That’s it! I’m SICK of all these crappy modern movies that try to call themselves horror! Even the great filmmakers like Argento can’t make anything worth a damn in today’s world. This time, I’m looking for something OLD! How old? Most of it’s cast better be fucking dead by now if I’m gonna sit through it! So let’s see… a movie starring Vincent Price AND Peter Cushing!? HELL YEAH!! Today we’re gonna take a look at film from 1974 called Madhouse. Is it a lost gem from the golden age of horror, or is it a well forget obscurity that both those great men wished everyone would ignore? There’s only one way to find out and that’s to keep on reading!!
The movie begins with a flashback to Hollywood some years ago where we see a director premiering his latest film at his estate. The scenes we see of the movie within the movie are decently filmed with good use of lighting, and Vincent Price plays an interesting looking villain. Once the film has finished, a woman in a bikini and sash jumps through the projection screen and introduces the crowd to the director (and star) of the film Paul Toombes (Vincent Price).
Paul gets up and addresses the audience, which turns out to be a great scene because of how much gravitas he can lend to a speech about a movie called Dr. Death 5. We find out that the writer of the film is a friend of his named Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing) who used to be an actor but gave it up to become a writer of schlocky horror. We also learn that Paul plans to marry the star of his latest film (Ellen) who is at best half his age.
A woman at the party doesn’t seem to happy about this development and decides to be passive aggressive throughout the rest of the festivities. It turns out that she’s an ex-girlfriend of Paul’s and was the star of one of his movies from a while ago. A man comes up to Paul and informs him that Ellen used to work for him as the star in several adult films which is a serious dick move on that guy’s part. Paul kicks the bastard out of the house, but then turns his anger on Ellen. What the hell man!? The guy comes up to your lady and tries to bring up old shit, and your response is to get pissed at HER!? Ellen runs upstairs distraught, and Paul stays at the party just stewing in his bitterness. After Ellen makes it to her room, we see a person with leather gloves, a mask, and a cape, enter her room and attack her.
We don’t see the attack because we cut immediately to the opening credits, but rest assure it was quite gruesome. After the credits, we see Paul is in a bed and is slowly waking up. Wait, when did he go to take a nap? Not only that, it couldn’t have been all that long considering the party is still going on downstairs. For whatever reason, he’s just woken up, but what’s that in the bed with him? Leather gloves!? That means he must be the killer! Unless of course it’s a red herring, which considering they bothered to MASK the killer means that’s likely the case. Paul goes to see his wife to make amends for his lousy behavior, but for some reason she won’t move from her desk. Paul approaches her and tries to get her to respond to him, which leads to her severed head falling off her shoulders. Wait, how fast does Rigamortis set in? Wouldn’t blood have been leaking through where the head rested? Oh well, what REALLY makes this scene fantastic is Vincent Price’s reaction to it.
He’s carted off to a hospital (due to shock I suppose) where they try to find out if he’s the one who killed her and all he can reply is “I don’t know.” Huh, maybe they’re going for a split personality story here. After that, the flashback is finally over and the movie resumes in London Today. It’s been twelve years since the death of his fiancée, and Paul has been a complete wreck since. He was acquitted of her murder, but he started dressing up as the star of his horror film series (Dr. Death) and was eventually sent to a mental home. He’s been released and is now trying to start his career again by creating a TV show based on Dr. Death. On his way to London (by boat) a hungry young actress attaches herself to him like a leech.
She starts trying to convince him to give her a role in his new show, but Paul flat out refuses and kicks her out of his room. He arrives in town the next day, but is immediately besieged with press and he only escapes when a representative from the television studio (Julia) shows up and gets him out of there. Paul arrives at his old friend Herbert house where he will be staying for the time being and it turns out that Herbert has returned to acting since Paul went away. Let’s see, Herbert was at the party, is Paul’s best friend, and returned to his original job once Paul was sent to the nut house? I’m gonna guess HE’S the real killer. Herbert is appropriately friendly and tries to convince him that returning to the role of Dr. Death is a good idea, but Paul isn’t hearing it. I really like the way Vincent Price plays the character in this. He’s trying to get his life back on track, but he’s haunted by what he might have done, and the public won’t let him recover. They’re all convinced of his guilt and want to hound him about it over and over again. THIS IS CALLED CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT! WHY CAN’T OTHER HORROR FILMS DO THIS!?
