The age of the anthology horror film sort of died off with Creepshow 2. But, from the late 1960's through the early 1980's, anthology horror films were as common as, well, horror films. British production company Amicus, took the lead and released a whole slew of these including Dr. Terror's House of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, Torture Garden , Vault of Horror, and Beyond the Grave. In many cases the popularity of these films were eventually replaced by anthology TV series such as Night Gallery, Tales from the Crypt (which was first an anthology film), and Tales from the Darkside.
But for a brief time there was a good chance the horror flick to which you just purchased a ticket was really a series of short, maybe 20 minutes films, stuck into a framing device. The short films often featured A-list British actors and actresses, like Herbert Lom and Robert Powell, alongside longtime genre standards such as Peter Cushing.
Both the anthology films and TV series owed a debt to old-school horror comics publisher EC Comics who set the format for the anthology tale in a visual medium. In fact, both Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, used stories taken directly from issues of EC Comics.
Asylum, an Amicus offering, frames three tales within the story of a Dr. Martin interviewing for a position as a psychiatric facility. His final interview requires him to visit each of the four inmates of the place and determine, from their stories, which of them is the former lead psychiatrist, Dr. Starr. Dr. Martin meets the current administrator of the place, Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee), and his orderly Max Reynolds (Geoffrey Bayldon).
The first inmate, Bonnie (Barbara Perkins) relates the first story. Walter (Richard Todd) is having an affair with Bonnie much to the chagrin of voodoo studying wife Ruth (Sylvia Syms). The only way to extricate himself from the marriage with Ruth's fortune intact is to kill her, which he does, and dismember her body for storage in the new basement freezer. However, because Ruth was studying voodoo, her disembodied parts (wrapped in wax paper) come back to life and kill Walter then terrorize Bonnie. The effect of which drives Bonnie insane. Either that, or no one believes her story.
One of the things about anthology horror films is they take virtually no time at all to get to the meat of each story. Setup usually lasts less than two minutes, which keeps the action rolling along into the sometimes-gory denouement without any time to think about the logic of the story itself.
Decent anthology stories, like these, all written by Psycho scribe Robert Block exist in the black and white world of the put upon and the vengeful, the honest and the greedy, the crazy and the not crazy. There isn't time or space in the stories to wander through character development, establish relationships, or build suspense - that's a consequence of each story's brevity – and instead give broad caricatures with easily identifiable motives.
Martin leaves Bonnie and visits with Bruno (Barry Morse) a tailor on the verge of eviction. When he's told to come up with the back rent in one day, all seems lost for he and his daughter Anna (Anne Firbank). Then, at midnight , Mr. Smith (Peter Cushing) arrives and offers to pay 200 pounds for a custom suit. He even brings a strange shimmering material, and a set of arcane instruction that Bruno must follow. The suit is a gift for Smith's son. The money will allow Bruno to clean up his debt and he immediately sets to creating the suit. Upon delivery to Smith though, he learned that the customer has spent ALL of his money on a single book, within which are the instructions for creating the suit. Smith's son is dead, and the suit will bring him back to life. Bruno and Smith scuffle over a pistol and smith is killed. Back at the shop Anna puts the suit on their storefront mannequin who she's named Otto. The mannequin comes to life and tries to kill them both.
The third story features Barbara (Charlotte Rampling), a late teen (I think) returning home from school with her brother George (James Villiers). She alludes to a problem that forced her hospitalization and the well needed rest she'll get back at the old manor house. Her new nurse Miss Higgins (Megs Jenkins) immediately sedates Barbara. When Barbara awakens her best friend Lucy (Britt Eckland) is sitting at the end of her bed. She wants Barbara to flee the house with her but Barbara is reluctant. Barbara also seems to have a problem with pills. Lucy sedates George and tricks Miss Higgins away and puts their escape plan into operation. Before the night is over both Miss Higgins and George will be dead. Lucy, is, as anyone following along will realize, the "other" personality that Barbara was controlling with medication.
Martin then meets Dr. Byron, a prominent neurosurgeon who's gone mad and devoted his life to creating little mechanical dolls with the lifelike faces of his former colleagues. He vows revenge for his incarceration and says that he can, through the power of concentration, place his will into the mind of the little wind-up-toy bearing his likeness.
Martin is aghast with the seeming lack of treatment for all of the mental patients and confronts Dr. Rutherford. In the meantime, Dr. Byron's little wind-up-toy-of-death sneaks out of the room and makes its way downstairs to kill Rutherford .
Finally, Dr. Martin meets the real Dr. Starr, the man masquerading as Max Reynolds.
Asylum never hangs around long enough to wear out its welcome. That said, the special effects undo any good the film offers as they are hilariously and hideously silly. If the wax-paper wrapped limbs in the first segment don't have you howling with laughter, the mechanical Herbert Lom toys will. There's a little well done gore, that for 1972 was probably gasp-worthy, but 34 years later seems about on par with a typical cable TV offering.
The acting more than makes up for the goofy visuals. How can you go wrong with Peter Cushing, Herbert "Bring me the head of Cleuseau" Lom, Charlotte Rampling, and Patrick Magee? You friggin can't! And they really put their heart into what they must have known were dorky Twilight Zone stories that barely gave them enough lines to fill a soap commercial. Still, they are all great and fun to watch.
The Dark Sky DVD is great! With text bios of the main actors (Cushing, Lom, Rampling) and the director, an Inside the Fear Factory featurette, and a director commentary, and liner notes about the lineage of Amicus films, the package is a nicely equipped little 89 minute treat.