Released in 1974, MADHOUSE is the last film Vincent Price made for American International Pictures (AIP), and it was co-produced by Amicus and shot in England. A fitting end to his tenure for the company that single-handedly created the drive-in movie, MADHOUSE now arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics.
Actor Paul Toombes (Vincent Price, HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS) is known to his fans for his persona of "Dr. Death" in a series of horror films. During a Hollywood party on New Year's Eve, Toombes learns that his bride-to-be (Julie Crosthwaite) had a past career in stag movies, and causes a scene before making his exit. Soon after, when he goes to her room to apologize, he bends over to give her a kiss and her decapitated head falls off onto the dressing table. After the traumatic experience, Toombes suffers a nervous breakdown and turns his back on show business. Twelve years later, he is persuaded to sail to England to reprise his famous role of Dr. Death in a new TV series. When Toombes arrives, he is greeted by a friendly public relations girl (Natasha Pyne, THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES), and then meets his arrogant American producer Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry, SUGAR HILL) who insists that Dr. Death take on a female assistant (Jennie Lee Wright, “The Benny Hill Show”) played by his bimbo girlfriend, much to Toombes’ chagrin. Toombes finds comfort by staying with and reminiscing with his old pal Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing, DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS) who gave up a career in acting to write the Dr. Death scripts and was the one who convinced Toombes to come to England to reprise his character. But as soon as shooting on the series begins, someone dressed as Dr. Death starts killing off the cast, the crew and other interested parties, reenacting the various murders from Toombes' films and causing the veteran actor to question his own sanity and whether or not he is capable of such slaughter.
Based on the novel Devilday by Angus Hall and shot in 1973 under the title “Revenge of Dr. Death”, MADHOUSE uses the same “serial killer” formula from Price's last couple of genre efforts; the DR. PHIBES films and the previous year’s THEATRE OF BLOOD, which is often quoted as the actor’s favorite. Of course Price’s Paul Toombes is not as meaty a role as Dr. Phibes or Edward Lionheart, but he adds his usual style to the character of a tormented, scandalized, faded cult star who is always questioning his own sanity, and his ghoulish skeletal Dr. Death make-up (by George Blackler, who also worked on THEATRE OF BLOOD and appears as himself here) is memorable. MADHOUSE strays from the tongue-in-cheek angle while still not taking itself too seriously, and unlike the aforementioned past successes, the identity of the killer is kept a mystery until the end. Since the murderer is dressed in black “Dr. Death” garb (including black leather gloves), and the actual killings are more conventional in comparison to the outrageous “Dr. Phibes” methods of crazed ingenuity, MADHOUSE plays out more like a British giallo, and makes sure to pile on the red herrings (even incorporating a sight gag about that in the final shot). At times, the story can be routine and predictable, and clips from most of Price's Poe films for Roger Corman (all but TOMB OF LIGEIA) are thrown it at every opportunity; screenings of them at parties, Flay projecting one for Toombes to get reacquainted with his character, during Toombes’ television interview (with longtime British television journalist Michael Parkinson) and a young detective (Ian Thompson, A TOUCH OF CLASS) running them in his office as research for his murder case. Seeing these clips add a sense of nostalgia since this is the film that wrapped up Price’s horror career with AIP, even if they become excessive to the point of monotony (though they had passed away earlier, both Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone are given “special participation” credit, showing up in clips from THE RAVEN and TALES OF TERROR).
As the previous two Price/Cushing team-ups (SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN and DR. PHIBES AGAIN) had the actors with no screen-time together, their many scenes together here are masterful enough, and they are featured together in a grand guignol, twisted climax which is a highlight. Quarry adds another dimension to the film, and he’s also given ample screen time with both Price and Cushing. With Quarry at one time being groomed as AIP’s successor to Price, their well-publicized rivalry is suitably on display in their antagonistic characters, and Quarry even gets to dress up as his most famous screen persona, Count Yorga, at a fancy dress party (at the same party, Cushing’s character is made up to look like a vampire, somewhat similar to what he looked like in the French film, TENDER DRACULA, made around the same time). Quarry would only do one more film under his AIP contract (SUGAR HILL), so this is sort of a “classic horror” swan song for him as well. Being a co-production between AIP and Amicus (with Milton Subotsky, Max J. Rosenberg, Sam Arkoff and John Dark of the Edgar Rice Burroughs series all taking on production duties) the film also comes at the end of the golden age of British horror films (1957-1973).
