in an amount of time (88 minutes) suitable for just one. It’s ok that the quality varied amongst the stories; that’s to be expected. None of them were bad. I think Lucy Comes To Stay was the best, Frozen Fear the weakest. The Weird Taylor had great potential, and was the closest to classic horror. It had the weakest plot, though. I couldn’t figure out why Smith would want to kill Bruno. It’s Smith who has reneged on the deal; he has nothing to gain by bilking Bruno. Well, yes, he can steal the suit, but murder is harder to dodge than a tailor’s bill.

In addition, in the critical scene in Smith’s house, Cushing mumbles stuff to Bruno about the suit, something that compels him, I think, to get the suit for his dead son. I turned the volume way up and replayed that bit a couple of times. It just isn’t clear what Cushing says at this crucial point in the plot. There were no other moments like this in the rest of the film–all of the rest of the audio was great–a mystery. Anyway, at least it’s cleat that Bruno wasn’t intending to kill Smith; if the shooting’s not accidental, Bruno was defending himself. As mentioned, the other little detail with The Weird Tailor, is that, due to the mannikin’s revenge, shouldn’t Bruno be dead too?

Frozen Fear was the most predictable. The undead body parts deal is pretty clever; but this story suffers the most of the anthology by its brevity. There’s really no suspense, as that would take a few more scenes–for example, a frantic burial that digs out of its ersatz grave; maybe they fend off the crawling sacks of meat for a while, then they pop up on the dinner table or whatnot. The less-than-lethal nature of the final axe attack would’ve benefited from some more exposition too.

The frame story was well-supported by the final Mannikins of Horror tale. I just realized, though, that if Byron has the right mix of robots, he can kill anyone, Reynolds included. What’s to prevent Byron from taking over? But, having a possible loose end actually makes Asylum more interesting. It’s one thing to accept that Reynolds can smugly carry on with his deadly mayhem, it’s even more nuts to think that there’s not one murderer, but two.

Definitely worth a look. Farmermouse was creeped out by just about everything in Asylum, but he thought the tea cart looked promising, so he gives this seven scones. 7/10.

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