Release Date(s)1974 (July 21, 2015)
Studio(s)American International Pictures/Orion Pictures/MGM/20th Century Fox (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B
Madhouse was, ostensibly, Vincent Price’s final film with American International Pictures, a company he had been making films with since 1960, which included all of the Corman/Poe films, as well as films like The Last Man on Earth, the Dr. Goldfoot films, and the Dr. Phibes films. Along with his work with William Castle, he had become a horror icon and wanted to branch out, which meant leaving A.I.P. behind.
Madhouse also managed to team three of horror’s biggest stars together: Price, Peter Cushing, and Robert Quarry. Cushing was, of course, one of Hammer Production’s biggest stars, and Robert Quarry had recently been in the Count Yorga films in the title role. It also seemed that Quarry was being groomed to be Price’s replacement at A.I.P., but with the slow decline of the style of horror film that the company was known for, this never really came into being. Price, meanwhile, was delighted to work closely with Cushing for the first time, and the two reportedly got along quite well.
The plot of Madhouse revolves around Price’s character Paul Toombes, who in the film has been a successful horror star portraying the evil Dr. Death. When his wife is inexplicably murdered, he goes insane, spending some time in psychiatric care. When he is released in seemingly good mental health, he is asked to reprise the role of Dr. Death by his writing and producing friends (Cushing and Quarry, respectively). Unfortunately, murders begin taking place, killing off many of the people close to Paul. Once the police begin investigating, they begin to wonder if Paul’s sanity has lapsed and turned him into a killer, or is there someone out there trying to frame him?
Judging from the synopsis, it’s plain to see that Madhouse plays a bit like a giallo. It’s also a highly-stylized film with a lot of hand-held close-ups and distorted images. The film’s namesake doesn’t necessarily refer to a horror dwelling of some kind, but instead describes the movie business in general, the pressures of performing, and the insanity behind the scenes. It’s also a very autobiographical film about Price’s career at the time, making it somewhat meta before that term had really come into being (or was a well-known and over-used concept). Basically, it’s trying to be a smarter film than it winds up actually being.
It isn’t a film totally without merit, however. It’s just a shame that it was the last A.I.P. project that Price was the lead in instead of something more befitting of what he was doing at the time. It’s messy as far as tone goes and you don’t really expect a film this off-balance from this group of filmmakers. At times it wants to hearken back to the glory days of Price’s and A.I.P.’s relationship, going so far as showing lots of footage from the films that they made together, while at other times trying to be a dark murder mystery. There isn’t much for the supporting characters to work with either. They don’t seem to have much to do as far as motivation is concerned. Quarry’s character, in particular, has very little effect on the events that take place and has next to nothing to do with the eventual outcome. However, any Vincent Price film, especially one with Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry co-starring, is definitely worth the price of admission, no matter what it is.
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray release of Madhouse contains a transfer that is a significant improvement over the one found on the previous MGM Double Feature DVD release. Not only is it less cropped so that there’s more information on all sides of the frame, but grain levels are more apparent and even, with detail being much more pronounced. Colors are especially improved, looking more robust than before with more desirable skin tones. Black levels are deep with some nice shadow detail, and both brightness and contrast levels and remarkably improved. It’s also a presentation free from apparent digital tampering, but there are plenty of film defects left behind. Besides just black speckling, there are also occasional scratches, lines, and tears. They don’t shape the overall quality, however. I also noticed that the stability of the image changed drastically during the film’s final credits sequence. Overall, it’s a strong presentation, easily besting its DVD counterpart. The only audio track available is an English 2.0 DTS-HD track. Initial pressings came with audio sync issues during select scenes, but my copy is the corrected disc with MADHOUSE (REDUX) displayed on the security strip, so I’m unable to fully comment on that. As is, it’s not an overly impressive track, but for what it is, it gets the job done. Dialogue is mostly clear and prioritized, sometimes taking a backseat mix-wise, and both sound effects and score have some nice heft to them. There’s also some decent atmospherics from time to time, but nothing all that impressive. It’s a very good track, but probably could use some restoration for a future release. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles available.
As far as supplemental materials go, this is a light, but very good package. Any time you have film historian David Del Valle’s involvement, you’re going to get some material well-worth your time. There’s an audio commentary with Del Valle (definitely worth a listen); The Revenge of Dr. Death: Making Madhouse featurette (from Ballyhoo); the film’s original theatrical trailer; and other trailers for Tales of Terror, The Oblong Box, and Twice Told Tales.
Madhouse is an interesting quirk of a movie that ends a very enduring career between a production company and an actor, but it’s also a very watchable horror movie. It’s not perfect, but it has enough elements in it to keep things interesting. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release, while also not perfect, is very commendable.
- Tim Salmons