The Mansion of Madness (1973)

*. You may not have heard of this one. I hadn’t before I tripped over it online. But if you haven’t seen it I recommend checking it out, as it’s a real buried treasure.
*. In brief, it’s another adaptation of the Poe story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” and one that actually shows some consideration for the source. It’s still just a riff on the theme of lunatics running the asylum, but some of the names are kept the same and it’s done in period dress. The American release version was even called Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon.

*. You might even think, listening to the opening voiceover, that you’re hearing Poe. You’re not, but it sounds right. And actually it’s quite a bookish script (though a Mexican production it was apparently filmed in English and dubbed into Spanish). The old man chained up in the dungeon is reciting Donne (“I run to death, and death meets me as fast”), and later we hear Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” You see, getting an English degree is useful for something after all.
*. Another, less literary allusion comes at the end when the dying Fragonard asks “Can this be the end of Maillard?” That must be a nod to Rico’s last words in Little Caesar, and it made me laugh to hear it here. What makes it even funnier is the fact that Fragonard isn’t Maillard.

*. If the script is allusive in various ways, the look of the movie is even more so. If you’re reminded of El Topo that shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Juan López Moctezuma (whose first film this was) was a friend of Jodorowsky, and this film was shot by the same cinematographer: Rafiel Corkidi.

*. I think it’s a wonderful movie to look at, from the theatrical staging and costumes to the terrific use of a weird set that looks like an abandoned factory of some sort. There are individual shots that have the painted look of Old Masters. How I wish they’d do a proper job restoring and releasing a cleaned up version. The one I watched was VHS quality.
*. With its patchwork appearance and opening in a misty forest it also reminded me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which came out a couple of years later). And bringing in Monty Python to the discussion isn’t all that big a stretch. I’ve seen this movie described as a horror-comedy and black comedy, though I find these labels inappropriate.
*. It’s not that it doesn’t try to be funny, at least at times. The character of Couvier is clearly meant as a comic foil, and Fragonard’s over-the-top campy performance would recall Dr. Frank N. Furter but for the fact that The Rocky Horror Picture Show came out two years later. But I don’t think this is enough to make The Mansion of Madness even a hyphenated comedy.
*. Look at the way the comic pratfalls of Couvier, performed to accompanying clown music, lead directly into the most disturbing scene in the movie, which is the rape in the forest. It’s like we’re not meant to take the rape seriously. This is troubling, but then the split between what’s real and what’s make believe or fantasy is something that’s central to our reading of the entire film. Those branches they keep using as clubs, for example, bend like pool noodles.

*. A final film I was reminded of was Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade (1967). Both films are set in asylums and have the same concern with revolution. Mexico, like France, has a tradition of such things. And Fragonard, like Sade, is a director: someone who wants to put on a show. Does this change how we view Fragonard? He does represent a spirit of Satanic energy and the carnivalesque, seemingly more anarchic than cruel. This is a different kind of inversion of values than we get in the more mainstream treatment of the same story in Stonehearst Asylum, and more complex. It’s also more representative of its time. The official authorities aren’t tyrants, they’re squares.
*. I wish there was more information about this title available, but I could find very little even when I went looking online. As I’ve said, this makes it both a buried treasure and a movie in need of a restoration and a critical revisiting. It’s a far from perfect movie — it’s too talky in places and doesn’t handle action well — but for anyone interested in all of the various roads leading in and out of it, it will be worth the time spent tracking it down.

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