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Madhouse is a fun 1974 horror movie with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing that is a bit of a hybrid of the atmospheric horror movies that had been popular up until this time and the slasher movies that replaced them. This was a joint production of Amicus and AIP, with footage of Vincent Price's AIP horror flicks getting used in the movie. The footage allows a couple of other big names to sneak into the movie as well, despite the fact that they were no longer with us. Footage was used of movies that Price had made with Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff. Since this is recycled footage lasting just a couple of minutes at most, the movie can't boast the same star power as House of the Long Shadows, but Cushing and Price alone are worth the watch. There is also Robert Quarry, who doesn't have the same name recognition as the other two but die hard horror fans will know him as Count Yorga, Vampire.
Price plays Paul Toombes, an actor who has gained a level of fame for playing Dr. Death in a series of horror movies. Dr. Death's make-up has become iconic among horror fans in the real world, gracing the covers of may horror magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland and Fangoria. Paul is doing well, having made his fifth Dr.Death movie and being engaged to a beautiful young actress. He is at a party to show off his latest movie along with his friend Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing) who had given up his acting career to write the Dr. Death movies. Paul meets Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry) a porno producer, who reveals that not only has Paul's fiancee worked for him but slept with him as well. Paul gets upset and his fiancee Ellen flees upstairs. While she is there a figure dressed ad Dr. Death murders her.
Of course everyone assumes Paul was the culprit, and he spends years in an asylum. Paul doesn't remember if he killed Ellen or not. He is eventually released and goes to London at the behest of Herbert Flay. Flay wants to resurrect the Dr. Death character in a television series, and the producer involved is none other than Quayle. On his trip over Paul is ambushed by a young actress who sneaks into his room and steals the watch Ellen gave him just before her murder. Paul agrees to do the show for Flay and stays with him at his house. Paul discovers that Flay's wife is living in the basement after being in a car accident that has left her horribly scarred and mutilated. She is obsessed with spiders and has an aquarium full of them which she keeps as pets. Paul isn't happy doing the show, as he has to work with Quayle's current paramour who has little talent. The actress that stole Paul's watch resurfaces, and is killed with a pitchfork on Flay's property. The killing resembles a murder in one of the Dr. Death movies, so the police suspect Paul has gone insane again.
The girl's foster parents show up, and it is immediately apparent that something is off with them. Paul's irritating co-star gets hanged by her own hair, again calling back to another Dr. Death murder scene. The foster parents show up at Flay's house and try to shake down Paul after they find his watch on her body. Paul blows them off, but then someone beckons them into the house. They are both impaled on a sword. On the set of the show, the director is killed when a special effect goes wrong and Paul realizes that he was the intended victim. When Dr. Death (or someone trying to approximate Dr. Death, but with a skull mask instead of the make-up) tries to murder Paul he runs away and somehow ends up stumbling onto the set of a talk show where he was scheduled to make an appearance. Quayle's assistant stumbles across the contracts for the show, which reveal to her who the real murderer is. She is of course immediately killed.
When Paul finds her body he carries her to the Dr. Death set and locks them inside. He sets fire to the set and is presumed to have burned to death. Flay makes a return to acting by signing on to take up the mantle of Dr. Death. He goes home to watch the footage of Paul burning to death that was caught on camera, but Paul apparently steps out of the screen and into Flay's house, burned but very much alive. Flay reveals that he had written the Dr. Death character for himself and resented that Paul got the part. He killed Ellen hoping that Paul would be forced to stop making the movies, but found that no one was interested in making Dr. Death unless Paul was involved. When making the contracts for the t.v. show Flay had t put in writing that if anything happened to Paul then Flay would get to take over the character. Paul and Flay fight, but it is Flay's wife who kills him and feeds him to her spiders. Paul uses make-up to make himself look like Flay, presumably to take his place since Paul is presumed dead.
The deaths in the movie are rather tame compared to the blood and gore that was soon to take over the genre, but even for someone who grew up long after this kind of movie had passed into yesteryear there are things that make this movie very interesting. One is of course the performances. Price is always great, and my biggest complaint about the movie (other than perhaps how Paul survived the fire and how he seems to magically appear in Flay's living room) is that Cushing isn't in it more. The other thing that makes the movie so watchable is all the weird, quirky details. The behavior of the foster parents, Flay's basement dwelling, spider loving wife. The police detective who seems to be an expert in Dr. Death films. The movie is so very by the numbers and at the same time so very odd that it is fascinating. If anyone but Price and Cushing were in the main roles I'm not sure it would work. But since those two are in the movie, it ends up being very enjoyable, with the same kind of vibe as Dr. Phibes. This is definitely one to check out if you haven't seen it.
© 2022 Gracchus Gruad