Wednesday, July 10, 2024

American Gothic Week: In case any of you are afraid of being bored, I promise you it won't take long—it's only a small tribute


Directed by Jim Davis
Written by Ken Levinson and Greg Morrison (based on the novel Devilday by Angus Hall)

Spoilers: highish

Vincent Price's career didn't come to an end in the period 1973-1974, but it culminated, with his last pair of headlining roles (both of them in horror, of course), delivered with a certain feeling that his work was complete.  He had recently remarried for the third and final time to Coral Browne, and my understanding is he moved back to California with her somewhat permanently, after having spent a long time mostly living and working in Britain.  He did keep working, of course, not always in circumstances even as honorable as his horror movies for American International Pictures and others had provided.  To no small degree this is evidence of Price's generosity of spirit and a love of moviemakinghis camaraderie with other professionals, along with his acceptance of his status as the horror star emeritus, tends to make his late-life appearances feel more like he was the one doing them the favorbut, even so, he did sometimes have a desire for cash, so that, I've heard, when Browne died in 1991 and Price realized his wife was secretly wealthy and also she'd left it all to charity, he was slightly annoyed that, during this period, he'd been obliged to trot himself out for TV commercial gigs and the like for his cigarette money.  1974's Madhouse, anyway, is pretty indicative of an actor ready to at last call it a day.

It's based on a 1969 novel, Devilday by Angus Hall, which probably wasn't "about a Vincent Price figure" specifically (it does seems to at least have basic similarities to the movie, never something to take for granted with one of these things, but it might have been more like a Christopher Lee figure in the book; I concede this isn't some radical distinction).  Once Price was attached to its adaptation, however, it sure seems that its co-producers, AIP and Amicus, and their screenwriters, Ken Levinson and Greg Morrison, fixed upon an intention to make that story into an explicit farewell to their great star.  Indeed, it became something of a send-off for both of those companies themselves: the whole horror landscape around them was changing hard and fastthe first things that would enter your mind when pondering the state of horror cinema in 1974 would probably be The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas, not Price's swan song.  It was Amicus's last horror film besides The Beast Must Die, itself released just a month afterwards.  For AIP, though they were more agile, that's only in comparison to Amicus, who were practically living in the past even when they were popular.  Neither lasted too long after 1974: Amicus shuttered in 1977, AIP in 1980, though it's worth mentioning that AIP (albeit under the name of their new owners, Filmways) at least got to go out on a high note with Dressed To Kill.

And so it was that Madhouse took AIP's Hammer-inspired "Gothic" horror style, with which Price had been associated intimately since its inception in House of Usher fifteen years before, and laid it gently to its rest.  Remarkably, it feels much more celebratory about this than grief-stricken.  (And I am being a little rhetorical: it undeniably feels way more like an Amicus horror than a Corman Poe, though it does have a creepy house with a madwoman (Adrienne Corri) thrown in, apparently solely to have some content resembling a Corman Poe.)  In any case, if Madhouse and Price's horror movie of the previous year, Theatre of Blood, each grappled with Price's legacy, then they each do it very differently.  Theatre of Blood points to all the possibilities that had been lost to Price over the course of his career, while funneling him through the most direct knock-off of his most recent horror hit imaginable, and there's a certain sadness about it, even though it's a fun movie.  Madhouse, meanwhile, takes things as they are, seemingly content with them.  When it ends, it ends with Price triumphant, implying that while other actors will take his place, his was such a force that no successor would ever actually escape his shadow or his influence, and thus will he live on through them, his blood under their skin.  It's only a pity that such a beautiful and meaningful sentiment is communicated through Peter freaking Cushing, nearly as much an institution as Price and just two years his junior, who outlived him by only one year, and, judging by his awesomely sallow and skeletal complexion here, you would scarcely have expected him to outlive Madhouse's shooting schedule.

