"In our day in Hollywood, the monsters didn't need makeup ... they just came as themselves." The MADHOUSE cover to Famous Monsters of Filmland #109 (August 1974).
MADHOUSE begins with friends gathered to celebrate the horror movie career of Paul Toombes (Vincent Price), whose signature role is Dr Death, a character co-created by writer/actor Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing). Toombes has decided to settle down with fiance Ellen (Julie Crosthwait), an actress who has been previously linked to producer Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry). However, the night ends in tragedy as Toombes finds Ellen beheaded, a murder undertaken by someone wearing the cinematic garb of Dr Death. Though never convicted of the crime, Toombes is institutionalised. Twelve years later, Flay convinces Toombes to resurrect Dr Death for a new television series to be made in England; before long the body count begins, leaving Toombes to wonder if he is enacting the events of his character in real life. Eventually consumed with guilt, he locks himself into the studio, turns on the cameras, and sets fire to the set. In fact it has been frustrated actor Flay who has been committing the murders; a burnt Toombes returns to kill Flay and cavort with his spider-obsessed, basement-dwelling wife Faye (Adrienne Corri), who has had long-standing feelings for Toombes.
This joint Amicus/American International venture plays both as a requiem for Price's association with AIP and the nature of the 60s/70s B-movies that became suppressed by the release of THE EXORCIST. COUNT YORGA star Quarry - who had appeared with Price in DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN and was originally cast in the Herbert Flay role - was being groomed to replace the horror star, and this was one of many frictions: Price was also experiencing an impending divorce, the budget-cutting Twickenham Studios provided indifferent production values, and director Jim Clark wrote a despairing letter to Price complaining about Milton Subotsky's interference in the editing room. The feel of MADHOUSE also isn't helped by the extent of footage used from Roger Corman's Poe pictures to illustrate Toombes' career; in fact, so much so that Corman almost deserves a co-directing credit. As Denis Meikle observes in Vincent Price: The Art of Fear, "[Price] comes closer to playing himself in this film than in any previous one ... and with the footage having been supplied by Corman's Poes, Price must at times have felt like a dying man, watching his life pass before his eyes."
Pulp potboiler Devilday acted as the source material for MADHOUSE. The film dropped the satanic overtones of the book, and makes its lead character more sympathetic.
With Price and Quarry being snide on and off screen, the supporting cast supply a number of welcome diversions. Natasha Pyne is likeable and enthusiastic as Toombes' PA Julia Wilson, and Linda Hayden leaves an all-too-brief impression as stalking actress Elizabeth Peters, who is despatched by pitchfolk. In a further eerie pursuit of Toombes, Peters' parents Alfred (Ellis Dale) and Louise (Catherine Willmer) follow the actor across twilight lawns before both being skewered on the same sabre. But the real meat lies in the final ten minutes, where Flay sees Toombes miraculously step down from the screen of his own snuff movie and subsequently murder and become Flay, utilising some startlingly effective make-up as Cushing's distinctive cheekbones are melded with Price's heavier facade.
MADHOUSE was loosely based on the novel Devilday by Angus Hall, a smutfest of late 60s/early 70s Satania. In the book Toombs is a sadistic heroin addict, a latter-day Aleister Crowley whose film career is in meltdown after being suspected of inserting an icicle up a woman's vagina (vaguely paralleling Fatty Arbuckle's notorious scandal of 1921). Opening with a quote from Poe's Marginalia, of men who "soared above the plane of their race," during the course of the novel the faded star - as "the dark and dreaded" Dr Dis - enjoys relations with jailbait groupies, and appears at a Black Mass so that the congregation can (literally) kiss his ass. At the climax, he is killed by a falling rock, and a swarm of fans scavenge his corpse for souvenirs; but years later the book's narrator glimpses Toombs in a Rolls-Royce, leading him to suspect that the notorious actor's LaVeyan mayhem will resume.