Old horror actors never die. They just get repackaged. Pete Cushing is a perfect example. Twenty-two years after he died, he appeared again in Rogue One, through some CGI trickery. He had seen it before, but less sophisticated. In this 1974 horror movie about horror actors, the late Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone get special screen credits, appearing in vintage film clips that also featured Cushing’s co-star Vincent Price. Horror movies might grant immortal fame, but they are also a dangerous business in Jim Clark’s Madhouse, which airs Monday night on TCM.
Paul Toombes used to be a huge star portraying Dr. Death, the Freddy Krueger of his era. However, his career and his sanity crash-dived after the violent murder of his fiancée. Of course, they had drunkenly argued in front of half the industry before her untimely demise, so everyone assumes he did it. Frankly, Toombes doesn’t even know himself, because he blacked out. Perversely, the scandal maintains interest in Dr. Death, so when he is finally released from the sanitarium, he reluctantly agrees to star in a Dr. Death TV reboot.
As part of the agreement, Toombes must stay with his old friend, Herbert Flay, the screenwriter of the Dr. Death series, who will keep him out of trouble. At least that’s the idea. Unfortunately, Toombes is a magnetic for would-be exploiters, like Elizabeth Peters, an aspiring starlet, whose annoying attempts to seduce Toombes makes her a cinch to get murdered. Fortunately, his network publicist, Julia Wilson is good at running interference, but not good enough. Soon, bodies are piling up, inducing flashbacks of horror to the increasingly unstable Toombes.
As if Price, Cushing, and archival appearances from Karloff and Rathbone were not enough to satisfy vintage horror fans, Robert Quarry, a.k.a. Count Yorga, also appears as crass network head, Oliver Quayle. Of course, Price and Cushing are the main attraction, slyly and surprisingly poignantly playing off their own careers and images. Price is a wonderfully tragic figure, who in many ways represents a continuation of his grandly elegiac turn as Edward Lionheart in the classic Theater of Blood. Likewise, Cushing is effortlessly sophisticated yet deeply sad as old Flay. Even though it is not exactly the most profoundly written part in cinematic history, Natasha Pynne (who also co-starred in a Hammer pirate movie) plays Wilson with appealing forcefulness and energy.
Madhouse in retrospect, because there are sequences that have an unexpected giallo-vibe, disorienting shots of patent leather-gloved hands slashing their lady victims, and the like. Yet, there is also a trippy baroqueness, not unlike Theater of Blood and the Dr. Phibes films. Most importantly, Clark (a future Oscar winning film editor) and screenwriters Ken Levison and Greg Morrison (adapting an Angus Hall novel beyond recognition) show respect and affection for the horror tradition.
Madhouse was one of the horror films from Amicus (co-producing with AIP), so it represents the end of an era for British horror. Yet, Price and Cushing still had some of their biggest films still ahead of them (like Star Wars). That is partly how Madhouse manages to be simultaneously creepy (but not really scary) and bittersweet. Highly recommended for fans of Price and Cushing, Madhouse airs tomorrow night (10/26) on TCM—and it streams on Prime.