Madhouse (1974) – A Retrospective
This 1974 effort is Vincent Price’s last starring role in a horror film and the last film he made for American International Pictures, the company responsible for the vast majority of his later big screen appearances. Appropriately enough, MADHOUSE feels a bit like a requiem, with Price playing aging horror star Paul Toombs, who attempts to revive his famous Dr. Death character on television, decades after an unsolved murder destroyed his film career and his sanity. Unfortunately, people begin dying hideous deaths inspired by scenes from the Dr. Death movies, and the police naturally suspect Toombs. The actor himself is unable to speak in his own defense, afraid that he may be committing the murders in a black-out and not remembering them. Eventually consumed with guilt over the deaths his character is committing, he locks himself into the studio, turns on the cameras, and sets fire to the set, dying a spectacular death in a fire. Or does he?
A weak genre effort, MADHOUSE makes little if any effort to transcend the horror label, instead offering up familiar elements for the benefit of undemanding viewers. Nevertheless, it is amusing for Price fans, who get to see him playing, in a sense, a fictionalized version of himself, a point underlined by using numerous clips from Price’s old AIP horror films to represent Toombs’s career. One is almost tempted to label MADHOUSE Price’s version of SUNSET BOULEVARD, though the film scarcely merits comparison to Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece.
Director Jim Clark (a former editor) stages the action competently, but he does not have the sophisticated sensibility to create a post-modern meta-movie – that is, not just a standard horror film but a self-reflexive film about horror films. Instead, we get a by-the-numbers approach, enlivened mostly by the presence of Price and his two co-stars, Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry, whose verbal sparring provides an opportunity to add a little panache to an otherwise prosaic effort. Though the dialogue is seldom more than adequate, the acting trio makes the most out of it, particularly in two show business party scenes, wherein they exchange amusingly snide witticisms.
The result falls far short of being a masterpiece, but it is more than enough to enough to please cult enthusiasts eager to see the horror stars on screen together.
BEHIND THE SCENES
A co-production between AIP and the English company Amicus (responsible for numerous horror films such as 1967’s TORTURE GARDEN), MADHOUSE was based on a bad novel by Angus Hall called Devilday. The book wallowed in sleazy sex and scandal: we first meet Toombs shacked up with a sixteen-year-old, acne-scarred groupie (do aging horror stars really have groupies?), and his big scene consists of appearing naked at a Black Mass, so that the congregation can (literally) kiss his ass. Little happens, making the short novel feel longer than it is, and what does happen is deliberately left unexplained. The reader assumes that Toombs is up to something, but his guilt is never clearly established. At the climax, he is impaled by a falling rock, and a swarm of fans rifles his body for souveniers, but years later the novel’s narrator catches a glimpse of Toombs in a car, leading him to suspect that murder and mayhem will resume. Overall, despite the (then) modern English setting, the story seems inspired less by the Gothic Horror tradition than by scandalous legends from the early days of Hollywood. (Toombs’ career meltdown – after being suspected of shoving an icicle up a woman’s vagina – vaguely parallels that of silent film comic Fatty Arbuckle, who fell out of favor after being tried for literally raping a woman to death – even though the jury emphatically aquitted him of any and all wrong-doing.)
Fortunately, little of the novel remains in the screenplay, except the basic premise of a former film actor making a comeback on television, years after a bloody scandal. The script turns Toombs into a more sympathetic character, with whom the audience identifies even while uncertain of his guilt. Also added were the murders inspired by the Dr. Death movies – which lead us to suspect Toombes, even though we guess that someone may be setting him up. Unfortunately, the film feels a bit like a last gasp attempt to capitalize on the “Creative Deaths” formula used in Price’s previous efforts THE ABOMIMABLE DR. PHIBES, DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN, and THEATRE OF BLOOD, lacking the wit and imagination of those films.
Price had been working for American International Pictures since THE HOUSE OF USHER in 1960, but he had grown unhappy churning out low-budget, unimaginative horror films. “My contract had finished and I hoped it would be my last,” he told Cinefantastique for the career retrospective that ran in the January 1989 issues (Volume 19, No 2).
Actor Robert Quarry, who had co-starred with Price on the far superior DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN, was being groomed to replace the horror star after this film – a strategy that never came to fruition. He recalled that MADHOUSE was ill-fated from the start, thanks to Price’s shaky status at American International Pictures after year’s of contract disputes.
“What could we do?” Quarry asks rhetorically. “It ws Vincent’s last movie with AIP. His contract was up. We never got a script until Sunday morning, and we were to start shooting the next day. That gave us no time to bitch and scream. They knew if they’d sent it to us two weeks before, we’d have called them up and said, ‘Hey, work this over – it’s terrible!’ So they were very smart there.
“Jim Clark may have been a good film editor, but he was ill-prepared to direct a movie – he was just gonna shoot what was there,” Quarry continues. “So I would change the dialogue around so it was speakable and then leave the last line, the cue line, in. They never knew what hit them: when I finished talking and gave the cue line, the other actor spoke. About the second day, I told Vincent I had made some changes, so I wouldn’t have to speak this shit. He said, ‘God, help me with my stuff – could you rewrite some of this?’ I was flattered that Vincent trusted me enought to let me rewrite some of the scenes. I couldn’t change the scenes, but at least we put a little edge on some of them. That was probably the only serious work we did together, trying to find ways to do this dreadful movie.”
At the time of filming, Prices was in the process of breaking up with his second wife, who remained in the States with their daughter, while he was on the set in England (where all of Price’s later horror films were shot, for budgetary reasons). Quarry recalls that Price played fast and loose with his expense account.
“Vincent told me, in case anybody asked if Victoria and Mary were there, I was to say yes, because he wrote it in on his expenses. All that expense money for two weeks: first class air fare, food. I said, ‘Oh, I love it, I love it. Can’t you get anybody else on there?’ After all, he made a great deal of money for AIP. He was their only superstar. And they should have been damn grateful to him, and they should have paid him more money. Frankly, anything he could steal out of that studio – I said, ‘Baby, steal!‘”
When completed, MADHOUSE was barely released and never found much of an audience. Tentative plans for another Price vehicle at AIP, THE NAKED EYE, were dropped. It was the end of an era. Although Price would continue to remain busy as an actor, never again would he dominate the screen as the King of Horror. Partly this was due to the blockbuster success of THE EXORCIST: the lavish, major-studio production ushered in a new brand of horror, which helped contribute to the downfall of genre-friendly companies like Hammer Films, Amicus, and AIP, whose modestly budgeted efforts seemed low-key and quaint by comparison.
Viewed today, MADHOUSE is fun for fans, despite its flaws, and it does hold a place of some historical importance as Price’s last starring role in a horror film designed specifically as a vehicle for his talents. The film is available on DVD as part of MGM’s Midnight Movies Double Features, packaged with the far more enjoyable THEATRE OF BLOOD. The bare-bones presentation offers good transfers of both films but no bonus features except for trailers.
The credits for MADHOUSE somewhat misleadingly include the names of horror stars Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone, both of whom died long before MADHOUSE was filmed. They appear only in clips from films in which one or both of them co-starred with Price, THE RAVEN (1963) and TALES OF TERROR (1962).
MADHOUSE (American International Pictures and Amicus Films, 1974). Directed by Jim Clark. Screenplay by Ken Levison, Greg Morrison, based on the novel Devilday by Angus Hall. Cast: Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Robert Quarry, Adrienne Corri, Linda Hayden, Natasha Pyne.