Wednesday, March 28, 2018

ASYLUM (1972) (Severin Films Blu-ray Review)

ASYLUM (1972) 

Label: Severin Films
Region Code: Region-FREE
Duration: 88 Minutes 
Rating: PG
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.78:1) 
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Cast: Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Herbert Lom, Patrick Magee, Barry Morse, Robert Powell 

This Amicus produced horror anthology directed by Roy Ward Baker (The Vault of Horror) and written by Robert Bloch (Psycho) is a very fine example of the classic portmanteau-film, a collection of chilling (and usually slightly hokey) short stories blended together with a unifying wrap around story. Hammer's arch-rival Amicus made a wonderfully robust amount of them in the 70's, and Asylum is one of the best of the bunch. The wrap-around story - which evolves into it's own vignette - begins with Dr. Martin (Robert Powell, The Asphyx) arriving at an asylum for a job interview for the lead physician position. He's greeted by a wheelchair bound  Dr. Lionel Rutherford (Patrick Magee, A Clockwork Orange) who informs him that his job interview will be a rather unusual one, he will have to interview four criminally insane inmates kept locked away on the secured second floor and deduce which is actually the former head doctor of the asylum, he or she having had a violent mental breakdown, if he chooses correctly he will be considered for the position. That's our wrap-around story in a nutshell, with Dr. Martin touring the second floor of the facility with an orderly named Max (Geoffrey Bayldon, Tales from the Crypt) escorting him and offering some wry commentary along the way.

The first of the stories proper is "Frozen Fear", a tale of a unhappily married man named Walter (Richard Todd, Bloodbath) who is desperate to be rid of his wife Ruth (Sylvia Syms, The Tamarind Seed), to that end he has planned to ax-murder her in the basement, as you do. However, her dabbling in the occult makes her brutal dismemberment one worth remembering, she having her vengeance from beyond the grave. This one starts things off briskly as the husband chops her up rather quickly after luring her to his basement/kill-room, wrapping her torso and severed head and limbs in brown deli-wrap paper and tidily binding it with string like a well-manicured choice cut of meat fresh from the local butcher's shop. Stowing her remains in freezer he begins planning a getaway with his new lover Bonnie (Barbara Parkins, The Mephisto Waltz) only to be interrupted by his ax-whacked wife whose surprisingly re-animated pieces have a go at him. I loved this one, it's a fun opening salvo that starts things off with a wink and a nod, light-hearted perfection, if you can call wife-murder light-hearted. 

Up next we have "The Weird Tailor" wherein a cash-strapped tailor named Bruno (Barry Morse, Funeral Homeon the verge of being evicted is approached by a seemingly wealthy patron named Mr. Smith (Peter Cushing, Corruption), tasked with stitching together a custom fitted suit with the odd instructions that it must only be sewn in the early morning hours after midnight and before dawn. Strange though the request may be Bruno dutifully fulfills the order per the instructions,  however, upon delivering the finished suit to his patron he finds that Mr. Smith not only doesn't have the promised money but has some weird occult resurrection in the works! Anything with Peter Cushing in it is gonna be worth a watch, and this segment is no different, but it's Barry Morse who steals the show this time around, I love his performance as the tailor, and the twist at the end involving a store mannequin at his shop was rather unexpected, and a bit goofy.  

Orderly Max next introduced Dr. Martin to a young woman named 
Barbara (Charlotte Rampling, The Night Porter) in the segment "Lucy Comes To Stay", she relays to him the story of how she was formerly incarcerated at an asylum before being freed, released to her brother George (James Villiers, Otley) who sets her up at home under the supervision of a kindly older nurse named Miss Higgins (Megs Jenkins, The Innocents), which frustrates her. When her friend prankster Lucy (Brit Ekland, What The Peeper Saw) shows up unexpectedly it cheers her up a bit, but when Lucy's pranks turn to murder most foul she blames Lucy, but there's a problem with that scenario we come to find out.

