Saturday, June 1, 2013

Cushing Centenary (Part II of II)

ASYLUM (1972)

ASYLUM's Richard Todd is attacked by that favourite of Amicus plot devices - the severed limb - for the cover of Famous Monsters of Filmland #97 (April 1973).

DIRECTED by Roy Ward Baker and with Robert Bloch adapting his own tales, ASYLUM was the fifth of Amicus' seven portmanteau pictures and one of the silliest, despite a strong framing story. Dr Martin (Robert Powell) arrives at Dunsmore Asylum and meets wheelchair-bound Dr Rutherford (Patrick Magee). Rutherford tells Martin that he will be considered for employment if he can deduce who is Dr Starr - the former head of the facility - now among the inmates. Attendant Max Reynolds (Geoffrey Bayldon) admits Martin to the cells where he interviews each in turn: in Frozen Fear, Bonnie (Barbara Parkins) tells of lover Walter (Richard Todd), who suffered the consequences of murdering voodoo-studying wife Ruth (Sylvia Syms); The Weird Tailor has Bruno (Barry Morse) recount how Mr Smith (Peter Cushing) requested an elaborate suit made from a mysterious fabric; and Lucy Comes to Stay is a split personality story featuring Barbara (Charlotte Rampling). The final tale - Mannikins of Horror - is not viewed in flashback but sees Martin encounter Dr Byron (Herbert Lom), who is working on soul transference to small automatons.

Bloch had constructed the flow of stories to build tension slowly, intending the order to be The Weird TailorLucy Comes to StayFrozen Fear and Mannikins of Horror. After seeing a first edit, Amicus co-founder and financier Max Rosenberg ordered the stories to be re-arranged, on the basis that distributors would need a more action-orientated start. Both Bloch and Baker were unhappy about the restructuring, but it is hard to see the film vastly improved no matter what the order (the Lucy Comes to Stay segment would grind any release to a halt). ASYLUM packs out-of-work British star quality - most of whom in their twilight years - into very little, and it is up to Cushing, yet again, to bring depth into his small role of a grieving father planning to resurrect his son. As Tim Lucas states in Video Watchdog, the film "...suffers from an out-moded script, more appropriate to 1940s horror radio than 1970s horror cinema," another example of Amicus' juvenile approach.

Catherine Fengriffen (Stephanie Beacham) is drawn into the mystery and madness of --AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS!.

Amicus assembled much the same cast and crew - including director Baker, stars Cushing, Lom, Magee, and the crawling hand - for the peculiarly titled costumed gothic --AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS!. This meandering effort is set in the late 18th century, where newlywed Catherine (Stephanie Beacham) moves into the mansion of her husband Charles Fengriffen (Ian Ogilvy). Almost immediately, the bride is plagued by visions, including an eyeless, one-handed phantom. We learn that the family curse originates from Silas the woodsman (Geoffrey Whitehead) having his hand chopped off on his wedding night by Charles' lecherous ancestor Henry (Lom), who also deflowered the woodsman's young bride. Family doctor Whittle (Magee) summons psychiatrist Pope (Cushing), who witnesses the birth of Catherine's baby, an infant that sports Silas' facial birthmark and hand less stump.

Based on David Case's 1970 novella Fengriffen: A Chilling Tale, the use of Oakley Court Manor - a location that would soon become THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW castle - provides a rich backdrop for such a meagre-budgeted film. Cushing's character does not appear on screen until half-way, and although this is a welcome adage, without doubt it remains Beacham's film; the actress gives the most rounded performance made the more evident by the fact that Catherine is surrounded by soon-to-be-murdered ciphers. Even husband Ogilvy seems a bit-part among the turmoil of his own family's sordid history, though he belatedly comes alive in an unsettling rage at Henry's tomb during a downpour. The final shot of Catherine with her mutant son clashes wildly with the confusing opening narration, which recollects these historic events in a forced sereneness, rather than the bludgeoning horrors that unfold.