Despite Paul’s protestations, Herbert puts on one of Paul’s old movies which is a rather weird one. The entire movie seems to be nothing but a hypnotism scene. I think that Herbert might be trying to hypnotizes Paul, but it’s not like Paul doesn’t recognize this as one of his movies, and since it IS one of them, wouldn’t Paul know if it had some sort of affect on him? Sure enough, Paul dozes off for a bit and wakes up to find that Herbert is no longer in the room. We cut the actress from the boat who’s somehow found Herbert’s house and is there to continue her badgering of Paul. While aimlessly wandering the grounds, a guy in a mask shows up and stabs her to death with a pitchfork.
We naturally cut to Paul who’s waking up a few hours later (didn’t he just wake up from being hypnotizes by his own movie?) when he starts to hear music playing from the basement. He goes down there and finds that his ex-girlfriend (the one at the party) has gone mad and is living in the basement. I’m sorry, what?
Okay, so this is where the movie’s age starts to rear it’s ugly head. After what happened to Ellen, the ex-girlfriend (Faye) married Herbert but their relationship was unhappy. Because of this, Faye started to sleep with other men. A couple of them ended up beating the shit out of her, setting her car on fire (with her in it), and rolling the flaming tomb over a god damn cliff. She survived, BUT the movie implies that because she’s “no longer pretty” she slowly went mad and spends her time in the basement with her pet spiders. I don’t know. Sure, you could say that the traumatic nature of the incident itself is what caused her to go crazy, but the whole beauty thing keeps getting repeated over and over again. I’d also say that it’s REALLY fucked up that Herbert keeps her in the fucking basement, but he may turn out to be the bad guy in this, so I’ll hold my criticism of that for now.
After this, we cut to the next morning where some local kids find the dead body of the actress floating in a river. Scotland Yard starts to investigate the murder and find out that Paul and the actress were both on the same boat which leads to them investigating Paul. After a scene of Paul and Herbert at breakfast, they head to the television studio that’s creating Paul’s new show, but it turns out that the man producing it is the guy at the party who told him about his finance’s past in adult films (Oliver). Needless to say that Paul isn’t happy about this, but still tries to be as professional as possible about it. Despite his hesitation with returning to the character, as well as problems with the production (the script has been changed to give him a big breasted assistant), he’s clearly happy to be back in the saddle.
After a few minutes of observing the production of the new show, the movie cuts to a party at Herbert’s place where everyone is dressed up in Halloween costumes for some reason. Is it actually Halloween, or is everyone doing it because they’re making a horror show? I don’t know, Paul is kinda down as usual and his spirits don’t improve much when the actress playing his assistant gets in his face. The spat is clearly seen by everyone at the party and the woman playing his assistant storms off. While she’s fucking around in what looks to be a combination arcade/exercise room, everyone else (including Paul) sits down to watch a movie. Wait a minute, is that Boris Karloff!?!?
So I’m no expert in horror films from this period, but I’m guessing that the footage we are seeing is from the Roger Corman Edger Allen Poe series of films which predominately featured Mr. Karloff as well as Mr. Price. In fact, Jack Nicholson appeared in those as well which were some of his earliest roles. That said, it’s still kind of silly that they put Boris Karloff’s NAME in the opening credits considering he literally appears for about five seconds in stock footage. Paul leaves during the screening (the film seems to be upsetting him), and sure enough the assistant gets killed by the masked man while he’s away.
