Madhouse (1974)

JANUARY 14, 2011


Now THIS is a slasher! Actually, Madhouse is NOT a particularly good slasher, since the killer’s identity is blatantly obvious after about 20 minutes (tipped off from the very first line in the movie!), but it’s got great characters, some fun kills (double impale for the win!), and most importantly: both Vincent Price AND Peter Cushing in the same movie, and even interacting! They had both been in the same film before (Scream and Scream Again; were there others?), but this is like Heat – I’m pretty sure it’s the first time they shared a scene.

Unfortunately Cushing largely disappears after the first act, so their chemistry is not exploited to the fullest. Another scene or two with them together would have not only been fun (making it more Righteous Kill than Heat, I guess, if you want to keep the analogy going), but also would have possibly made the big reveal slightly less obvious, since (spoiler) it’s blatantly apparent that Cushing is the killer. Christ, Price’s character is living in the dude’s house and he’s still never around! And the first line of the film explains that Cushing used to be an actor but Price got more successful so he turned to writing – we have our motive before we have a killing!

But it’s still a lot of fun. Since Price plays an actor, he gets to poke fun at his image a bit, as he plays the star of a series known as Doctor Death, which sounds (and looks) completely ridiculous from the tidbits we get throughout the film. Sadly they didn’t create any actual Doctor Death footage for the movie in the movie; instead they use clips from Price’s other films (mostly the Poe ones), which is a bit awkward because Dr. Death is a skeleton looking dude and Price is always just plain Price in the clips we see, but whatever.

There are other little in-jokes throughout; Cushing dresses up like Dracula at one point, and Robert Quarry, who plays the guy we’re supposed to think is the killer, dresses as Count Yorga himself. There’s also a bit of meta-fun at the idea of them being rivals in the film, as Quarry was supposedly being groomed to replace Price as the go-to guy for these sort of things. Not sure if it worked – I’ve only seen him in the Yorgas and the Dr. Phibes sequel, but this is like the 15th Price movie from the era I’ve seen. Maybe it’s just the luck of the draw.

Speaking of Price's other films, this would make an awesome double bill with Theatre Of Blood (indeed, they are paired on the DVD), as both have him playing an actor, and there’s a lot of metaphorical truth to both films; in Theatre he’s frustrated with never being appreciated for his Shakespeare (read: non-horror roles), and here he’s a guy forced into doing the sort of thing he’s lost interest in (B horror movies). But perhaps ironically, he gives some of his best performances in these. The moment where he finds his fiancé dead shows a vulnerable side we don’t often see from the guy – good stuff.

I also enjoyed the movie’s odd anachronistic feel. Price travels from US to London by boat instead of flying, and everyone uses candelabras. Yet it’s definitely not a period film; he appears on cheesy talk shows and the cameras and other stuff for the Dr. Death TV show are all up to the standards of the time. Plus I’m always tickled by the way candles light the set in movies – it’s this little tiny flame but it can expose the entire room (and send it into complete blackness when blown out). It’s also frequently out of sync, a goof that charms me every time.

One thing I wasn’t sure about – were we supposed to think that Price could be the killer himself? He often leaves the room right before someone dies (unlike Cushing, who is clearly sitting with the others during one murder – whoops), and he hilariously runs away after seeing a body – way to throw off any suspicion, Vince. But even with this stuff, I never suspected him for a second (again, practically spelling it out that it’s Cushing in the first reel didn’t really help). I was also a bit baffled by his “death” scene – why does he suddenly go insane and begin rambling what sounds like Shakespeare or something? And why is his girlfriend suddenly made out of wax?

Oh well, nitpicks really. It’s a lot of fun, and I was surprised how slasher-y it was (actually more Giallo, since the killer had black gloves, but since everything made sense and the killer’s identity could be figured out it felt more slasher to me) – the kills are very Friday the 13th-y and there’s even a chase scene! Except instead of the virginal Final Girl, it’s Vincent Price, which just makes it awesome. A total delight, and probably my favorite movie of the year thus far (take that, uh... Ticking Clock).

What say you?


  1. Excellent and some other ace 70s Vincent Price movies are the two Dr. Phibes films.

  2. awesome site and blog man! Im doing something similar so check me out. Good job!

  3. I watched this back-to-back-to back with Targets (1968)and Dr. Phibes Rises Again! (1972) a few months back. It's a super-fun film and works well with either [or both!] of the other features.

  4. Haha, I was thinking Heat as well and then seen your comment. Made me giggle. :)

  5. Never seen this before, will have to check it out. Love Theatre of Blood though. :P

  6. just drive-by-blogging... you have a great start to a happy zombie's day.
    take care!

  7. I saw this movie when I was a little kid, at the movies, and it scared the living daylights out of me. I recently rewatched it, and was able to pinpoint the scares that got to me as a kid. When the production assistant is being chased through the studio by Dr. Death, and she thinks she's made it safely to the elevator. It might seem cliched nowadays, but in 1974, or whenever it was released, it was truly nightmarish. Of course, I was only 7 at the time...


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