It’s always a pleasure to watch a film where the actors love their work. And when it comes to B-grade horror movies, few people loved their work as much — or were half as good — as Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. So a film featuring the two of them together seemed to me like it was bound to be entertaining. Jim Clark’s 1974 film Madhouse does not disappoint, as both give solid performances, and Price is in rare form.
Price plays horror actor Paul Toombes, famed for playing the villainous Dr. Death in numerous B-grade horror films. There’s a self-referential aspect there, and in fact the clips of the “Dr. Death” films are taken from around a half-dozen of Price’s previous movies. On the release party for his newest film, Toombes introduces his new fiancee to his Hollywood friends and coworkers, and is angered when one of them boorishly informs him his fiancee made her early career as a porn star; he chases him off and publicly argues with his fiancee. Later that evening, she is brutally murdered, and the glove of Dr. Death is left at the scene. Toombes undergoes a psychotic break, unable to distinguish between himself and Dr. Death. He is tried for the murder and acquitted due to lack of evidence, and is committed to an insane asylum for several years.
That’s not the plot of the film. That’s just the prologue.
As is customary for Vincent Price movies, it doesn’t make it ten minutes before the first murder.
Many years later, Toombes has been apparently cured of his insanity, and has been quietly living in seclusion ever since. His career has effectively been killed by the tragedy and his time in the asylum, and he’s apparently content with that. However, his old friend Herbert (Cushing) reaches out to him from England; the two created the character of Dr. Death together, and Herbert — who says he needs the money but really just wants to draw Paul out again — has signed a deal with a television network to bring the character back in serialized form. Toombes reluctantly agrees to reprise his role for the sake of his friend, a task made more difficult due to the network executive in charge (Robert Quarrie) being the same boorish lout from the party all those years before.
Inevitably, of course, people start dropping like flies as they make enemies of Toombes, and the spectre of Dr. Death is seen in the vicinity of the crimes. Nobody — not the police, not the TV crew, and not even Toombes himself — is sure whether it’s Toombes acting out a psychotic fantasy or if something else is behind it all. Of course, this doesn’t stop some people from trying to take advantage of the situation.
To paraphrase Freeman, you think this actor is a serial killer with disassociate identity disorder, and your plan is to blackmail this person?
Madhouse is a lot of fun to watch, but unlike a lot of B-horror films, it’s not the fun of watching someone deliberately ham it up in a cheesy production. Rather, it’s the fun of watching a pair of masters at work in a film that, in its own way, celebrates the love of the genre. Madhouse is an affectionate homage to a genre that was starting to evolve and change away from what it had been into something else; the gory slashers were on their way in, the mysterious Dr. Death types were on their way out. Thus when it includes clips of Price’s earlier works, it’s not just a cheap way to expand the run time, it’s a reminder of some classic fun. The persona of Dr. Death, and the central mystery of whether or not he’s become a separate personality within Toombes represent the psychological aspect of horror and suspense films that would shortly fade away in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And when Paul Toombes speaks in a television interview as to why he created the character of Dr. Death to begin with, it may as well be Vincent Price himself speaking to the audience on why he makes horror movies.
Obviously fans of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing will get the biggest kick out of this feature. But anybody who loves old horror films — or for that matter, who loves newer horror films and doesn’t know what they’re missing on the older ones — should check out Madhouse for a refresher on what makes the old B-movies great. It’s not about special effects or gore or jump scares; it’s just about a killer and a concept.