Review: Asylum (1972)

Written by Robert Bloch
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Starring Barbara Parkins, Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Charlotte Rampling, Herbert Lom
US Release Nov. 17, 1972
RT 88 min.
Home Video Dark Sky Films
Classic Horrors rating = 8 (out of 10)


One Monday morning at school, my friend Tommy Terrell ran up to me to tell me about the movie his father took him to see over the weekend. I don’t think any movie could live up to the very detailed and descriptive synopsis he gave of the “Frozen Fear” segment of the Amicus Productions film, Asylum.  I didn’t know how this one slipped by me, but I immediately began pestering my parents to take me to see it.

Asylum was released in November of 1972. I don’t remember the weather being cold when I saw it at the Video Twin Theater, but my parents must have relented soon after its release and Tommy told me his tale.  To my delight, I enjoyed the movie as much as I expected.

To this day, I would call it my favorite “portmanteau” (consisting or combining two or more separable aspects or qualities) or anthology movie. It was my first exposure to Amicus and I would later come to appreciate Tales from the Crypt, The House That Dripped Blood and, particularly, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, to name only three.

So how does Asylum hold up 44 years later? Well, the “Frozen Fear” segment is indeed terrific, but I had forgotten that the other three segments were not as strong.  The framing story, though, is one of my favorites from Amicus.  Dr. Martin (Robert Powell) arrives at an asylum “for the incurably insane” for a job interview.  Asking for the whereabouts of the head of the asylum, Martin learns that Dr. Starr suffered a complete mental breakdown and is now a patient at that very asylum.  To be considered for the job, Martin must interview the patients to identify which one is really Dr. Starr.

Each of the patients has, of course, a horrifying story that could easily have broken an accomplished physician. But which one?  Is it Bonnie (Barbara Parkins), whose plan to murder her lover’s wife goes wrong?  Tip for Bonnie: don’t kill someone who studies voodoo.  (This is the “Frozen Fear” chapter.)  Even though the wife is chopped to pieces and each of those pieces is individually wrapped and stored in a freezer, they magically come to life to seek revenge.

Is it Bruno (Barry Morse), “The Weird Taylor”, whose poverty drives him to murder and greed when he’s hired by a man (Peter Cushing) to sew a suit made of a mysterious fabric that seems to have a life of its own?

Is it Barbara (Charlotte Rampling), who was in an asylum previously and got into trouble while recovering at her brother’s home? Things were going well for her until “Lucy Comes to Stay”.

Or, is it Dr. Byron (Herbert Lom), who experiments with “soul transference” to animate a small robot-like automaton? Not my favorite chapter, this one bleeds into the overall movie’s finale, cleverly tying it all together.

I actually had forgotten the true identity of Dr. Starr until I watch Asylum recently. I was expecting the obligatory twist ending; however, the movie was still able to surprise me after all these years.

As gruesome as the stories are, Asylum was rated only PG in its United States release. This isn’t surprising; there’s not a drop of blood in it.  Any movie that can feature a hatchet murder with no blood and still be scary must have some good people behind the scenes.  Indeed  does.  It was written by Robert Bloch (Psycho) and directed by Roy Ward Baker, who at about the same time was one of Hammer Films’ busiest directors.

Interestingly, the majority of the score is comprised of classical music in the public domain. Hence, when Dr. Martin drives up the dusty road and walks up to the door of the old asylum, he’s accompanied by Night on Bald Mountain.  It’s a little overbearing in that context, but actually gives you a good idea of what might be hiding behind that door.

Asylum would be a perfect introduction to horror for kids. It certainly impressed Tommy Terrell and me.  I can’t speak for Tommy, but the movie stayed in my mind from childhood into adulthood.  There’s something about it that inspires the imagination.  I’m sure it’s one of the reasons I continue to be such a big horror fan.

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