*** out of ****
It's come to my attention that horror anthologies were quite popular in the decade of the 1970's. I've seen gems like Mario Bava's "Black Sabbath", and I'm well-aware that there are a few that I still have yet to check out, but I had heard of a lesser-known entry titled "Asylum". Under the direction of Roy Ward (pun intended?) Baker, I was confident that it had to be something at least genuinely interesting; so I popped it in, gave it a chance, and sure enough it was. It's the kind of flick that a lot of people probably won't see, but I hope that someday it finds its audience, because it's a near perfect movie for a dark night alone in the house; but then again, it is such moments that I (and horror cinema) live for. As an overall film, I must confess that it is, in fact, far from perfect; but each piece of the puzzle fits to create a satisfying conclusion. It's not one of those messy, illogical anthologies in which there are a few good segments that lead to nothing at the end of the road; the segments do indeed differ in quality (but then again, when do they not?), but they are all engaging in their own special way. Long story short, it's hard to believe that you'll ever find yourself dozing off.
A man named Martin (Robert Powell) approaches a large, beautifully-realized asylum located somewhere seemingly in the middle of nowhere. He immediately meets with the head of the ward, and it's in this meeting that we learn all that we need to know about Dr. Martin's character. He is trying to score a job at the institution - which is deemed exclusively for the incurable psychiatric patients - and the head of the building tells him that to even land the slightest chance at getting the job, he must fulfill a task; pass a series of psychological and mentally stimulating tests. You see, the former owner of the institution has recently become a patient; although Martin, being new to the area, doesn't know which one of them he or she may be. Therefore, the test is simple: out of four selected patients, he must choose only one - the one that he thinks is the newly-committed former doctor. After listening to their story of how they ended up in the building, he may decide.
The first story is that of a once very beautiful young woman who was having an affair with a married man. Together, they both conspired to murder the man's current wife; who had been suspicious of the affair to begin with. When she comes home from work, the husband cuts her up limb-by-limb with an axe, and proceeds to hide her remains in a freezer deep in the cellar. However, when the other woman arrives, he's nowhere to be found; and so she goes searching for him in the basement where the body lies, only to discover that it remains there no more. A prolific scene involves the decapitated head of the wife; which appears on the DVD cover and official posters.
The second story is about a tailor who - on the knife's edge of bankruptcy and poverty - accepts a job from a mysterious man who gives him a special cloth that - unbeknownst to the tailor - has the ability to wake the dead or any other inanimate object that dons the fabrics. The third piece of the story is about a woman who is released from the asylum at the center of the story, only to return home to a sense of undeniable unease. A friend comes to visit, and things just get weirder and weirder from there. The fourth and final story is an interview with a patient who likes to make mechanical mannequins of himself, claiming to have the ability to control their physical actions.
As you can probably tell, it's just a simple film about four short tales of the mad and the macabre. But as a huge horror fan, I can appreciate that; and since nothing about it felt terribly familiar, I'll say that I had a good time watching it. No, it's not a genre classic; but I see no reason for its obscurity. With beautiful camerawork, terrific atmosphere, and a dark sense of fascination; I'm not all that sure whether "Asylum" will make you lose your head, like the posters suggest, but while it lasts; it's kind of hard not to have a little fun with it. It boasts an impressive and talented cast - which includes Charlotte Rampling, Britt Ekland (of "The Wicker Man" fame), and the ridiculously creepy Peter Cushing - and it's got a skilled director at the helm. All works out well, even if the final product is flawed and not particularly memorable. Still, I'd gladly watch it again. It's a good, solid, creepy, scary, tense movie; and it bears the necessary qualities of what I call a satisfying horror film. It won't keep you up at night, but it'll still give you some nice chills. Now, mind your head.