Madhouse. Madhouse Madhouse, what to say about Madhouse. This movie will attract many a viewer is my guess. It's supposed to. And yet, it didn't do great upon it's release. Despite starring Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Robert Quarry, and having cameos by Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff. The other thing about it is that it's an early (1974) send-up to past horror films. It's both a tribute to Vincent Price and his career, and it's a tribute to the horror films of the past 15+ years. It has references to Price's career and really it is a movie about and for Vincent Price. And given that he was and is one of the biggest horror film actors, it should work. But, it doesn't.
The plot is about an actor, Paul Toombes, who was at the height of his career when an actress died, and he was the likely suspect. It is made to look like he was the murderer, and he himself almost believes it. So he goes to a mental institution and is held there for a while, and when he gets out it's from an old friend Herbert (Peter Cushing) who wants him to reprise his famous role as Dr. Death, a killer, and the character he was playing in the film where the actress died. Toombes initially doesn't want to play Dr. Death, but eventually does agree to it, and then other people start dying.
I was trying to think of why, why when you have such a good cast, and an idea of building a film around a horror icon, why would this not work. The things that came to my mind are that:
1) Vincent Price's character is not especially likable. He's not bad, has no unlikable traits to him, he doesn't grind on us or annoy us, but he's just not given anything good about him. He's not especially smart, very underdeveloped, and doesn't really react in a realistic way to the events that are happening in the film.
2) The deaths are not very well done effects, they are not focused on, and kind of at the background of everything else. I think if they were given more to do with the film, it would have been better. In this though they serve as more of an afterthought.
3) The cameos by Karloff and Rathbone are from previous movies they had done with Price. Did I not mention that? Yeah, they scooped up footage from Tale of Terror and The Raven, respectively, and they are very brief and serve no function in the movie. It's an actor playing an actor, the films that Price was actually in are then played as films that the actor he plays in the movie was in. Does that make sense?
4) The whole ending thing doesn't feel especially well thought out. It's not given enough build, it's not especially interesting, the twist is kind of a dud, and then the movie is just over.
5) It just has no heart. That's the biggest flaw. It comes off as just kind of...cold. It's not fun, it's doesn't love it's actors or it's idea. It feels mechanical, by the numbers, and half-hearted. I guess one should not hope for an over the top soulful horror film, but this just feels too uncaring.
Just for the record, the movie-within-a-movie in this, the Dr. Death thing, also doesn't look especially good. It looks too hokey and low budget to be believable, and that's another area where this film fails.
The one cool thing I caught was that there is a costume party, and they had Peter Cushing dressed up as Dracula. It's a neat little send up to all the Dracula movies he was in. It's things like that that made me want to like this movie, but ultimately I felt rather bored with it, and didn't end up enjoying it too much.
There are also a couple things in the movie that are hinting towards something else going on that never get explained. In one scene with a fire, Toombes's girlfriend begins to melt in the fire. So she's made out of wax?? And then there's a scene where a character comes out of a television. Sure, you could say it's all part of Toombes psyche, he is perhaps mentally unbalanced, but it doesn't work because these aren't recurring visions, they only happen once, and he doesn't even notice the wax thing.
It gets pretty decent reviews online, so I'm willing to say if I were a bigger Vincent Price and drama/horror film fan I might've liked it more. But I'm not.