Asylum is a 1972 British anthology horror movie from the Amicus studio, whose style rivalled that of Hammer. Four terrifying tales unfold, woven together by a narrative that forms the spine. When plucky young Dr Martin (Robert Powell) visits a lunatic asylum on an old country estate, he is introduced to a number of patients, who are all, according to the manager Dr Rutherford (Patrick Magee), incurably insane. He is tasked with identifying which of them is Dr Scott. If he correctly deduces the inmate, he will join the staff of the asylum. During his job interview from hell, Dr Martin meets four patients who tell him, in flashbacks, the horrifying stories that led to them being sectioned.
This approach allows Asylum to split the narrative into short chunks. The movie is only around 90 mins in length, but as well as the linking narrative, there are four short digressions. They are all mini horror films in their own right, with a distinct beginning, middle and end. This allows Amicus to bag a dizzying array of big-name guest stars, who would only need to have committed to a few days’ filming rather than a long movie shoot. Richard Todd, Sylvia Syms, Peter Cushing, Barry Morse, Britt Ekland, Charlotte Rampling and many others appear during the film.
There are many memorable moments where you may jump out of your seat. You may be forgiven for thinking that once The Dam Busters-star Richard Todd had dismembered his wife and left her body parts in the new, especially-bought freezer, that she could no longer do him any harm. You’d be wrong! The various shuffling body parts wrapped in brown paper and tied with string are an iconic image that once seen, are never forgotten. Similarly, an animated mannequin in the second instalment stalks Barry Morse (The Zoo Gang-star plays a stereotypical Jewish tailor) after Peter Cushing (who needs no introduction, least of all to horror fans!) tries to use his sartorial skills to reanimate his dead son (with me so far?)
There is strong cultural horror heritage to be found in Asylum, since the screenplay is by Robert Bloch, who wrote the original Psycho novel upon which Hitchcock’s immortal film was based. Nowhere is this more in evidence than the segment in which Charlotte Rampling (The Night Porter) is haunted by her imaginary friend, played by Britt Ekland (James Bond/The Wicker Man). In a clear reference to Norman Bates, Rampling’s split-personality character goes on a killing spree, though this time with a pair of scissors rather than a kitchen knife. One murder in particular pays homage to Hitchcock’s famous staircase death, though admittedly without the drama or impact of Martin Balsam’s famous neck-breaking backwards fall.
The final segment sums up everything that is great about Asylum. Herbert Lom plays Dr Byron, a lunatic who claims to have created miniature robots containing the hearts and souls of the staff and inmates. Moody lighting and dramatic music accompany a clockwork toy as it looks for victims! As with the rest of the movie – it’s enormous fun, deliciously melodramatic, and completely but knowingly preposterous. That said, the power of Asylum lies in the fact that it never once sends itself up – and that is why its entertainment and horror value are so effective.
Asylum has superb entertainment value for a short film, not forgetting a delightful performance by Geoffrey Bayldon (Catweazle). Roy Ward Baker’s tight direction makes a small budget go a long way. A corny, and perhaps predictable ending, is entirely in-keeping with the mood of the piece. Something of a niche British classic.
This limited edition high-definition Blu-ray release of Asylum from Second Sight Films comes in rigid slipcase packaging with eye-catching new artwork by Graham Humphreys. It is full of extra features, including an audio commentary with the late director, Roy Ward Baker, a 1972 BBC report on the making of the film featuring producer Milton Subotsky and many of the actors, David J Schow’s analysis of the career of Robert Bloch, Subotsky’s widow Fiona’s memories of her husband, ‘Inside the Fear Factory’ featurette from about twenty years ago, featuring the late Max J Rosenberg, and a theatrical trailer. There’s also a 40-page booklet and a reversible poster.
Cast: Robert Powell, Geoffrey Bayldon, Patrick Magee, Herbert Lom, Sylvia Syms, Richard Todd, Barbara Parkins, Barry Morse, Peter Cushing, Charlotte Rampling, Britt Ekland, James Villiers Director: Roy Ward Baker Writer: Robert Bloch Certificate: 15 Duration: 88 mins Released by: Second Sight Films Release date: 29th July 2019 Buy now