That brings us to the film itself, which takes on Paul Toombes (Price), a just-about-to-be-has-been horror starit is, in fact, that directly about Price (as for the name, they somehow manage to only make one joke about it the whole time).  Paul's has-beendom comes through rather different means, though, and comes a lot more abruptly, for "in Hollywood, some years ago," Paul was throwing a party, partially to celebrate New Years' Eve and partially to celebrate his engagement to his leading lady in his next film, Ellen Mason (Julie Crosthwait).  Things become very awkward when one of his guests, "arthouse" producer Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry), for no apparent reason besides being a giant asshole, interjects that she was really good in his movies, wishing her and Paul the best of luck as she leaves pornography behind in favor of climbing a Paul-shaped ladder to a new career.  Paul excoriates her publicly, gets so drunk he blacks out, and when he goes to apologize, her head falls off, the victim of some unknown killer but, one would think, and the world does think, Paul Toombes.  He doesn't think he did it, but he also really doesn't know, and after an acquittal (it's unclear what exactly his plea was) and a stint in the madhouse (everyone brings it up, but it's true, the movie has one of the awfulest fucking titles), Paul retreats into retirement.

However, when we catch up to him, he's been coaxed out by Herbert Flay (Cushing), his good friend and the screenwriter of the franchise that's been his biggest claim to fame, the five Dr. Death movies.  (At this point, it does start to wander off from a slasher biography of Vincent Price: it's undoubtedly unfair to even attempt interpreting Ellen as Mary Grant, Mrs. Price no. 2 and recently divorced by him, and with Herbert you'd sort of have to assume some kind of ongoing friendship, or grudge, with Richard Matheson or Robert Fuest.)  That selfsame producer, Quayle, is looking to put together a Dr. Death show for British television, and he's gotten Herbert aboard, but now they need their star, Paul, andreluctantlyhe heads out to Britain to do his duty by his friend.  Unfortunately, as soon as he makes his landing, people start dying all over the place, almost invariably right after they've somehow trespassed upon Paul, and most at the hands of a man in a Dr. Death costume, usually dealt a punishment inspired by one or another of the kills from the Dr. Death movies.  The strong presumption is that the man now playing Dr. Death in real life is the man with the most experience in the role, and now Paul has to wonder if he really did kill Ellen after all, and if he's killing again, and if he's headed straight back to, I suppose, the madhouse.

Madhouse offers a couple of big humps to get over before you can start enjoying it.  The first is that its entire premise is very difficult to accept, because even if you can swallow that a man as disgraced as Paul would possibly be allowed back to do onscreen murders, the very insant the first new murder hits the papers, we've definitively entered an untethered alternate universe where things don't work the same as they do in ours.  By the time that Dr. Death has killed Paul's co-star and director, and still the show goes on, I think it's fair to start getting a little exasperated, even if you know it's necessary for the movie to continue having a plot and you've agreed to try to meet it halfway.

The other obstacle is even more of a burden, or at least I've found it so both times I've seen the film: Madhouse wants to offer its tribute to Price's career, or at least his career at AIP, and that's great; the Dr. Deaths are pretty obviously patterned on The Abominable Dr. Phibes and, to a lesser degree, Price's other "proto-slasher madman" movies; so obviously, when it's time to show scenes from Dr. Death, which is a significant percentage of this movie, the stock footage is uniformly from Corman Poes.  There's a challenge there, yes: most of Price's proto-slashers weren't actually made at AIP (House of Wax and The Mad Magician were made before AIP even existed, and Tower of LondonDiary of a Madman, and Theatre of Blood were made elsewhere).  But The Abominable Dr. Phibes was made by AIP, and so was its sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again.  The makeup and costuming is different (and much worseI don't actually adore the "Dr. Death" get-up, which is just black-and-white "movie vodoun/calaveras minimalism" facepaint and a big hat); but there were slasher kills in those movies, at least.  The Corman Poes don't actually offer much of that, and, needless to say, they pose the exact same problem as the Phibeses viz. Price's look, so outside of one single intercut shot of Price in the makeup, there is basically zero effort to manipulate the footage to make it feel like a "Dr. Death" franchise even exists, let alone is good and cool, not incoherent and terrible.  It almost feels like an accident when they use the end of The Pit and the Pendulum; the rest of the time, it's practically an anti-effort, like they were somehow choosing the most inapropos parts of the Corman Poes they could, possibly as a "tribute" to Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone, credited with "special participation," inasmuch as they were dead.  So "Dr. Death" fought Dr. Scarabus in a magical duel, I guess.  (Hazel Court and Debra Paget are not credited as "participants" at all.)  But the Rathbone "cameo" just pisses me off, since it uses "M. Valdemar" from Tales of Terror, yet The Comedy of Terrors is sitting right there, and Price is trying to murder Rathbone in that one, instead of playing a dying man suspended between worlds by hypnosis.  Also, I don't know if it's an artifact of home 8mm, and was therefore a selective evocation of "realism" in just the one single aspect of the movie where "realism" was at its most who-gives-a-shit, but the footage looks like it had been stored in a toilet tank.  Thus, somehow, the best reference to Prices Past in this movie all about Vincent Price's past is an offhand quip made by a TV host about The Invisible Man Returns, when he turns back to Paul after a clip to realize his guest has disappeared from the studio.

