While Amicus is mainly known for their anthology films, they also presented singular stories. Director Jim Clark may have also made the films Every Home Should Have One and Rentadick, but he’s better known as an editor. You’ll definitely recognize the films he edited — Midnight Cowboy, The Killing Fields, The World Is Not Enough and Marathon Man to name but a sliver of his list of efforts.
It’s also the sad end of the AIP cycle of films, as Samuel Z. Arkoff felt that due to its lower box office, it marked the end of the horror cycle. That makes sense — it seems a film at odds with the direction horror would take, present a character not unlike Dr. Phibes who must now deal with the new horror, styles like giallo and American independent films that would reinvent the rules.
Paul Toombes (Vincent Price) has been a horror star for decades and is set to make his fifth appearance as Dr. Death, a skull-faced killer. During the premiere, he announces his engagement to Ellen Mason, a co-star, who gives him an engraved watch. However, within no time at all, adult film producer Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry, who was despised so much by Price in real life that it comes through in the film) reveals that Ellen had once been in his films.
Toombes explodes in anger and when Ellen returns to her room, before the sight of any credits, she’s attacked by a point of view killer. When our protagonist attempts to apologize, her head falls from her neck and into his hands, a shocking scene for the usually staid AIP world.
The world falls apart — Toombes is instituitionalized, unsure if he killed his love or not. He’s acquitted and the rest of the world moves on in his absence.
Years pass and Toombes is released. He visits London to meet his friend, screenwriter Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing), who is created a Dr. Death TV series with Quayle.
On the cruise ship that will bring him to the U.K., Toombes must deal with Elizabeth (Linda Hayden, The Blood On Satan’s Claw), an ingenue actress who wants publicity. She continues to follow him, as do her parents once she’s killed with a pitchfork.
Flay’s situation is no better than his former lead actor’s. In the basement, his wife Faye (Adrienne Corri, best known as the abused wife Mrs. Alexander in A Clockwork Orange), who was once the lead in a Dr. Death film, has gone mad, the result of her constant affairs leading to a car accident that has left to her being hideously burned.
Every time Toombes becomes enraged, someone dies, and they expire in a manner directly releated to his films. He finally goes mad and sets the set — and himself — ablaze.
That night, under the assumption that Toombes is dead, Flay signs a contract to take his place as Dr. Death. He celebrates by watching Toombes’ apparent death on film. That’s when the real Toombes walks toward him, burned but alive, and learns how his friend was behind it all. Flay’s wife reappears and stabs him, feeding him to her spiders, before she and Toombes sit down for dinner. Now, the actor has completed the makeup that will allow him to look like the traitor that tried to destroy his life.
Madhouse is an interesting film. At once, it’s a best of retrospective of AIP films, featuring moments from Tales of Terror, The Raven, The Haunted Palace, The Pit and the Pendulum, Scream and Scream Again, and House of Usher. It even points out that it was made thanks to special participation by Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff, who had died in 1967 and 1969, as they make appearances from the past of AIP.
Then, it feels like a meditation on the past ending and a struggle to keep pace with the new world. Within a half-decade, horror would be filled with slashers and the Price films would feel charming and quaint, not movies that terrified the world. And at the very same time, Italian giallo was doling out movies filled with equal measure of brutality and shifting identities.
Finally, it’s also a movie in love with the idea of horror films themselves, willing to show both Quarry and Cushing dressed as their vampiric alter egos at a cast party.
The whole thing just made me sort of sad — as I know that no one today really thinks of films such as this and can see the magic inside them. It’s as if Price is playing Toombes as himself, going out one last time to try and wring out whatever he can from a dying genre of film.