In honor of the 20th anniversary of his death, and also his status as Turner Classic Movie’s Star of the Month, The Nitrate Diva is hosting a Vincent Price Blogathon, where folks are invited to write about any aspect of Price’s life and / or career. As I’ve been doing the October Horror Movie Challenge, it only seemed right to go directly to his film career. Choosing one of Price’s films wasn’t an easy decision – there are so many great ones to pick from, but I also wanted to stay away from both his Roger Corman / Poe pictures, and from things like House on Haunted Hill or The Last Man on Earth. Recently, meta-horror has been a topic of discussion once again in my social media circles, so it just seemed right to choose a film that’s one of the earlier meta-horror films: Madhouse.
Director: Jim Clark
Stars: Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Robert Quarry, Adrienne Corri
Country: United Kingdom / United States
[NOTE: some mild spoilers ahead, so proceed with caution]
Paul Toombes (Price) is a horror film star whose signature role is “Dr. Death,” a demented fiend wearing skull facepaint who likes to torture and kill the leading ladies. At a New Year’s Eve party, he has an argument with his sexy young fiancee after finding out that she had previously starred in “artistic” pornography films. At the stroke of midnight, Toombes attempts to apologize to her, but…oops!…her head’s been cut off. I hate when that happens. This sends him over the edge, and while he’s a suspect in her murder, he is later released to a mental ward where he spends the next few years recovering. Moving forward a few years, Toombes is asked by his good friend and failed actor turned screenwriter Herbert Flay (Cushing) to come back to acting for a new Dr. Death television series. Toombes reluctantly agrees, although when an ambitious young actress who’s been tailing him on his trip from the States to England dies in a manner ripped straight from one of the Dr. Death films, he wonders if his screen alter ego is starting to take over his mind.
Madhouse was basically a flop upon release, and it’s not hard to see why: the story is intriguing, but it falls into a pattern where someone crosses Toombes’s path, and then we see a pair of hands putting on black gloves, and that person dies. Lather rinse repeat. There’s also a weird b-plot where a former co-star of Toombes’s (Corri) has taken up residence in Flay’s country home after a nasty run-in with some attackers left her burned almost beyond recognition. She kind of just exists to give Toombes insight into who the real killer might be, but the way her character plays out is so bizarre and kind of awkwardly placed in the film.
However, there are so many great moments in Madhouse that make it one of my favorite Price horror films, including a murder set to some old fashioned rock ‘n roll and an accidental death by bed-canopy. It also stars two of my absolute favorite actors: Price and Cushing, who frankly should have been paired in far more films. On top of all that, and this is outside of the meta aspect of the movie, it drops reference to a handful of Price, Cushing, and Robert Quarry’s other films, particularly during a scene set at a costume party. Here, Cushing is dressed as a pasty-faced vampire, complete with fake blood tripping from his teeth – surely a nod to all those times he played Van Helsing in Hammer’s Dracula films – while Quarry is kitted out exactly like his character from the Count Yorga movies.
But ultimately, what makes Madhouse stand out is that it did meta-horror before Wes Craven was bringing us stuff like New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996). Although Peeping Tom (1960) had been perhaps the first film to comment on the act of watching horror while being terrifying itself, self-referential horror was far off from being a real thing. Not only is Price playing a horror film star, the Dr. Death features are show in clips borrowed from films like Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963). While this saves on having to shoot additional footage for fake films, this also creates a kind of strange warp where the Corman Poe pics sort of exist within this world, and the film rather loops in on itself and drowns in self-awareness.
Still, it’s easy to see that Price is having a blast with this film, probably because it’s so aware of the genre without mocking it or its fans. I’d like to think that this is how Price himself felt about horror – it’s a lot of fun and games…at least until someone gets pitchforked in the throat. Madhouse isn’t a great film, and it’s certainly not Price’s or Cushing’s best acting effort, but it’s consistently enjoyable on multiple viewings and it offers enough nods to other horror films that fans will certainly get a kick out of it. Plus, the ending is so delightfully outlandish while keeping with the film’s concept of winding back into itself. Overall, it’s a devilish treat of a film, and one that should get more recognition within the meta-horror sub-sub-genre.