Stream to Scream: “MADHOUSE” (1974)Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
With the recent passing of Christopher Lee, there was a blanket of sadness that covered the horror community as not only did we lose one of the greatest actors of all time, but the genre world lost the very last of the old guard. While legends such as Vincent Price, John Carradine, Peter Cushing and Peter Lorre had expired years beforehand, Lee was the last remaining icon from that era where class and commitment walked hand-in-hand with the horror genre, even when said work grew weary on these performers. However, in reality, that era ended over four decades beforehand with 1974’s MADHOUSE, the Amicus-American International Picture co-production that was the last of the classic horror vehicles that didn’t end up descending into full-on parody.
And how fitting an end would it be, as the Price/Cushing vehicle took an all-too-meta approach of telling the story of a revered horror actor who finds his life torn asunder by tragedies that are ripped from his most famous films. A tale of madness, murder and manipulation, MADHOUSE gives Price one of the most sympathetic characters of his career, and his approach is incredibly empathetic and emotional, especially considering some of the conceptual similarities between “Dr. Death” and Price’s “Dr. Phibes.” And the influence of both Amicus and AIP are on display, hitting the perfect balance between theatrical, tragic horror and bloody oddity which makes the film all the more endearing.
Surprisingly, MADHOUSE wasn’t a critical or commercial hit upon its initial release, yet now the film is a somewhat of a retrospective masterpiece, with a clever (and surprisingly modern) plot and some incredibly shot/edited sequences. The film knows when to be and not to be scary, and genuinely takes some turns one might not have expected, especially considering the main twist of the film can be figured out quite early into the film. And the film also knows when to be twisted, offering some seriously gory and affecting death scenes throughout that might jar those expecting a campier Price affair. And then there’s the film’s frequent descent into the bizarre, including one character’s spider-obsessed wife and a pair of gold-digging parents whose rapport is reminiscent of cartoon characters.
However, MADHOUSE would not be nearly as memorable without Vincent Price in the lead role, with his straight-faced approach to the part anchoring the film as a whole. Of course, by playing a seasoned genre actor, Price is able to incorporate some of his own wit and wisdom into the role, include more than a fair share of acerbic humor and reflective authenticity. But beyond that, Price is incredibly impactful, even during his more fun and action-packed scenes, as he brings a sense of tragic pathos to the character that is apparent in his delivery, reactions and even physicality, all the way up to the crazed finale.
But Price is far from the only shining light in MADHOUSE, which rounds out its cast with an impressive ensemble. Peter Cushing is wonderful, if understated, as the actor’s longtime friend and screenwriter, who appropriately and believably conveys his desperation as the story becomes bloodier. Natasha Pyne is also quite excellent as the actor’s PR agent, who does a great job of playing curious and confident against the otherwise vulnerable Price. And Robert Quarry delivers as the porn-producer-turned-studio-head, offering a swaggering sense of grandeur and deception in every seedy piece of dialogue.
For all things considered, MADHOUSE is an engaging, fun and occasionally legitimately frightening film, putting an meta-”whodunit?” spin on the Amicus-AIP horror tropes. With a seriously effective Price in the lead and a supporting cast led by Amicus-vet Cushing, MADHOUSE is guaranteed to please fans of classic creepshows while the slasher-esque elements will be sure to appeal to more modern horror hounds. And considering how gorgeous and immersive the film can be with its visual stylings, there’s should be a few lessons to be learned in MADHOUSE for potential fright filmmakers… outside of the obvious talent melodrama.
MADHOUSE is now streaming on Netflix Instant.