ASYLUM (1972)
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Dark Sky Films/MPI

Delivering an entertaining assortment of hauntingly omnibus tales, as well as some individual allegories, England's Amicus Films was rivaled only by Hammer Films during the productive 1960s and early 1970s. One of Amicus’ finest features, ASYLUM, has been available from many different companies on VHS over the last two decades, as well as laserdisc and DVD editions from Image Entertainment. Now, Dark Sky Films presents this classic as a special edition, transferred in High Definition from 35mm vault materials for the first time in the U.S., and it truly shows.

Bringing together four inoffensive, yet chillingly satisfying tales, ASYLUM takes its source from Robert (PSYCHO) Bloch, who previously collaborated with Amicus on THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970). The wrapping segment introduces us to a young psychiatrist, Dr. Martin (Robert Powell) who goes for a job interview at an asylum run by the wheelchair-bound, humorless Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee). Rutherford tells the young protégé that in order to be eligible for the position, he must examine each of the four patients and discover which is the real "Dr. B. Starr," the former administrator who went mad and is now an inmate.

Martin is greeted by an odd orderly, Max Reynolds (familiar Hammer/Amicus bit player, Geoffrey Bayldon), who literally leads him into a world of insanity as he unlocks the doors to each patient's cell. First off is Bonnie (Barbara Parkins), a young woman who was mistress to the brandy swilling Walter (Richard Todd). When Walter axes and disembodies his wife (Sylvia Syms) and locks her in a freezer, the neatly packaged parts come back to life to terrorize Bonnie. The second tale involves a "Weird Tailor," Bruno (Barry Morse) that makes a suit using an unearthly material, following instructions culled from a diabolical book. The suit is meant to bring back to life the son of Mr. Smith (Peter Cushing), but the results of course are deadly. The third and least interesting tale involves Barbara (Charlotte Rampling) who suffers a dual personality crisis in the shape of shapely Britt Ekland – shades of Bloch’s familiar Psycho, yet the original short story here was written years earlier. Lastly, Herbet Lom plays Byron, an eccentric inmate who builds tiny robots modeled after various colleagues, as well as one that resembles him. He sends his mini alter ego to execute Rutherford, and the dark secret behind Dr. Starr's identity is soon unveiled.

ASYLUM makes for fun Saturday afternoon viewing. Roy Ward Baker was arguably the best working British horror director of the 1970s, and this entry firmly lives up to that assessment. His use of a staircase full of macabre drawings, complimented by twisted camera angles that illustrate Powell's entrance into the film's demented proceedings, is particularly innovative. With his knack for tight pacing and surprise shocks, Baker has a firm grip on the macabre without having to resort to pointless gore. The stirring score by the underrated Douglas Gamley ingeniously incorporates classical music to overstate the general madness of the film. The performances are all top notch, as the excellent cast manages to handle their small parts with relish. Veterans like Todd, Magee, Morse, Lom and Cushing (whose mournful tears are all too real) and younger thesps like Powell and Rampling (who went on to become international arthouse favorites, and are still very busy to this day) make ASYLUM triumphant. One complaint could be that the stories should have been placed in a better order, as the first is so much more stirring than the third.

Dark Sky Film’s DVD of ASYLUM is by all means the best this film has ever looked, since it has finally been transferred from proper vault elements. Letterboxed correctly at 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the colors are very vibrant, with very natural fleshtones. Detail is extremely sharp and there are no blemishes in sight, with only a few hints of grain. Most of the previous home video versions had a new title card to cover up its American re-release name ("House of the Crazies"), but here, the original title credit can again be seen. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound is strong and clear for the most part, with some minor distortion heard in periodically. Optional English subtitles are included.

A number of extras have been assembled for this disc, including a featurette entitled “Inside the Fear Factory,” which was originally produced for the Anchor Bay Region 2 PAL release of several years ago. The 19-minute piece contains exceptional interviews with the co-founder of Amicus, the late Max J. Rosenberg, as well as frequent Amicus directors Roy Ward Baker and Freddie Francis. Rosenberg starts by telling how he and partner Milton Subotsky came up with the idea for Hammer’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and were involuntarily detached from the project, as well as how Amicus got off the ground, and he shares his thoughts on some of their best known productions. Baker and Francis talk about what it was like working for Amicus, and give insight to their relationships with its two founders, making for a well put together and cleverly edited featurette. Also originally produced for the Anchor Bay PAL release, a commentary is featured with director Baker and camera operator Neil Binney, moderated by Marcus Hearn. Both gentleman have a lot of interesting things to say, revealing many of the technical aspects of ASYLUM, and there are a few pleasant anecdotes on hand (Including the fact that cinematographer Denys Coop was a last minute replacement for the ill Arthur Grant), making for an entertaining listen, especially for longtime fans of the film. Also included is the rare British trailer for the film, trailers for AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS and THE BEAST MUST DIE (actually, both are 60-minute TV spots), a nice photo/poster gallery, bios on some of the main participants, and there’s a glossy booklet which includes liner notes by Chris Gullo, author of In All Sincerity… Peter Cushing. Highly recommended. (George R. Reis)