Director Jim Clark mostly worked as a busy editor for some major motion pictures, and he only helmed a handful of features (including EVERY HOME SHOULD HAVE ONE with Marty Feldman) and although his work here has sometimes been described as uninspired, there’s certainly more than enough key ingredients that make the film entertaining and satisfying for horror fans. There is one standout sequence that gets high points for Clark: an irritated actress strays from a party and enters a rec room when suddenly the lights go out as the place remains resonated by a jukebox and pinball machine. A skull-masked assailant then comes out of nowhere to strangle her in the midst of the racket as the film cuts back and forth to bored costumed partygoers watching Hazel Court’s violent demise in THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (substituting as a “Dr. Death” movie) which drowns out the real-time victim’s final screams. The film also benefits from Adrienne Corri (VAMPIRE CIRCUS) in an unforgettably creepy performance as former Toombes co-star and estranged wife to Flay, Fay Carstairs, now insane and mutilated, creeping around in a cottage basement full of spiders which she fondly fondles as house pets. British cult actress Linda Hayden (THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW) also makes an appearance as an aspiring young actress out to blackmail Toombes with her sexual charms. Composer Douglas Gamley was basically Amicus’ in-house composer in the early 1970s, having done a number of the portmanteau horror movies that the company was best known for. His scores tended to be hauntingly old school yet grand in execution, and his easily recognizable style is on display here, and the film certainly benefits from it.
MGM previously released MADHOUSE on DVD as part of their “Midnite Movies” line (paired with THEATRE OF BLOOD) in a rather bland and soft-looking non-anamorphic transfer now remedied by Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release. Specifically for this Blu-ray, Kino has created a new HD master of the film, presenting it in 1080p in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is more than a revelation, sharp enough to realistically bring out all the cracks and crevices in Price’s face, as well as other important visual details which not witnessed in previous home video presentations. The original Eastman colors look better than ever, distinct and faithful to first-issue theatrical prints, showing only slight dullness in a few random shots. Contrasts and black levels are also good and filmic grain is handsomely on display, only becoming heavier on a few occasions. Dirt and debris on the original source element is sporadic but seldom. The DTS-HD master audio track sounds great, presenting clear dialogue, and the music and sound effects also fair well. Like with MGM’s previous DVD version, restored is Price's melodic rendition of "When Day is Done" (heard over the closing credits, the song was edited out of the Orion Home Video VHS edition back in the 1990s due to rights issues). No subtitle options are included. NOTE: On further evaluation of this Blu-ray release, we noticed something we thought we noticed the first time viewing it which has also been reported by those who have already gotten the disc on several online message boards. The audio in a few scattered scenes appear to be slightly out-of-sync, and Kino Lorber has responded to this issue saying, “It has come to our attention that Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray of MADHOUSE (1974) has some errors in the audio synchronization. We are reviewing the master materials now, and determining how significant the problem is. We will also determine whether the dialogue can be re-synched without compromising the timing of the music and sound effects, since the issue appears to be in the source elements. Based on what we find, Kino Lorber will decide whether or not to re-author the disc and set up an exchange program for the first-pressing discs. Thank you for your patience and your continued support."
A featurette entitled “The Revenge of Dr. Death: Making MADHOUSE” (10:56) has been produced by Daniel Griffith’s Ballyhoo Motion Pictures. Containing well written narration (spoken by Randy Turnbull) and interviews with historians David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner, the piece does a nice job of giving background info, production details and opinions about MADHOUSE without having any original talent from the film on hand. Del Valle also goes solo for an audio commentary, and starts off by stating that the film was originally set to be directed by Robert Fuest, who had done the DR. PHIBES films with Price, and that Quarry was originally to be given the part in which Cushing eventually played. He mentions how much the movie strays from the original novel, that the film was re-edited several times before release (the final cut by Subotsky who was at war with director Clark) and that Quarry told him how he re-wrote some of his own dialogue and did the same for his two famous co-stars. Del Valle has no difficulties fleshing out the running time with fun insight and various stories about the cast, as well as some interesting quotes from them and the director. Rounding out the extras are the original theatrical trailer which makes no mention of Cushing or Quarry, but certainly gives Price the hype that he deserved, as well as the trailer for TALES OF TERROR, also available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. (George R. Reis)
BACK TO REVIEWS