The death scene is kind of odd because for some reason everything in the room starts going haywire in a way that looks like the room’s haunted by a ghost. The exercise bike starts spinning, the jukebox starts playing music, and even the punching bag starts swinging wildly. If this is in any way related to the man in the mask who ends up killing her, then why the hell did he put this much effort into scaring the crap out of her before just finishing her off? Even if he just did it for the jollies, I don’t see a way HOW he can make all this stuff happen. Anyway, the body is discovered soon after and Paul runs to the basement to escape the accusations of those attending the party. He find Faye down there and talks to her about his fear that maybe he is the one doing it without being consciously aware of it. Maybe Dr. Death is real and is starting to take over the way the Mr. Hyde overtook Jekyll. Once again, Vincent Price shows his acting chops here where he effortlessly conveys a man on the edge of completely crumbling from the weight of what’s going on around him and his inability to trust himself anymore. Faye as well does great here (played by Adrienne Corri), continuing to play the insane hag but still tries to quell some of Paul’s fears.
The police have arrived on the scene and are investigating the death. They note that the way the assistant was killed (hung by her own hair) was the same as a victim in one of the Dr. Death movies, as well as the actress’s death from earlier. The police find Paul who’s planning on leaving London to escape whatever madness has taken hold in this city, and they escort him to the… I don’t know, Scotland Yard building to ask him some questions. The cops have nothing substantial, and even the fact that the death’s are done in the same manner as in his films is hardly compelling evidence considering only an idiot would be so obvious as to do that. They let Paul go for now, but for some reason he doesn’t end up leaving. What the hell was the point of showing him trying to leave if he doesn’t actually do it? For whatever reason, he goes back to Herbert’s place where two nut jobs are waiting for him.
Apparently these two are the foster parents of the actress who was killed earlier (the one from the boat, not the assistant) and they were REALLY banking on her becoming a star in order to sponge off of her fortune. Now that she’s gone, they decided to blackmail Paul with evidence they’ve found that links him to their daughter (a watch that belongs to Paul that the actress stole). I’m sure they’ll get dealt with soon enough, but before that we get another scene of Paul on set. The director is showing him the mechanism used for his death scene which is a bed that has a slowly dropping canopy intended to crush whoever is shackled to it. The director gives Paul the controls to operate it and gets in the bed himself (as well as the restraints) to demonstrate how it works. Of course the fucking machine breaks and Paul can’t stop it. Naturally, it doesn’t only minor damage to the director because no one would obviously put something that dangerous in the middle of a fucking studio. Oh wait, it does crush him to death. Apparently the bed and canopy were both made of titanium.
The police come to investigate and find that the bed was rigged to malfunction, and that the intended target was most likely Paul. Speaking of which, where IS Paul? He went back home. Really!? The police don’t want to talk to him considering he was the one who was supposed to get killed? Oh well, the scumbags looking for cash bug him some more on his way inside, and soon afterwards the killer comes out to deal with them.
Who wants to guess that the next scene starts with Paul waking up from a nap? Yup, and not only that but the phone is ringing. He answers it and Julia (the studio rep from earlier) informs him that she’s found something important and that he should meet her before his television interview later that night. He heads to the studio soon after which leaves Faye alone to wander the house. Guess what she ends up finding?
The actress playing Faye is still doing a fantastic job. Watching her explore Paul’s room is interesting because she plays it like a little kid discovering stuff for the first time, and it’s nice to see her not completely distraught and unhinged for once. That is until the two bodies come tumbling out of the guy’s closet but that’s hardly her fault, right? Paul is back at the studio but Julia is no where to be seen. Instead, he comes face to face (in a manner of speaking) with the masked killer.
The chase scene that follows is actually pretty good with Paul ending up at the set of his show and trying to hide wherever he can. Eventually the masked man grabs an ax from the set (I’m not sure if we’re SUPPOSED to think it’s fake), and starts swiping at Paul who falls backwards onto the bed which of course activates the built in shackles. Now that the masked man has Paul right where he wants him, he activates the stupid canopy crushing thingy which spells doom for our hero. That is until he comes up with a GENIUS IDEA!!!
