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Month of Horror 2016: Genre Exploration – Anthology: Asylum

Editor’s Note: The links within all point back to the original sources.  Perhaps one day I will fix them but more than likely I will keep them as is to honor the past (and because it is so much easier).  Links to the AVC are likely off due to the Kinja switchover.

10/14/2016 – Anthology: Asylum (1972)
Directed by John S. Robertson

In my discussion of horror miniseries I discussed the difficulties of sustaining horror over a long period of time. While obviously many films can obviously handle it for the length of a film, plenty of films have faltered in trying to sustain it for even 90 minutes plus or minus. Even The Twilight Zone faltered a bit in trying to maintain the suspense and horror when it doubled in length to 45-minute episodes for a season (though a large part of this is the fact that so many were building to a twist and efficiency was key to keep it from feeling tedious). A logical way around this is to break that 90-minute film up into smaller bits since it’s much easier to maintain the suspense in say 15-minute chunks. That’s the idea at least (though there are other benefits such as attracting more notable names to a single project, being able to turn out a film quicker since it’s a bunch of short segments, etc.) but in practice it doesn’t nearly work out that way.

While the genre is hardly unique to horror, 1919’s Eerie Tales brought the concept to horror and introduced what is a common technique now of adapting the work of various authors for its segments. While others would continue to be produced in the interim, it is 1945’s Dead of Night that brought well deserved acclaim to the concept with four directors each handling a distinct segment and until the 60’s with the Vincent Price starring Tales of Terror (which like so many of these films was adapted from Poe, far and away the most famous horror short story writer until Stephen King) and Twice Told TalesBlack Sabbath (the best of the era), KwaidanSpirits of the Dead (which despite being directed by Frederico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim wasn’t very good), and the works of Amicus Productions such as today’s film (when they weren’t making crappy Doctor Who movies).

As hinted at earlier, 1982’s Creepshow is the film that introduced Stephen King to the anthology film being made up of shorts based on his stories, original works by him, and sadly acting from him as well and arguably the film that all modern horror anthologies are trying to recapture the relative magic of. Cat’s Eye and Creepshow 2 also attempted to do the King anthology thing, but I guess he realized there was more money selling each short into a separate film for better (The Shawshank Redemption1408) or worse (Maximum Overdrive) since this died off surprisingly quickly. We also got the film adaptations of TV shows The Twilight Zone and Tales From the Darkside, the far better than it sounds Tales From the Hood, and Asian anthologies Three and Three… Extremes.

Inspired by how awesome Trick ‘r Treat (that’s my story though I’m not sure how true that is) and ignoring that one of the major reasons it far and away the best horror anthology is that it let a single director handle the entire project (see also Kwaidan and Black Sabbath), we got a boom of these films in the 2010’s in the V/H/S (the first of which was pretty mediocre) and The ABCs of Death series, ChilleramaA Christmas Horror StoryTales of Halloween, and Southbound many of which recycled the same directors with the rise of the indie horror movie being the more likely culprit for these since it meant that they could assemble a bunch of talented cult and budding directors and ride off their names to make money from VOD/home video.

I mentioned it before, but the biggest thing sinking the genre is that the films are so uneven both in quality and tone. It’s almost guaranteed that at least one of the segments is going to stink and drag the pacing of the film to a standstill. Even hiring people such as John Landis and Steven Spielberg are no guarantee of success in their segments (to be fair Landis was too busy murdering children and a beloved actor while Spielberg was too busy competing with Stephen King to see who loves the trope of Magical Negro more to make quality shorts). The single director may keep a more consistent tone, but it’s hard enough to make one great film let alone three or four. They may be shorter, but each still requires a distinct story with character development, plot, and atmosphere all needing to be conveyed in far less than usual time which is the more serious reason successful directors fail. It’s an entirely different type of filmmaking.

Amicus Productions, to their credit, stuck with the single director approach (albeit one here who was responsible for the fine Quatermass and the Pit, the lousy The Vampire Lovers as well as Scars of Dracula which I will get to later this month), it’s just that Torture Garden and The House That Dripped Blood just went with being consistently poor or consistently alright in quality with plenty of overacting and questionable filmmaking choices. Asylum comes to us from Robert Block, author of Psycho, and quickly establishes as its wraparound a series of interviews with mental patients with a new doctor trying to deduce which one is the former head of the asylum. For once this actually gives an actual tie in to the plot beyond maybe one detail popping up in the final scene, making the anthology choice slightly less obvious. From here out I’m going to break the segments apart an analyze each since I’ve found that that’s the best way of looking these films. Also consider this one giant spoiler warning until the final paragraph of this section to make this easier on everyone.

“Frozen Fear” is a quick, effective tale that feels descended from “The Tell-Tale Heart” mold. Both features someone menaced by the body parts of the person they murdered (or in the case the lover of the murder). The difference here is that the body parts come in the form of neatly packaged dismembered parts actually terrorizing (or are they?) a woman, a sequence which is surprisingly well done in an almost Evil Dead 2 type of way. We even get a low budget Psycho type scene of the woman taking an axe to the face repeatedly, only this time by her own hand. The reveal of these scars complete with creepy laugh and coy expression is especially great and a perfect encapsulation of the short’s balance between B-movie thrills and psychological horror.

