This was one of the very last of a kind - the tail end of an era of a conventional type of horror film that had dominated since the 1950s.
Hammer Studios were shutting up shop, heading for a last ditch life-preserver in the form of the TV market before slipping off the radar. AIP and Amicus similarly sliding into a terminal decline. Explicit and pioneering movies such as The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, were leading the new wave. Directors such as Friedkin, Hooper, Carpenter, Cronenberg were soon to see their star in the ascendant. The days of plastic fangs, Max Factor blood, Gothic castles, garish Technicolour and a flash or two of heaving bosom, were gone forever.
MADHOUSE added a few melancholy notes to the swansong.
As the title suggests, it is indeed mad. And there's a house in it. It succeeds in being painfully camp, eccentric, hackneyed, desperate, confused and befuddled. The narrative has no internal logic and the characters who populate it are cardboard ciphers reciting awful dialogue and carving the ham as thick as you like. Yet...
Vincent Price and Peter Cushing always do their best to entertain and elevate the material they're given way beyond it's lowbrow standard of quality. Cushing, especially, always acts as if he's been given something of Shakespearean standards to deliver. Price, ever insightful, knows all about dross and attacks it as a matter of course with a sustained barrage of enthused overacting as he's fully aware that's his only way to slap some meaningful dynamic into it. It doesn't really salvage the film, granted, but both these men do what they can to give it some spark of life.
When I was a kid I loved this sort of stuff. Back then it seemed to add up better. Now, the nostalgia factor is the main draw. MADHOUSE is indeed one deranged film in that nothing works or makes any sense, so much so that the more absurd it gets the more surreal and curiously engaging it becomes. The idea is relatively sound: horror movie actor Paul Toombes (Price) is implicated in a grisly murder, has a mental breakdown and quits the screen. Years later, writer friend and colleague Herbert Flay (Cushing) entices him to England to revive his Dr Death character in a TV show. Then people start dying around him in gruesome ways and he becomes the main focus of suspicion.
The supporting cast are mostly cannon-fodder, window dressing waiting around to get bumped off. They might as well be china ducks in a fairground shooting gallery for all anyone cares about them. There's a crazy woman in the cellar looking after a menagerie of spiders, chat show host Michael Parkinson pops up to interview Toombes and there are lots of clips from earlier (much higher calibre) AIP horror flicks featuring Price. It meanders along in a haphazard fashion until it grinds to a halt with what was probably intended to be a creepy grand guignol conclusion that in fact leaves the viewer thinking "What?" Finally, if evidence was needed of the end of an era for a particular type of movie genre, MADHOUSE is a suitable citation for winding down. Despite everything, though, it still manages to be mildly diverting fun. But that's about as good as it gets.
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