Now that Paul has avoided certain death from a prop, he takes this opportunity to shove the masked man, break his bonds, and make a valiant escape! Alright, so the chase scene had it’s goofy moments, but I do prefer to see something like this where it’s an actual fight for survival instead of postponing the inevitable which is what happens when most people start getting chased by some sort of slasher. The masked guy here isn’t super human or can teleport, he’s just a dude trying murder another dude which can be a lot more effective than watching Jason Voorhees jump cut his giant ass in front of some running teenager. Oddly enough, Paul ends up stumbling his way onto the set of the show he’s going to be interviewed on, and just decided to go with it instead of saying that a FUCKING MAD MAN IS ROAMING THE STUDIO RIGHT NOW!!! Seriously dude!?
The interview itself is kind of weird considering that most of the time is spent watching even more scenes from the Roger Corman Poe films, but while this is happening we periodically cut back to Julia who has finally showed up and is looking for Paul. The evidence that she found is a contract in the producer’s office that says the following.
She gets found by the masked man who chases her throughout the studio, and she ends up getting murdered in one of the elevators. Paul leaves the interview early (for some reason) and returns to his dressing room to find Julia waiting for him. He approaches the chair, and just like all those years ago, the woman occupying it is dead. His amazing reaction is basically the same.
Paul is now a completely broken man. The trauma of having to relive the death of his fiancée was the last straw to break the camel’s back, or in this case the guy’s spirit. He’s been living with the fear of what he might have done for so long that he can’t even trust himself to believe that the man who chased him actually exists. For all Paul knows, he’s just a murder with a diseased mind. He carries Julia’s body to the set of his show and begins to monologue about the creation of Dr. Death and how it reflects the darkest depths of depravity and sin that man is able to conjure. While giving this speech to the dead body of Julia, he turns on the camera to record his final moments which are to set the room on fire and burn along with it, destroying Dr. Death once and for all. Wow. This movie has it’s cheesy moments and can be a bit uneven at times, but this speech makes it all worth it. Vincent Price is a phenomenal actor and seeing him just go for it in this one scene is nothing short of amazing.
The movie resumes some time later where we find out that the actor who will take over for Paul is none other than Herbert. CALLED IT!! Somehow, the recording of Paul’s final performance survived the blaze, and the producer gives it to Herbert to remember him by. At home, Herbert watches the film (in costume of course) and just starts laughing his ass off. His victory is short lived however because Paul comes out of the fucking screen and confronts Herbert! HELL YEAH!!
Herbert is freaking the fuck out because he’s just found himself in the middle of… well a million fucking stories. A Christmas Carol, The Telltale Heart, Leslie Nielsen’s segment in Creep Show, take your pick. Peter Cushing, just like Vincent Price, is a great actor, and when he starts yelling at Paul the reasons why he did it, you get to understand what was eating away at him for so many years.
Herbert has a fight with what is most likely a manifestation of his guilt, which leads to them both tearing shit up in the basement. Faye ends up stabbing Herbert in the back and she leaves the body there to let her pet spiders feast on his corpse.
What happens next is pretty weird. Paul hasn’t disappeared yet, but I’m gonna assume that’s because Faye is just as unreliable a narrator as Herbert was, and Paul is putting on make up. The make up he’s putting on makes him look like Herbert for some reason, and the movie ends with Faye and Paul/Herbert having dinner.
This movie is dated, predictable, and tame by today’s standards, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t my favorite film this month. Some of the characters are over the top, and some the “action” and death scenes are underwhelming, but what this movie has above everything else I’ve seen in October is that it has real characters and great actors. I understand Paul’s feelings about everything, even if the movie occasionally has him do something odd (like go to an interview while being chased by a mad man). Vincent Price’s acting as always is top notch and the movie knows it, which is why we get so much time with him. Peter Cushing is another fantastic actor who isn’t in the film nearly as much, but shines when he does show up and is the reason that the ending works. This isn’t a classic, but when you compare it today’s standard horror fare, it soars above it because it actually gives the audience something other than visceral thrills, random jump scares, or over the top gore. I’ll fully admit that too many people (myself included) tend to over state the greatness of horror films before the 90s, but this film really does show you why even standard, run of the mill, contractual obligation, horror from that time has something that is lost to today’s audiences. In a world that gives us at least five Paranormal Activity films and a spin off based on a fucking doll, I’m glad we can still go back to movies like these, and I highly recommend you see it.