“The Weird Tailor” features Barry Morse giving a distinctive and entertaining portrayal of the tailor that’s surprisingly filled with restraint. Even as things go wrong, he manages to keep a fairly level head and quiet determination. The segment costars Amicus and horror veteran Peter Cushing in a low key and thoroughly unnerving performance. He drops off a mysterious fabric and I love the little hints we are given to its power throughout building up to an encounter in his home which just oozes with Gothic horror. There’s a subtlety these frequently lack even as the mannequin comes to life

“Lucy Comes to Stay” tells of a Charlotte Rampling fresh out of the asylum and Able to conjure Britt Eklund through the magic of taking too many pills who asks as her subconscious and seeding her with doubt. It doesn’t take too much considering how creepy and controlling her brother is. After just praising the last one for subtlety, this one throws that all out the window. It doesn’t seem the least bit concerned with hiding what is going to happen and Rampling gives a stereotypical hysterical performance. It’s also the one that doesn’t even bother to throw in potential supernatural elements in favor of its poorly done pre-Fight Clubtwist.

“Mannikins of Horror” is barely a segment at all, just a quick scene with The Pink Panther’s Herbert Lom giving a measured performance as a man creating small dolls shaped as people he knows (including himself) complete with miniature brains that he plans to will to life through the power of will and predating Child’s Play voodoo related take on this by over a decade. I actually found this quick fake out (it being the only story not almost entirely told through a flashback) utterly delightful and can safely say I did not see it coming. For once the story actually is informed directly by the final story and we actually get a confirmation of the supernatural (the doll actually comes to life and murders) only for another twist with the reveal of the real doctor being a minor character throughout the film (okay I saw that part coming). It’s an especially fun ending that plays with the structure of the genre and left a smile on my face.

Aside from the third segment, my only real complaint is that the public domain music is far too loud and deployed only at the climax of each short. It alone seems determined to try to build up the wonderful mood built throughout. Okay, the interviewing doctor is a ham who basically just yells the same thing over and over again but these feel like mere trivialities. While nowhere near as good as Trick ‘R Treat, it is one of the best constructed anthologies I’ve seen. Still, that one fairly incongruous segment points out the biggest difficulty in these, even the great ones often fall flat at some point and Asylum is no different. Thankfully the film moves fast enough that one bad segment is relatively easy to overlook.

Bonus Episode #18 – Slasher: The House on Sorority Row (1983)
Directed by Mark Rosman

House on Sorority Row

I meant to watch this days ago but since Shudder refused to work, well it got delayed until today (where I watched it on Amazon which surprisingly ran better than Netflix does) so don’t expect any actual tie-in to today’s film. As with many slasher filmsThe House on Sorority Row was remade in the 00’s into the quickly forgotten Sorority Row starring Brianna Evigan (The Devil’s CarnivalMother’s Day) and Rumer Willis. The original is typical first entry slasher stuff. A mysterious killer starts taking out people one by one until we are left with a final girl who has to survive SPOILERS and a killer who dies but not really in the end. END OF SPOILERS While a slasher set in a sorority house draws obvious parallels to Black Christmas, it is far more along the lines of the later I Know What You Did Last Summer meets The Trouble with Harry. It shares the SPOILERS person is accidently taken out (this time an awful housemother) and left for dead and the people involved are murdered one by one with the difference being that it was the son (so I guess we know whose sheet I Still Know What You Did Last Summer was cheating off)END OF SPOILERS and the wacky trying to dispose of the body of the latter.

Considering how standard it is, let’s look at the three most important aspects of these types of films; pacing, kills, and twist. Pacing wise, the film does a good job once they get to plot driving event and the lead up is not unbearable. We get a quick intro to the final girl, the person whose stupidity causes everything, and that there is other cannon fire there too. It’s nice they made the idiot a blonde because that is the only way I could tell any of them apart from each other.

In terms of kills, well I liked the silhouette kill to start things off. This may be the default setting for opening slasher kills but I’m a sucker for them and they are always used for a reason. As a weapon, that cane with the sharp handle is a fun choice and gets to have an actual meaning beyond whatever was lying around. Outside of the kill which results our lead finding a head in the toilet (which was frankly more worth it for the reaction than the kill itself), there’s nothing really of note here. There’s not a notable amount of gore or noticeable lack, the kills themselves just define middle of the road.

The twist, well I already talked about the twist above SPOILERS of the reverse Friday the 13th type and that is certainly one part of it. The film couldn’t have sold its hand harder who the villain was and the fact that he turned out to be a Jason rip-off was disappointing though hardly unexpected. END OF SPOILERS  There is another type of twist though and by that I mean the subtle twist of the basic premise. Freddy kills you while you sleep allowing for those dream sequences, Angela when you misbehave, April Fool’s Day played everything as a joke, etc. The best parts of the movie (non-toilet division) were the attempts to dispose of the body and their constantly being thwarted is played for dark laughs. The same can be said of that hallucination scene of all the dead which was hilarious. I’m not sure if that was the intent but you don’t score a scene with wacky music if you want us to take you seriously. There’s also a very blue colorized opening that looks terrible but this isn’t the kind of crap I mean. What we are left with is the boring recommendation of if you like slashers of variable quality you might as well watch it, otherwise there are countless films that do what it does better.

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