Well, get past all that, and your reward is... an okay psychological thriller mystery, plus some generic filmmaking satire that arguably tops out at velvety Vincent Price insult comedy.  It's not keen on pursuing any red herrings, offering basically just the two possible culprits besides Paul himself, and it only offers two if you know who Robert Quarry is, and the first time I watched this, I thought he was a nobody with a modest talent for looking angry (now that I do know who he is, my opinion hasn't changed much).  You probably need to know who Cushing is to even get to one, given his limited participation; still, for the first time in any of Price's British team-ups, I think you can legitimately say they "co-starred," though by the same token that might be because he's the killer, Cushing's supporting role here otherwise being "co" in the profoundest sense of that prefix.  Honestly, it'd have been more of a surprise if it just went in a straight line and it turned out Paul Toombes was the killer, because the movie only very occasionally seems to want you to think he even could be.  If you came to the movie completely ignorant of everybody in it, I think you might guess it was Julia the assistant producer (Natasha Pyne), who probably has the second-most lines, and definitely has the movie's first-cutest haircut.

I called it a "psychological thriller mystery" which suggests it's not much of a proto-slasher, and that prefix is doing a lot more work than it was in Theatre of Blood, a film that, after pondering it for a few days, doesn't even need "proto" appended to its slashing, a conclusion that would upset some film historical applecarts if it ever caught on.  As for Madhouse, "proto" is very correct, and it's almost a proto-slasher the way, say, 1947's The Spiral Staircase is a proto-slasher, rather bloodless and not even all that explicitly violent in its action, especially after that stage-setting scene of corpse discovery, which doesn't have a "realistic" on-camera severed head but, hey, still involves an on-camera severed head.  Some of these deaths don't, in fact, make it on-camera at all, which is why it's kind of weird that there are "body count"-style deaths anyway, notably a pair of parents of another victim, sleazily harassing Paul for a settlement/bribe, whose performances and accents I assume constitute that "British humor" I've heard about.

They are, generally speaking, pretty solid stalk-and-kill scenes anyway (and the corpse discovery scenes range from good to great), despite our director, Jim Davis, seeming either disinterested in or actively inimical to gore or even blood.  Davis was in the midst of a genuinely prestigious career in cinema... as an editor.  His credits really are impressive: Charade, Marathon Man, The Killing Fields, and more.  It's been too long for me to tell you if they are well-edited movies, but Madhouse offers me the inkling that they probably are, because Madhouse is, and this is the kind of moviemore to the point, these are the kind of kill sequencesthat an editorially-trained director would make.  The kills are, more often than not, whole little short films, usually beginning with the stately, even classy gesture of a hard cut from Paul to whoever our unknown killer is, elegantly donning Dr. Death's black leather gloves; the rhythms tend to ramp up until reaching a chaotic crescendo and half the time we don't even see the murder; even when we do, it's more like an abstraction of violence than actual violence, but thrilling all the same just because of the way the scene's been built.

