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Sunday, December 17, 2017

ASYLUM -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle

ASYLUM is part of "THE AMICUS COLLECTION" (Blu-ray 4-volume box set) from Severin Films.
(And Now the Screaming Starts!/Asylum/The Beast Must Die/The Vault of Amicus)

I missed out on most of the cool-looking Amicus productions covered in "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine when I was a kid. Except TALES FROM THE CRYPT, which I did get to see at the drive-in when it came out and was duly impressed and entertained. 

Which is exactly my reaction to finally getting to see another quintessential Amicus anthology feature, ASYLUM (Severin Films, 1973), surely just as aptly representative of the small but hard-working studio that seemed to rival Hammer in its own modest way, but with a personality all its own, back in the 60s and 70s.

With super-efficient producing partners Max Rosenberg and Milt Subotsky handling the business end of things while hiring the best artistic and technical people for the actual filmmaking duties, ASYLUM ranks as one of their finer efforts thanks to a tight script by Robert Bloch ("Psycho") and what amounts to a pretty impressive all-star cast.

Robert Powell, best known by me from such films as TOMMY, THE SURVIVOR, and the TV mini-series "Jesus of Nazareth" (in the title role, no less), is Dr. Martin, a psychiatrist applying for a position in an asylum for the criminally insane. (I especially enjoyed the robust rendition of Mussorgsky's "A Night On Bald Mountain" that accompanied his country drive to the secluded location.)

The institute's eccentric boss, Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE), informs him that his predecessor, Dr. Starr, recently went violently mad himself and is now a patient with an entirely different personality.  Rutherford tells Martin that he has the job if he can interview the patients and ascertain which of them is actually Dr. Starr.

Thus hangs the anthology aspect of the film as Martin visits each patient in turn and listens to their stories, which we see in flashback.  They amount to a potent mix of spine-chilling horror tales, each boasting a kind of slow, deliberate storytelling that I find quite satisfying as well as an atmospheric British ambience with that pleasing 70s vibe. 

Things start out with a bang when patient Bonnie (Barbara Parkins, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) tells the story of "Frozen Fear", the most lurid and visceral tale in the collection.  In it, she and her lover Walter (Richard Todd, LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE) plan to do away with his wife Ruth (Sylvia Syms) via dismemberment. 

Ruth, however, has been dabbling in voodoo and, even in death, turns out to be more than just the sum of  It's the liveliest and most grotesque entry, and my favorite. (The film's spoileriffic trailer dwells particularly upon this segment.)

The next story, "The Weird Tailor", has the debt-ridden title character (Barry Morse of "The Fugitive" and "Space: 1999") accepting a lucrative commission for a very strange suit of clothes by a mysterious stranger (played by the great Peter Cushing).  The purpose of the odd suit of clothes turns out to be quite a shock for the old man, and for us when the supernatural tale reaches its violent end.

"Lucy Comes To Stay" offers a two-fer of great leading ladies with Charlotte Rampling (THE NIGHT PORTER, "The Avengers") and Britt Eklund (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN) in a story of overbearing husband George (James Villiers, REPULSION) plotting against his mentally-unstable wife while her friend Lucy stops at nothing, including murder, to protect her.  It's the most low-key entry with a predictable twist, yet I found it involving enough, especially with such an appealing cast.

The fourth tale, "Mannikins of Horror", takes place right there in the asylum with Herbert Lom as patient Dr. Byron, a man whose hobby is fashioning doll likenesses of his friends and colleagues.  He claims that he can project his soul into his own miniature self, animate it, and use it as a weapon of vengeance against his most hated enemy, who happens to be one of the asylum's inhabitants. Which, in a delightfully staged sequence, is exactly what he does.

The individual flashback tales are involving to various degrees, while the framing story inside that big, Gothic asylum ultimately delivers the goods for a twisty, satisfying finish. 

Direction by Roy Ward Baker (A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS) is solid and thoroughly professional as are all other aspects of the production, and, while not really gory, it's still strong stuff for its time.

The Blu-ray from Severin contains their usual lavish bonus menu beginning with "Two's A Company", a 70s-produced BBC report on the making of the film which, in addition to cast and crew interviews, features fascinating thoughts on filmmaking from Amicus co-producer Milt Subotsky himself.  Recent interviews of David J. Schow (regarding his friend Robert Bloch) and Fiona Subotsky (about her husband Milt) yield much information and insight. 

The featurette "Inside the Fear Factory" offers directors Roy Ward Baker and Freddie Francis and producer Max J. Rosenberg talking about Amicus. There's also an informative commentary track with Baker and camera operator Neil Binney, reversible cover art, and two trailers. 

ASYLUM is solidly made, nicely atmospheric, and just plain fun genre filmmaking that this horror fan considers time very well spent. 

Order THE AMICUS COLLECTION (Blu-ray 4-volume box set) from Severin Films
(And Now the Screaming Starts!/Asylum/The Beast Must Die*/The Vault of Amicus)
*The Beast Must Die is exclusive ONLY to the boxed set.

Order ASYLUM from Severin Films

Release date: December 19, 2017

Reversible cover art:

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