Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Vincent-a-Day: ‘Madhouse'

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Vincent Price’s birth I’ll be checking out one of the maestro’s lesser known films every day this week.

Madhouse (1974- dir. Jim Clark)

Vincent Price is Paul Toombes, a horror star institutionalized after a masked killer chopped off his girlfriend’s head with a letter opener. Everyone thinks the man who made his name playing B-movie villain “Dr. Death” is responsible. Madhouse is kind of like a sleazy Targets. Just as Peter Bogdanovich’s film was a knowing tribute to Boris Karloff, Jim Clark’s reflects on Price’s career, but with less insight and elegance. Madhouse is depressing at times, not because we’re witnessing a terrific actor lamenting the devolution of horror into graphic exploitation à la Karloff in Targets, but because we’re watching one actually participating in such a movie. Two if you count Peter Cushing. There’s an interesting push and pull between the quaint monster movies of yore (note former-“Van Helsing” Cushing in pancakey Dracula makeup during a costume party) and the graphic, misogynist slasher films that replaced them. Like so many self-aware horror movies, Madhouse wants to have its cake and eat it too, functioning as both exploitation-criticism and exploitation. This creates a self-loathing unease, and Price’s orneriness throughout the movie probably isn’t mere acting. Yet Madhouse rises above the mass of slasher flicks because of a good performance from Price, a great one from ghoulish Adrienne Corri, and an ending that approaches brilliance. Madhouse also retains some of the spookiness and splashy color of Price’s work with Roger Corman, which we actually see in old footage scattered throughout the movie. Vintage images of Karloff and Basil Rathbone (both deceased by ’74) in these clips contribute to the elegiac tone.
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