The last of the stories proper is "Mannikins of Horror" starring the always great (no matter how bad the film may be) Herbert Lom (And Now The Screaming Starts) as a patient at the asylum who is working on some sort of soul-transference process, obsessed with the notion of sending his psyche into that of a tiny automaton, which looks for the most part like a cheap wind-up toy with a well-crafted likeness of his own head on it. Let's just not think about why a mental health facility would encourage such a thing and let him keep the damn toy in his room, but it has a decent payoff that works better than it should. Herbert Lom is fantastic, and the premise works better than the cheap looking robot would have had me believe, this one tying directly into the wrap-around story at the asylum, and then we finish-up with a fun (though not shocking) conclusion with orderly Max addressing us, the viewers, directly, as a new candidate arrives at the asylum for the same sort of interview.    

Audio/Video: Asylum (1972) arrives on Blu-ray from Severin Films, this is a film that hasn't had an update on home video since Dark Sky Films gave it a special edition DVD polish years ago, so this is a welcome HD upgrade, sourced from a new 2K scan of "vault elements" which judging by the image was a good quality theatrical print. Framed in 1.78:1 widescreen the 1080p HD image is a bit on the soft side but acceptable given the source, colors look good and the grain field is nicely managed for the most part, while looking overly abundant at times, it's not pristine but it's the best we've had on home video so far. The English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono audio exports the orchestral score from Douglas Gamely nicely, dialogue is clean and clear, everything well-balanced without distortion. A Spanish-dub track is also included as an audio option. 

Onto the extras we get a nice selection, beginning with a lively vintage commentary with Director Roy Ward Baker and camera operator Neil Binney moderated by Marcus Hearn, many facets of the production are covered, good stuff. We then get a vintage on-set featurette by the BBC filmed during shooting of the film. New stuff begins with an appreciation of writer Robert Block (Psycho) by writer David J. Schow (Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III), plus a remembrance of Amicus' Milton Subotsky by his widow. The 20-min Inside The Fear Factory Featurette is a nice overview of Amicus Films as told by Directors Roy Ward Baker, Freddie Francis and Producer Max J. Rosenberg, if you're a fan of British horror and Amicus in particular this is a fun watch. The disc is finished up with two trailers for the film.

The single-disc release comes housed in a nifty black Blu-ray case with a reversible sleeve of artwork, of which I preferred the b-side. The disc features an excerpt of the a-side artwork.

Reversible Artwork 
This release is also available as part of Severin's 4-disc limited edition of The Amicus Collection which also features the Gothic-shocker And Now the Screaming Starts (1973), the werewolf whodunit The Beast Must Die (1974), as well as a bonus disc stuffed with a complete set of Amicus trailers, TV commercials, rare interviews and more. The limited edition set (of 3500) copies is now sold out on the Severin site but still available for under $60 at various online retailers, so act quickly on this one if you want the 4-disc set, I'm glad I ordered mine the day that set went live at the Severin site!  

Special Features:

- Two’s A Company: 1972 On-set report from BBC featuring Interviews With Producer Milton Subotsky, Director Roy Ward Baker, Actors Charlotte Rampling, James Villiers, Megs Jenkins, Art Director Tony Curtis and Production Manager Teresa Bolland (18 min) HD 
- David J. Schow on Robert Bloch – Featurette (21 min) HD 
- Fiona Subotsky Remembers Milton Subotsky – Featurette (10 min) HD 
- Inside The Fear Factory Featurette with Directors Roy Ward Baker, Freddie Francis and Producer Max J. Rosenberg (20 min) 
- Audio Commentary with Director Roy Ward Baker and Camera Operator Neil Binney
- Theatrical Trailers (3 min) 

I love the Amicus horror anthologies, in fact I watch them a lot more than I do the Hammer Films truth be told, the short-story format is appealing to me, while there's usually a dud in the three or four stories I find that the occasional bad apple doesn't spoil the whole basket of vignetted-fruit. While none of the stories in Asylum (1972) are particularly scary or overly clever they all wok for me as a whole, even the wrap around story is great, plus we have an outstanding cast that includes Herbert Lom and Peter Cushing. That the film doesn't culminate with the usual 'they're already dead' trope we've seen several times from Amicus is a bonus, but even this twist here is nothing all that original, it's just a well-crafted and stylish series of vignettes that flow well, making this a classic slice of British horror. 

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