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31 Days of Halloween: Asylum

Published Sunday, October 24, 2021 at 4:21pm

I saw the twist ending coming a mile away. I don't think it was telegraphed earlier in the movie, but it was the ending I'd have chosen if I were writing this movie.

Asylum is an anthology film made by Amicus Productions in 1972. Amicus produced a number of horror movies in the '60s and '70s, mostly anthologies (as in, films comprised of several individual episodes). They used a lot of the same actors as Hammer, but where Hammer stuck to gothic period pieces, Amicus tended to set their films in the present day.

I've seen a couple of their anthologies and liked them very much, and decided to check out Asylum tonight just because it was near the top of my to-watch list, and I recognized it as an Amicus movie. I went into it cold, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was written by Robert Bloch and directed by Roy Ward Baker. Bloch was a protege of H.P. Lovecraft and did a lot of radio and TV writing, but you probably know him as the author of Hitchcock's Psycho. Baker had a long and prolific career in film, directed quite a few movies for Hammer, and is best remembered for A Night to Remember which I should probably see but haven't.

The movie begins as Dr. Martin (Robert Powell looking an awful lot like Graham Chapman) drives to a medical facility in a rural location. There he meets with Dr. Lionel Rutherford (Patrick Magee (the guy who feeds Alex the spaghetti dinner in A Clockwork Orange ("How's the food? Try the wine!"))) for a job interview. Martin was expecting to meet Dr. Starr, but Rutherford explains that Starr is unavailable, having been committed to the care of the facility. It's a hazard of the mental health trade, he says. After a few more professional pleasantries, Rutherford sets Martin a challenge: he is to interview the patients upstairs, and if he can identify Dr. Starr (who has developed a different personality and will no longer respond to "Dr. Starr"), then he will consider Martin for the job.

There are five stories in Asylum, including the wraparound story with Doctors Martin and Rutherford. The first, "Frozen Fear", is told by a woman whose lover has murdered his wife, wrapped her parts neatly in butcher paper, and stuffed her into a chest freezer. The wrapped body parts come alive, take out the husband, and then come for the narrator of the story who manages not to get murdered, but winds up in police custody. At no time does the body reassemble itself, which is a bit of a letdown. Just as well; I'm picturing it as a complicated special effect, but I'm sure they'd have done the assembly offscreen and then had an actress wrapped in butcher paper walk into the shot. Meh.

The second episode, "The Weird Tailor", is about a tailor who is visited by a strange customer (Peter Cushing) who is willing to overpay for a suit that may only be sewn after midnight from an unusual fabric supplied by the customer. He agrees, but complications ensue when it turns out that the suit, which is meant to bring the dead back to life, also works on his mannequin.

In "Lucy Comes to Stay", Charlotte Rampling blames all of her actions on her imaginary friend, Britt Ekland, and in "Mannequins of Horror" Herber Lom has made a small army of voodoo dolls with (he assumers us) perfectly-reproduced human organs.

The ending is not entirely unexpected, but as I said, it nicely wraps up my suspicions about what was going on in the movie.

A movie like Asylum is difficult to watch with a purely open mind in 2021 as it's comprised of tropes that have since solidified as basic conventions of the genre. I knew where the stories were going but enjoyed them just the same. The critics mostly like it, though upon its initial release there were a few grumbles (not many&emdash;it was a hit) that the stories were too similar and not scary enough. Look, I can't remember the last time I saw a horror movie that felt scary or original, but Roy Ward Baker's direction keeps Asylum interesting, and it has a helluva cast. I don't have any complaints.

Except for the unassembled corpse I mentioned earlier, I mean.

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