Asylum (1972)

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*. I like how Asylum gets started, with a fog machine and what I believe is Oakley Court (though no one on the commentary track can identify the location) standing in for Dunsmoor Asylum, while Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain blares on the soundtrack. Looks like we’re in for a good time!
*. It doesn’t quite live up to the promise of this beginning, but I think that in itself is telling. Asylum is an anthology horror film, of a type that was once very common (particularly coming this studio, Amicus), but which you don’t see much any more. What makes Asylum such a rarity among anthology films is the fact that its frame story is a lot more interesting than any of the individual tales.
*. Though even with the frame story the premise is better than the execution. Young Dr. Martin is set a challenge by crusty old Dr. Rutherford: he has to interview four Dunsmoor inmates and pick which one he thinks is Dr. Star, the asylum’s former manager who has now apparently taken a turn for the worse. That’s a clever idea, and opens up lots of possibilities.

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*. But it isn’t an intellectual challenge. While I say I like the frame story, I can’t really figure it out. Does Dr. Rutherford know that Star has killed the orderly and replaced him? I’ll admit that the first time I watched the movie this never even occurred to me, but since then I’ve come to think that it’s the most likely explanation for what’s going on. Not that it’s very likely, just that it’s more likely than the alternatives, most of which would involve Dr. Rutherford being Dr. Star’s accomplice.
*. The film is full of puzzling matters like this that I think are mainly the result of sloppy screenwriting. Take as another example the question of Barbara’s medication. Are they anti-psychotic pills meant to control her condition, which would explain why Lucy doesn’t want her taking them and tries to throw them away? If so, why does Lucy only appear after Barbara takes them, and why does she have them hidden inside a hair curler?
*. I guess it’s not fair to hold a movie made this quickly and cheaply to that high a standard. Does it matter that the inmates narrate events that they didn’t personally witness and have no possible way of knowing about (like Bonnie telling Walter’s story)? Does it matter that even the fantasy elements don’t make much sense (like a magical suit that’s meant to bring a corpse to life animating a tailor’s mannequin, or a toy robot that can climb like a monkey)? Does it matter that plot points are unexplained (like how Barbara/Lucy knows enough about Nurse Higgins’s mother to make a fake phone call summoning her out of town)?

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*. I wonder if we’re supposed to believe that there are only four patients in that entire enormous building. And given that they are incurably insane and no attempt is being made at treating them, isn’t this royal treatment?
*. The screenplay was by Robert Bloch, with the stories adapted from pieces that I believe he wrote for Weird Tales quite a few years earlier: “Frozen Fear” (1946), “The Weird Tailor” (1950), “Lucy Comes to Stay” (1952), and “Mannikins of Horror” (1939).

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*. All four of the stories are pretty obvious, but it’s only the third, “Lucy Comes to Stay,” that I thought was a total yawn. There’s nothing new about the premise — a psycho who has an imaginary evil friend who does their killing for them — and nothing interesting is done with it here. Though Bloch apparently did say he saw the story as a forerunner for Psycho and it’s hard to miss the nod to that film in the scene where Nurse Higgins is stabbed at the top of the stairs. Oddly enough, when this connection is put to director Roy Ward Baker on the commentary he remains silent.
*. The other three stories all have a zany charm to them. The tailor’s dummy in the Technicolor dream suit, the robot with a human head stuck on it, and the body parts tied up in butcher paper are all rather funny. I mean, the dummy looks like a Regency dandy going to a disco, the robot is so slow-moving and stiff it doesn’t look like it would even be any fun as a toy (which is what it in fact was), and the wife’s trunk recalls the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, shorn of his limbs and spoiling for a fight. What on earth is threatening about a decapitated, limbless trunk shuffling toward you? Or a leg kicking itself across the basement floor? What are they going to do? Nudge her to death?
*. As I’ve said, you don’t see these anthology films much any more. I guess you could see Pulp Fiction as a modern example that took it to another level of narrative sophistication, but the success of that film just shows how hard it is to get it right. Max Rosenberg (the co-producer) thought the Asylum stories all had such a simple premise that they couldn’t be sustained for ninety minutes, and it would have required some real skill to have knit them together in any kind of meaningful way. Nevertheless the format keeps things moving along, there’s some nice photography, and it’s a treat to see all the old familiar faces doing a quick turn before being dispatched.

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