Editor’s Note: Hey fiends! Our own Josh Soriano returns with A LOOK BACK AT 1974’s Vincent Price starring, MADHOUSE! Read on below!
There’s no arguing that Vincent Price is a horror icon, a prolific character actor whose performances are synonymous with the genre. From his earlier work with schlockmeister William Castle to the Edgar Allen Poe-themed films directed by Roger Corman, Price was a titan that can be mentioned among greats like Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi. Towards the beginning of the seventies, he starred in a crop of solid cult horrors under the keeping of American International Pictures. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is the most popular among them, an epic and bizarro revenge story with Price playing the eponymous ghoulish anti-hero. Phibes is a cult touchstone for his later years and was a surprise hit. Intended to become a franchise, only one sequel was made. Following the PHIBES sequel, he starred in two more unforgettable vehicles, THEATRE OF BLOOD and MADHOUSE.
In MADHOUSE, Vincent Price plays Paul Toombes, an aging horror icon who’s attempting a comeback in the second half of his career. Toombes (a part clearly written with Price in mind) was once the reigning horror star in a franchise of films known as the “Dr. Death” series. Dr. Death, a murderous torturer, dons a black cape and hat and his face is painted like a grim skeleton. It’s a clear homage to the actual work of the actor. Meta at its best, decades before SCREAM or WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE. Dr. Death resides in a Poe-esque castle where he tortures victims with devices like the pendulum or stretching rack. The imagery is reminiscent of Price’s work with Corman, with stock footage from his earlier films woven into the few glances we see on screen.
Toombes, whose enjoyed a great deal of success, has everything: a young and beautiful fiance, a popular film franchise and financial wealth. However, once he learns his bride-to-be has been in some blue movies that she never told him about, he grows angry and they quarrel. Soon after, she’s beheaded upstairs by a masked assailant in similar getup to Dr. Death. This sets off Paul’s mental collapse and early resignation from Hollywood.
Years later, his best friend (played by Peter Cushing) decides he’d like to bring back the nefarious caped villain for a new string of films. Paul reluctantly agrees, not entirely sure he can pull it off again nor will audiences be as interested. This is as realistic as Hollywood gets about itself and the perils of being a type-cast horror icon. It’s a clever wink in the audience’s direction. Price himself tends to be more well-known for his devious characters than he does for his dramatic work early on, so the decision to cast him is a brilliant one.
Soon accidents begin to happen during the filming of the new Dr.Death film, thus causing its star to question his own sanity and the true nature of the film’s producer (played by COUNT YORGA himself, the somewhat stoic and slimy Robert Quarry. Apparently, Vincent Price was a bit hard on Quarry behind the scenes and would often poke fun at him, perhaps he was worried the “new kid in town” would take the limelight away from him. Both actors also played enemies in the sequel to ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN. Robert has a sort of hypnotic presence in films and it’s truly a shame that he didn’t catch on as a horror icon quite like Price did.
Aside from its obvious meta qualities, Madhouse is a fun chiller that has early inklings of the slasher genre that BLACK CHRISTMAS would birth that same year while creating a commentary on the hack and slash that horror stars’ careers are subjected to in cinema. There is a whodunit element that pulls you along up to its rather ambiguous ending. The first time I saw the film, I hated the ending but now I’ve grown to appreciate it not spelling everything out for you. Sure, there are leaps in logic but such is usually the case when dealing with horror-fiction.
Still, if the story isn’t gripping enough for you, there’s a smorgasbord of wonderfully weird imagery. A personal favorite is in Adrienne Corri who plays a former lover and co-star of Paul Toombes that has been dismantled emotionally (and physically, to a degree) by the perils of Hollywood–living in the cellar of the mansion, sporting a garish wig (similar to Magenta of ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW) and equally extreme makeup. Corri is probably best know as the victim of Alex and his Droogs in the (in)famous scene from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE where she is assaulted while Malcolm McDowell performs “Singing In The Rain”.
The cast offers two post-humus cameos by both Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff, giving the film the feeling of a final send-off to the days of the great Gothic-horror films. Madhouse ironically represents the end of an era; the death of the over-saturated lavish Hammer films and the ushering out of the great stars of yesterday to make way for the new. It’s a bitter-sweet farewell because the true madhouse of the film, the supreme menace, is the monster that is Hollywood.