British Horror Cult Classic Club: Madhouse
As serious Anglophiles - that's people who are heavily into British culture, not some kind of white power thing - Jef With One F and I will be taking a look at some lesser-known British films this month. As the month happens to be October, they will all be horror films. We'll examine and discuss them for your education and general betterment. Cheerio.
We begin with Madhouse, a 1974 vehicle for Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. You can also tell they were trying to make Robert Quarry a thing, but it didn't go over so well. Price plays an actor who retired from portraying his most famous role, Dr. Death, after someone murdered his fiancèe in a manner identical to one of Dr. Death's kills. Now, he's been called back by an old friend, a screenwriter/actor (Cushing) who wants him to take up the Dr. Death mantle once more. Problem is, people start dying again. Hokey in parts, but smarter and more creative than expected, and with genuinely exceptional cinematography and even a few female characters who aren't simple bimbos strolling nonchalantly into sharp things. Available for streaming on Netflix.
JSG: Vincent Price's character's name is Paul Toombes. What else could they have named him? Arthur Mausoleum? Theodore Crypt?
JEF: I'm kind of impressed they avoided the obvious Graves surname myself. Toombes has the subtlety of a Batman villain, no doubt, but you've got to hand it to them for choosing the road less traveled while at the same time expecting us to take the name Dr. Death seriously.
JSG: Especially considering that in the novel this film is loosely based on, that character is named Dr. Dis, which was a fine enough name in its day, but which nowadays most people would think was referring not to Dante's Divine Comedy, but to some obscure late-80s rapper. Moving on: Quayle, a porno director when first we meet him and then later on the producer of the new Dr. Death film, says that Toombes' new fiancèe Ellen used to "bring a real intellectual approach" to her stripping. How exactly is this done?
"Tie's a little crooked." "Oh, thanks, I probably wouldn't have even WHAAAAAAAAAA?!!?!"
JEF: I personally think it would do wonders for this country if strip clubs and naughty booths were operated through quizzes. Want to see Chesty La Rue's magic bags of fun? Explain the quadratic equation!
JSG: This is a whodunit slasher flick, where we're not sure who is behind the mask of the figure who keeps chopping up busty blond starlets. Does Toombes' penchant for pink pajamas make him more or less likely to be the killer?
JEF: Less, but there was no way that we were ever going to buy him as the killer in the first place. Price was a master of leaving little clues when he was the good guy. Go look at Laura (Seriously, it's one of the best movies ever made). When Price is the killer, there's no doubt that it's really him. When he's completely haunted, he's always innocent.
JSG: Toombes is being forced to revive his most well-known character, despite his wishes. We're both writers who have been at this for a long time. Which character of yours would you least like to be forced to resurrect? Be honest.
Some screen captures are even better out of context.
JEF: I'm not sure if I'd ever want to be known again as the prophet of a David Arquette-based religion. That was a good time, but the joke got old.
JSG: An old flame of Toombes' just happens to have become disfigured, lost her mind, married Toombes's best friend, and moved into his cellar with a metric shitload of tarantulas. If you could go stark slavering bonkers and squirrel yourself away in someone's basement with dozens of any one kind of creature, which creature would it be, and whose basement?
JEF: Being Texas, I'd prefer to be locked with a bunch of cats in Peter Mayhew's attic.
JSG: Being Texas, you'll dehydrate in about 12 seconds. I'd prefer to stay in Tori Amos' basement with a gaggle of red pandas, because I am seriously fucking into whimsy.
JEF: Can we talk about the awesomeness of Adrienne Cori as Fay for a minute? How is she not like the biggest icon in goth from this role? She gets all the best hammy lines, looks like Magenta on crank, rocks that bald head under the wig, and in the end saves the day completely.
Adrienne Cori, spider queen
JSG: Well, sort of. Depends on what you make of that ending.
JEF: This is a love story about masks! Faye wanted to be the young pretty wife of Paul, but ends up mad and disfigured and married to the man who pretends to be Paul to replace him as his most famous character. In the end, Paul replaced her husband completely, and no one is sure who is really who deep down. Cori played that to the absolute hilt. I think I want to be her for Halloween.
JSG: People wouldn't get it unless you actually sat them down and showed them Madhouse. They'd all think you're going as a Helena Bonham Carter character they can't quite remember. Toombes accidentally (or is it?) crushes the film-within-the-film's director to death when the toggle for the mechanical prop bed stops working. "Malfunctioning mechanical bed canopy" has to be one of the silliest ways to go of all time. If you were going to be killed on the set of a horror film, how would you want to go? Bonus points for making it as British as possible.
JEF: Well, being the classic Doctor Who fan that I am I've seen people killed by everything from sentient green bubble wrap to inflatable chairs, which is very ridiculous but not terribly British. If I had to choose I think that going out in a bizarre accident involving arranging matches would the British-y actor death for me.
JSG: I think I'd prefer a painless poison, consumed while taking tea time just after recording voice tracks for an animated Yellow Submarine ripoff. Speaking of deaths, the death of the character Julia was truly a shame. In addition to being completely adorable, she was smart, resourceful, and proactive, not like the other bubble-headed victims. Which other characters do you think should have survived a horror film but didn't?
JEF: None really, but I'm sort of mad Quayle didn't end up on a pike or something. I'm always down for a good sleazeball producer murder. I think you're doing the incredibly hot Linda Hayden a disservice by calling her character bubble-headed. She arranged a bribe to meet Paul, set up another chance meeting in a car, and stole his watch as an excuse to meet him a third time in order to get a part. She was brave, determined, and beautiful, if lacking in the plucky fun of Natasha Pyne as Julia. I thought it was sad they both died. Frankly, they were the first victims of a horror movie I was sad about in years.
Linda Hayden, stealth admirer
JSG: I'm not sure if we should start patting stalkers on the back for their "determination." For my part, I thought Irene Miracle should have survived Puppetmaster; her charisma was the only watchable thing in that piece of shit. So, even though I'm sure we both guessed who the killer was when we saw who was billed as the top two stars, the film did manage to pack in a couple of surprises and some real intelligence via the meta device of actors portraying actors in horror films. Plus that ending beat The Ring to "scary person crawls out of screen" by almost 30 years. How would this film have ended differently if it had been made in America?
JEF: Quayle would have been the killer. No doubt. Give an American a chance to stick it to the top execs and make them jealous of the actual "artists" and they will take the bait every damned time.
JSG: How true... Americans fear the people with the power, while the British are terrified of their closest friends.
That's all for this week. Join us next time for a look at another cult classic from our chums across the pond.