Madhouse (1974) Review

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

Madhouse (1974) Review

Horrorific content by TE Simmons on November 01st, 2021 | Movie Review | Vincent Price, Madness, Mystery, British

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It’s about the horror of horror movie moviemaking. 

Madhouse was directed by Jim Clark (who directed Rentadick and Every Home Should Have One) and it stars Vincent Price (from The Abominable Dr. Phibes, the original House of Usher, and the original The Fly) and Peter Cushing (who played Van Helsing in numerous pictures – Dracula A.D. 1972, The Satanic Rights of Dracula, and Horror of Dracula, to name a few).

Would the real Doctor Death please step forward? 

Madhouse Review

Madhouse is glorious in its garish costumes, thickened soundstage, and rich colors. Few films can compare. It’s more sumptuous than an American Hustle, Cruella and Boogie Nights casserole. And into all this cacophony of decadence and wide lapels stride two of the greats: Vincent Price (as actor Paul Toombes) and Peter Cushing (as screenwriter Herbert Flay). 

Dr. Death is successful actor Paul Toombes’ trademark role. In the opening, Toombes is celebrating his newest film release when he announces his engagement to a much younger actor, Ellen Mason. While no one is watching, a killer masked as Dr. Death sneaks in, murders her, then sneaks out. Although Toombes is acquitted of the crime, his movie career tanks and his mental health downward. 

Twelve years later, however, he tries to mount a come-back by reprising the Dr. Death character. He partners with an old friend, Herbert Flay (played by Cushing). While Toombes advocates for the integrity of his original creation, a round of new murders begins, seemingly modeled after various death scenes from the Dr. Death films. So, of course, Toombes is, once again, a suspect. The stress is too much for Toombes; he suffers a relapse. 

In some respects, Madhouse is rather predictable and formulaic, despite all of its 1970’s color and texture. But in other respects, this is a marvelously self-aware post-modern thesis on the ersatz of filmmaking. When Toombes is chased by Dr. Death, he magically bumbles into a television studio at just the precise moment when Toombes is due to appear as a talk show guest. 

Toombes catches his breath, mops his brow, and proceeds to lecture the studio audience on the meaning of film; the role of the audience; the real and the imaginary. He deconstructs all of it. 

Thus, this is a film about an aging Vincent Price the movie star, who played roles like Dr. Phibes, playing an actor who played Dr. Death, trying to escape from Dr. Death (and Dr. Phibes as well?) and running right into the audience who demanded it from all of him. Edited into Madhouse are scenes from Price’s past roles in the Roger Corman “Poe” films. A scene in which Toombes and Flay watch old movies and critique authentic actors like Basil Rathbone appends even more layers of interpretation to sift through. 

Worth Watching?

If you’re an intellectual who likes her horror with mounds of meta? Yes. And even if you’re not, it’s at least a visually interesting film with two legendary actors.

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