‘You have nothing to lose but your mind.’
Asylum is a 1972 British anthology horror film directed by Roy Ward Baker (The Vault of Horror; Scars of Dracula; Quatermass and The Pit) from a screenplay by author Robert Bloch, adapted four of his own short stories. It was produced by Milton Subotsky for Amicus Productions. The film was also known as House of Crazies in subsequent US releases.
Though Douglas Gamley is credited as having composed the music for this film, the majority of the score is drawn from public domain pieces by Modest Mussorgsky, in particular Night on Bald Mountain (heard over the opening and closing credits).
Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Herbert Lom, Patrick Magee, Barry Morse, Barbara Parkins, Robert Powell, Charlotte Rampling, Sylvia Syms, Richard Todd, James Villiers.
Dr Martin arrives at a secluded asylum “for the incurably insane” to be interviewed for a job by the wheelchair-bound, authoritarian Dr. Lionel Rutherford. Rutherford explains that he owes his current incapacitation to an attack by an inmate.
Rutherford reveals his unorthodox plan to determine Martin’s suitability for the post of chief doctor. One of the asylum’s current inmates is Doctor B. Starr, the former head of the asylum, who underwent a complete mental breakdown. Martin is to interview the inmates of the asylum to deduce which one is Doctor Starr. If his choice is correct, Rutherford will “consider” him for the post.
The attendant Max Reynolds admits Martin through the security door to the inmates’s solitary confinement cells, where he interviews each in turn.
- Robert Powell – Dr. Martin
- Patrick Magee – Dr. Lionel Rutherford
- Geoffrey Bayldon – Max Reynolds
Bonnie recounts the plot to murder Ruth, the wealthy wife of her lover Walter. Ruth is a possessive heiress who studies voodoo. This results in horrific repercussions after Ruth’s dead body has been dismembered and wrapped in individual parcels.
- Barbara Parkins – Bonnie
- Sylvia Syms – Ruth
- Richard Todd – Walter
“The Weird Tailor”
Bruno recounts how poverty forced him to accept the unusual request of a Mr. Smith to produce an elaborate suit of clothing from a mysterious, scintillating fabric that can animate anything, including the dead.
After learning what the suit will be used for, Bruno fights Smith and accidentally kills him. He returns with the unsold suit. His wife Anna dresses their store mannequin in the suit, and its true powers are revealed.
This story was also earlier adapted as an episode of the Boris Karloff-hosted television series Thriller (“The Weird Tailor”, Season 2, Episode 4).
- Barry Morse – Bruno
- Peter Cushing – Mr. Smith
- Ann Firbank – Anna
- John Franklyn-Robbins – Stebbins
- Daniel Johns – Otto the dummy
“Lucy Comes To Stay”
The ebullient Barbara informs Martin she has been in an asylum before. After her release from that facility, she is closely monitored at home by her brother George and a nurse, Miss Higgins. This frustrated existence is relieved when her mischievous friend Lucy comes to visit.
- Charlotte Rampling – Barbara
- Britt Ekland – Lucy
- James Villiers – George
- Megs Jenkins – Miss. Higgins
“Mannikins of Horror”
Martin interviews Dr. Byron, who holds Rutherford in contempt. Byron explains he is working towards soul transference with a small automaton whose head is a likeness of his own, showing Martin several earlier models. Byron plans to “will” his mannequin to life. He explains the interior of the robot is organic, a miniaturised version of his own viscera. Martin concludes his interview, and Max shows him downstairs to deliver his judgment to Rutherford.
- Herbert Lom – Dr. Byron
- Sylvia Marriott – Asylum head nurse
- Frank Forsyth – Asylum gatekeeper
- Tony Wall – New houseman
Byron successfully brings his mannequin to life; it makes its way to Rutherford’s office and kills him with a scalpel. Martin destroys the mannequin, which results in the death of Dr. Byron, and seeks help. Dr. Starr’s true identity is revealed: it is “Max Reynolds,” who has murdered the real Reynolds two days before. He then strangles Martin to death.
Sometime later, a new candidate for the job arrives and is met by Dr. Starr, who escorts him into the asylum.
