Asylum DVD Review
Written by Rosie Fletcher
DVD released by Dark Sky Films
Adapted from stories by Robert Bloch, Directed by Roy Ward Baker
1972, Region 0 (NTSC), 89 minutes, Rated PG
DVD Released on 25th July 2006
Robert Powell as Dr. Martin
Peter Cushing as Smith
Charlotte Rampling as Barbara
Britt Ekland as Lucy
Herbert Lom as Byron
Patrick Magee as Dr. Rutherford
Barry Morse as Bruno
Barbara Parkins as Bonnie
Sylvia Syms as Ruth
Richard Todd as Walter
James Villiers as George
Geoffrey Bayldon as Max Reynolds
Anne Firbank as Anna
Megs Jenkins as Miss Higgins
John Franklyn-Robbins as Stebbins
To secure a job in a private mental asylum, Dr.Martin (Robert Powell) must guess which of the inmates used to be one of the doctors. Each of the patients has their own tale of how they came to reside at the institute and these make up the body of this English anthology film from the academy of rainy old mansions and sinister strangers.
The stories are a selection adapted from some of author Robert Bloch’s extensive catalogue. They’re linked by themes of guilt and projection — a theme that Bloch explores further in his classic Psycho (adapted by Hitchcock). Like Norman Bates enacting the re-animation of his dead mother, the stories in the main section of Asylum are all concerned with transference of guilt and responsibility onto inanimate bodies — each story has an element of “it wasn’t me, it was my dismembered wife/imaginary friend/dress maker’s dummy/army of tiny replicas” etc. While Asylum is clearly not in a league with Psycho, it’s the superb cast and the attention to detail that upgrade it from horror-by-numbers to something a little more special and a little more fun.
In “Frozen Fear”, the tale of a wife’s revenge on her duplicitous husband is enhanced by the use of sound. The rustling of the brown paper, out of sight but ever-present becomes the sound of the husband’s guilt and has resonances of The Tell-Tale Heart. The rhythmical movement of the papered-over mouth, as it appears to breathe, is one of the creepiest and most menacing moments in the whole film and it’s an image that sticks with you. In many ways this is the strongest of the chapters — it’s not the most original or interesting idea (that prize would have to go to Herbert Lom and his army of mechanical dolls), and it can’t boast the stand-out performances or star credentials of actors like Peter Cushing and Robert Powell, but the material is handled skilfully to produce an eerie story with some good shocks and resonant images.
The more interesting chapters are the ones where the audience can conceivably believe there’s some doubt as to whether or not the patient is insane. The weakest, and in some ways most poignant, is “Lucy Comes to Stay” — the tale of a fragile woman (Charlotte Rampling) struggling with an overbearing nurse and brother, trying to retain control of her life after an incident which may have been some sort of mental breakdown. Rampling is affecting and sincere, but we’re left with a rather sad story of a damaged woman which is not very original and not really in keeping with the rest of the film. In the asylum she appears the sanest of all of the inmates, but her story leaves us doubtless that there was nothing supernatural going on here, and for that reason it’s unsatisfying.
“The Weird Tailor” has Peter Cushing to recommend it but it never quite lives up to its promises. Barry Morse is a tailor struggling to make ends meet, Cushing is a man struggling with a more sinister set of demons. This chapter is full of dark and mysterious shots and hints and suggestions of sinister goings on, but in the end, the addition of a second twist means the audience is ultimately reminded of Mannequin when they should be left thinking of The Monkey’s Paw.
The final chapter, “Mannequins of Horror”, is a little bit hit-and-miss — it contains the only real gore moment in the film which, because of its lone appearance, jars as much as it shocks. It also asks for a high level of suspension of disbelief from the viewer and some elements of this story clearly don’t work at all. But it’s the only story that isn’t entirely predictable — it’s a little bit odd and a little bit unsettling and for that reason it shouldn’t be dismissed.
A good anthology will have a linking theme to hold it together and be more than the sum of its parts. Asylum not only uses thematic similarities in the stories, but an effective framing story which makes the film feel more complete and less awkwardly episodic, and Powell is compelling and strangely attractive. However, in this age of M. Night Shyamalan et al, we’re used to coping with more twists than a pot noodle, so the ending is unlikely to come as a surprise and, therefore, feels a little bit cheap.
Asylum is of the English school of horror that brought us similar anthology films like Theatre of Blood and The House that Dripped Blood, and you might experience a feeling of déjà vu if you’ve seen many of these before. However, Asylum is still worth a look, if not for the great performances then for the odd little details that make this film something better than the average.
Video and Audio:
Looks pretty good on my set — suitably grim and foggy outside (this is England in the 70s, after all) but still crisp and clear inside. Parts of “The Weird Tailor” use the lack of light to deliver some surprises but you don’t lose any of the clarity of faces and expressions even in the half-light.
I had to crank up the volume quite a bit to be able to hear this properly, which was a bit disappointing.
Inside the fear factory: Short documentary about Hammer rivals, Amicus, and the films they made. As well as Asylum this includes The House that Dripped Blood, Dr Terrors House of Horrors and, of course, Tales from the Crypt. It’s not a laugh a minute so it might be a bit dry for those who aren’t big fans of the genre, but for anyone who’s interested in horror history this is a must, particularly because it features the late Max J. Rosenberg.
There’s commentary from the director Roy Ward Baker and Cameraman Neil Binney, but, personally, I found this a bit unsatifying — where I wanted to know how effects were achieved, they make a point of not telling you, and yet Binney goes into some very technical explanations about use of light and angles in the camera work, which is likely to only really appeal to amateur film makers rather than those purely interested in Asylum itself.
In addition to this there are theatrical trailer for a few other Amicus films, cast and crew biographies and a still gallery with pictures of alternative covers for Asylum.
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