I’ve forayed into the world of American International Pictures (AIP) before, most recently with The Dunwich Horror (1970). Madhouse has the distinction of starring not one, but three legendary horror icons with another two – one more of a villain than a horror icon – appearing in posthumous “special participation” roles. Madhouse was the last AIP film Vincent Price starred in, after helming several success films throughout the decades. It’s a slow-burn murder/mystery that pokes jabs, here and there, at Price’s career as well as the changing state of horror in the 1970s.
Successful horror star, Paul Toombs (Vincent Price) is preparing to give up the role of his iconic character, Dr. Death, to settle down with his lovely bride. When the bride ends up dead and Paul’s unable to figure out if he’s responsible, he spends some time in an institution, sullying his professional reputation. Once enough time passes, Paul eagerly returns to work. But when people around him start dying like they did in his past films, Paul struggles to find out what’s going on.
Things start off in “Hollywood…some years ago” with the first of several mysteries that almost plays like a self-contained movie on its own. Paul Toombs has his lovely soon-to-be-bride, only to her ex-employer (Robert Quarry of Count Yorga fame) reveal her porn-star past. Don’t you hate it when that happens? Paul is understandably upset and it’s there we get the first of many shots of a dark someone putting on a pair of gloves in front of a discarded Dr. Death script. It all plays as if ripped from a past film of Price’s, and that’s where Madhouse’s humor comes from. From the several sequences played from “Dr. Death’s” filmography – clips of The Haunted Palace (1963), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Scream and Scream Again (1970), and House of Usher (1960) – to starring roles for Quarry and Peter Cushing, this is a paen to classic horror of yore; a final farewell before the rise of slasher pictures and the demise of the “horror icon.”
When Cushing, Quarry, and Price have a country reunion, and eventually dress up as differing versions of their iconic characters – Cushing and Quarry both dress as Dracula, the former especially humorous considering Cushing was always the Van Helsing, the hero, to Christopher Lee’s Dracula – there’s an air of joviality and happiness, mingled with the bittersweet declaration by Cushing that this is “just like the great days.” Clips of Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff, long dead by the time of this film’s release, just remind us how few of these legends remain…even fewer now.
For all its attempts at crafting an original story, the script can’t avoid sending up the genre itself. I mean, our hero’s last name is Toombs. We get a knifepoint POV shot before a victim is killed; there are numerous visits to the “scream cam,” as I dubbed it, freeze-frames of characters, mouth gape so wide we can see their fillings, as the terror of the penetrating object happens off-screen. There are also numerous jokes regarding the multitude of red herrings, culminating in the film’s final dinner sequence, served on a bed of “sour cream and red herrings!” Just when you think Price has gone into Dr. Caligari territory, sleepwalking through a murder spree, there’s equal evidence that either Quarry or Cushing is the murderer.
On its own merits, Madhouse works as a wandering mystery for much of its 90-minute runtime. After enough evidence mounts up proving Price is the victim, not the killer, Price takes on the role of doddering Sherlock Holmes, a male Ms. Marple. He’s meek and ecstatic that a “nice girl” will be helping him transition to the medium hoped to rejuvenate his career, television! It appears as if Toombs, in a nod to the television show Dark Shadows, will be resurrecting Dr. Death for a weird horror procedural, complete with sexy assistant. (I’d actually have watched that). He’s a stranger in a strange land, a horror icon in a strange decade, and that comes out through the bizarre, almost non-sequiter characteristics of others; a key plot point involves a woman living in Cushing’s basement and raising spiders, while the parents of a murdered girl act more suspiciously and odd than the surrounding suspects. All of this perpetuates an air of unease, bonding you with Toombs as he navigates this strange canvas, and attempts to retain his life.
The actual kills are rather tame, both by the standards of the 1970s and AIP itself. There’s barely any blood shown and all deaths are either off-camera or otherwise obscure. There’s actual little horror in Madhouse, and that will turn off gorehounds. Furthermore, the film overstays its already brief 90-minutes with a repetitive series of characters wandering, stumbling on a dead body, screaming, and starting over. You start to feel like you’ve watched more clips of Price’s other films than the movie he’s actually making for our consumption, although it isn’t surprising considering this is the close of a career for Price and the movie wants to pay tribute however they can.
Price, to his credit, is always solid although his advancing age is evident in his shy and almost tired performance. Peter Cushing is the true standout as Herbert Flay, the Dr. Death screenwriter. Cushing obviously wants to flex his villainous chops, and without spoiling the movie, his final line delivery is perfectly over-the-top. Not to mention, it may be 1974, but I have no doubts Cushing was still lighting his house by candlelight as he does in this film!
Madhouse won’t be the best remembered horror film of all time, but it is a loving send-off to Price from AIP as well as a sly satire of the horror genre he breathed life into. Peter Cushing steals the show! Kino’s new Blu-ray transfer of this comes out July 21st, so if you haven’t watched it previously, give their disc a gander.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.