Asylum is another anthology horror from Amicus Productions. As with The House That Dripped Blood (1971), the script comes courtesy of Robert Bloch.
The framing story follows Martin, a young doctor interviewing for a position at an asylum for the “incurable insane”. He’s greeted with several surprises. The asylum head, Dr. Starr, has gone insane himself and is now counted amongst the asylum’s patients. Starr’s replacement, Dr. Rutherford, is wheel-chair bound after a patient attack. As if those weren’t enough red flags, Rutherford makes Martin an unusual offer. Martin can have the job provided he deduces which of the patients is Dr. Starr. Martin protests, but heads upstairs to interview the patients. The bulk of the film illustrates their stories.
The first story concerns a man who murders his wife, chops up her body, wraps the parts in packing paper, and stores them in a basement freezer. Unfortunately, said wife had a magic bracelet. When the husband tosses the bracelet into the freezer, the body parts come to life, attacking him and his mistress.
These types of stories always fail to suspend my disbelief. Not the resurrection part which is creepy with a nice touch where we see a severed head sucking air through the paper wrap. No, the problem lies in the physics of those body parts moving about. Just because they’re reanimated, it doesn’t give them the ability to fly. Yet, how else to explain a severed head climbing a flight of stairs? We see arms and legs lurching about and it looks laughable.
Next we meet Bruno, a former tailor. Broke and facing eviction, Bruno finds salvation in a mysterious gentlemen named Smith. Played by Peter Cushing, Smith offers an extraordinary sum for Bruno to make a suit for Smith’s son. Smith insists Bruno must work according to Smith’s precise specifications. These include oddities such as only working on the suit during the late night and early morning hours. Bruno agrees to Smith’s demands and, a few nights later, arrives on Smith’s doorstep with the suit. To Bruno’s horror, Smith reveals that he has no money to pay. This will prove to be Smith’s smallest surprise.
In what will become a running theme, the special effects are the story’s undoing. Cushing is great, and the story’s mystery held my attention. But the finale relies on another effect I couldn’t swallow.
The third entry is more grounded. The story concerns a young woman named Barbara, played by Charlotte Rampling. Barbara is fresh from psychiatric care and under the careful watch of her brother and a nurse. Soon, Barbara’s mischievous friend Lucy shows up. Lucy urges Barbara not to take her medication. Not good for Barbara’s brother and nurse.
This story is most effective of the lot, but the big reveal will be obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of the horror genre.
The last tale involves Dr. Byron, played by Herbert Lom. Byron has perfected soul transference and transfers his essence into a small effigy. The figure resembles a robot as tall as a can of soda with a plastic Herbert Lom head. It looks as ridiculous as it sounds. The stop motion animation reminded me of the Rankin Bass Christmas specials. Despite its appearance, it’s quite deadly, as Dr. Rutherford soon discovers.
What to make of this final tale? I can’t imagine anyone finding it frightening. Did director Roy Ward Baker give up and try for camp?
And what of Asylum as a whole? Given the talent involved, it’s a let down. Instead of exploiting its able cast, Asylum’s script relies on special effects the production can’t deliver. The one time it does lean on its cast, it forces poor Charlotte Rampling through a tired trope. Still, it held my attention, so that’s something.