This story was later loosely adapted for the Monsters TV series episode “Mannikins of Horror”.
“Gleefully poised on the border between silly and scary, Bloch revels in the ridiculousness of it all while managing to keep things vaguely disturbing (the scene in which Richard Todd recoils in horror as the dismembered remains of his wife, wrapped in brown paper, jerk back to life is a perfect example). He also manages to keep the linking narrative’s sadistic conclusion gripping till the last.” Film4
” … there’s only one really powerful story, in which Peter Cushing gives another sublimely heart-wrenching performance as a bereaved father … Even here the action dwindles to a silly ending… ” Jonathan Rigby, English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema
“Compared to the other Amicus anthologies, which can be patchy, to say the least, Asylum has it all. Great stories, a wonderful cast and, most importantly, an actual, sensible(ish) linking story which (almost) makes sense. No fortune tellers, empty houses, broken lifts or careless tour guides here. Instead you’ve got a “hero” who has a reason to be where he is, and a reason to listen to the stories…” Chris Wood, British Horror Films
“Cheerfully gruesome (especially the last tale involving Lom and a murderous mannikin), but done without much wit or style.” Time Out (London)
” … it does pale a bit when compared to the best of its type (but what film wouldn’t?). Instead, there is a very workmanlike quality to the film that exhibits a mastery of the anthology format: the performances are good, the direction is well done, and all the stories fit together extremely well in building towards a tightly-constructed and well conceived climax.” Brett Gallman, Oh, the Horror!
“A good script and a very strong cast helps to make this one of Amicus’ most entertaining anthology films.” Gary A. Smith, Uneasy Dreams: The Golden Age of British Horror Films, 1956 – 1976
“Gimmicky and inconsistent, like most anthology films, Asylum is still pretty fun for fans of campy horror … Besides the inconsistency, the obvious flaw is the intrusive soundtrack. The opening is the worst, with the overly familiar and overly serious “Night on Bald Mountain”. The soundtrack improves before the jolting ending.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers
“The sick sketches set in the bleakly oppressive confines of madhouse cells, dark corridors and cavernous halls are well handled, underplaying the black humour most uncharacteristically. The excellent cast, including Powell’s first appearance in a genuine horror film, give the picture more power than any of Ward Baker’s previous efforts.” The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror
” … boasts an excellent Bloch script, a well chosen cast and good Gothic direction by Roy Ward Baker; and the linking story is strong enough to stand on its own.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook
“Ripping good Amicus anthology film … There’s even a fifth story (a payoff for the framework) with a jolt ending. Superior fare.” John Stanley, Creature Features
“With the exception of Britt Ekland and Charlotte Rampling the cast are uniformly bland, and they are matched in their mediocrity by Roy Ward Baker’s restrained direction … though some of the blame can also go to Robert Bloch’s puerile script and the surprisingly cheap-looking studio bound sets.” Allan Bryce (editor), Amicus: The Studio That Dripped Blood
” … it’s hard to be frightened when the characters in peril are uniformly murderous or unpleasant. Neverthless, this has its eerie, affecting stretches – the delicately scored march of the mannikin is great Twilight Zone stuff, and Rampling manages a scary smile to show her Ekland side.” Kim Newman, Ten Years of Terror
” … offers addicts of of mystery and imagination a good wallow. It is genuinely scary … Gruesome but good fun.” Sunday Express, 1972
Production and release:
Shot in April 1972, the film was edited and set for release just fifteen weeks after the final day of shooting, premièring in July 1972 in the UK. Asylum had its North American début on 17 November 1972 via Cinema Releasing Corporation.
After years of releases using degraded 16mm (for TV) and old theatrical 35mm prints, the film finally received a deluxe DVD release in 2006 from Dark Sky Films. The DVD provides extensive special features including an audio commentary by director Roy Ward Baker and cameraman Neil Binney, plus “Inside the Fear Factory” (a featurette about Amicus Films), cast and crew bios, liner notes, trailers and a still photo gallery. The film was remastered from a pristine 35mm print.
New Lodge, Winkfield, Berkshire, England (also used as a location for Trog)
Shepperton Studios, Shepperton, Surrey, England