But if that still sounds back-handed, maybe it is; and if I haven't made a case for Madhouse as an especially good movie, it's because I don't intend to, because it's not.  But it has some enormously good elements.  One of those, and if this weren't the case it would be easier to despise Madhouse the way so many other horror icons' final starring roles are despised, is Price himself.  "Great" is possibly pushing it, but this is strong B+ Price.  He is, to begin with, afforded the melodramatic pyrotechnics that any archetypal Price performance requires (and this needs to be archetypal to even be acceptable, given the goals of the film); his discovery of Ellen is superb in this respect, Davis getting us way up in there as Price shrieks and laments before a neat, foggy whiteout dissolve.

But then, for the long middle of the movie, we even get a very distinctive Price performance, far smaller than usual, as the man behind all the make-up and the florid declamation, tired and grieving and really only wanting to be left alone, which is pretty much "the archetypal Vincent Price character," but the human version of it, insofar as this Roderick Usher/Nicholas Medina/Anton Phibes/and so on has bills to pay and relationships to maintain, so he irritably tries to make himself an anonymous wallflower in ways that rarely work because everybody wants a piece of him, while likewise attempting to will himself not to wonder if he's really crazy and killing people in a maniacal fugue.  (The last thread is the reason I would not accord it greatness, mostly because Price is unreasonably burdened with a screenplay that needs him and the audience to forget we've reached "massacre" levels by now, and nobody would even be pretending to be normal about it.)

The big thing, though, is it has an excellent ending, ultimately one worth the 75 so-so minutes out of 91 that it takes to get there, kicking off with a very Corman Poe firebug sequence that finds, essentially, Price burning down his own genre whilst declaiming one of the best horror villain speeches of his horror villain career, revolving around some delicious pop pseudo-Freudian thanatos.  But it exists, primarily, to set up just one really great edit, as Herbert settles in to watch the footage (with some very rewarding acting from Cushing here, too), and Price, in the flesh, now for all intents and purposes emerges from the very screen to wreak vengeance.  (If Davis wanted to cut more, meanwhile, you could lose the whole old man brawl between Price and Cushing; Price's return is already the climax.)  I already discussed the denouement, way up top: it's sick and evil, and also very silly and very campy, and incredibly fun, which sums it up, doesn't it?  It's not by any means Price's best movie, nor even close; but it is a most satisfactory final chapter for his legend.

Score: 6/10


  1. I’m not going to lie, some part of me would love to see some production pick up the ‘Doctor Death’ title and character design, then make some Classic Melodrama Villainy films - it’s a name that lends itself very naturally to titles like THE DIABOLICAL DOCTOR DEATH or THE WARD OF DOCTOR DEATH (For the latter I’m thinking ‘luckless dependent’ not ‘hospital ward’) or DOCTOR DEATH AND THE DEVIL.

    Ahem, permit me to correct myself - titles like THE DIABOLICAL DOCTOR DEATH! (After all, that exclamation mark should be Indispensable).

    Now I’m wondering if we could get away with DOCTOR DEATH LOSES PATIENCE (On reflection, probably not: it does not demand to be followed with a villainous cackle or other suitably-devilish laughter).

    1. I'm kinda honestly surprised, even a little shocked, there hasn't been a Dr. Phibes reboot. He's abominable!

      I like "Dr. Death Loses Patience."

      Had to look up if anyone had ever done "back to skull" (it points to how gauzy Madhouse is that I've got no idea whether Dr. Death is a medical doctor, a Ph.D., a scientist, or it's purely a sobriquet). Turns out They Might Be Giants did it.

    2. My dear fellow, THE DIABOLICAL DOCTOR DEATH! would clearly be exactly the sort of Doctor the plot needs to be.

      I wonder if THE TABLES OF DOCTOR DEATH would work at all? (I was thinking ‘operating table’ ‘dinner table’ - easy to imagine those overlapping in a horror movie - and to so degree the gaming tables of a casino).

      Actually THE THEATRE OF DOCTOR DEATH! would likely work far better.