Inspired by the success of such films as the 1945 classic Dead of Night, Amicus Productions geared up this low-budget horror anthology and delivered a fairly enjoyable offering. It has that peculiar, specifically British mordant taste for the good old-fashioned murder story, with stuffy husbands chopping up their wives in the basement and tidily arranging the pieces in the basement, or the Victorian fascination with lunatics and their mad tales of murderous alter egos, egomaniacal scientists creating voodoo dolls or magical items of clothing that bring the dead back to life. It’s all a bunch of hugger-bugger, but told with the right note of sly, perverse fascination by screenwriter Robert Bloch (who wrote the novel Psycho). The framing story sets the tone appropriately, following an intense young doctor (Robert Powell) applying for a job at a mental institution, and being asked to interview four inmates to deduct who was the former asylum director, now an inmate after a violent nervous breakdown. The casting couldn’t be better: Powell epitomizes bureaucratic arrogance, even as he’s warned that these lunatics are beyond treatment by a fellow doctor played by A Clockwork Orange‘s great Patrick Magee, once again wheelchair bound and half-mad. Britt Ekland is a swinging psycho-babe and young Charlotte Rampling is her neurotic friend, practically chewing off her fingers in operatic fearfulness. The anthology stories themselves are admittedly pretty thin, and there’s nothing remotely scary about being chased around a room by slow moving, silly looking mechanical dolls and writhing severed limbs. (You could effortlessly kick them across the room!) When it comes to small monstrosities attacking larger-than-life humans, the high watermark of the genre remains Karen Black battling the African Zuni fetish doll in Trilogy of Terror. Asylum tries telling similar tales (twice) and comes up pathetically short in the scare department, but the atmosphere and theatrics of the Amicus presentation make it a more than worthwhile trip down memory lane for die-hard horror buffs.
The sound is frustratingly tinny at many points. I had turn up the volume very high to catch some of the dialogue, then I had to very quickly turn it back down when the brooding whirlwind orchestra kicks into gear with M. Mussorgsky's "A Night On The Bare Mountain." The sound equalization is frankly terrible. The picture quality is decent, with no noticeable wear and tear on the print, though it is slightly faded, perhaps from the frail film stock used by British filmmakers throughout the 1970s.
Director Roy Ward Baker and cameraman Neil Binney don't offer many insights in their commentary, but they're a pleasure to listen to anyway: two old school craftsmen settling back into their armchairs, sounding like they're indulging in a glass or two of port, and even though their comments are your standard those-were-the-good-old-days flim-flam, their melodious voices are rich in experience and unhampered enthusiasm for the medium. The featurette "Inside the Fear Factory" is better, detailing the history of Amicus Productions in a brisk and efficient manner, with shared memories from genius cinematographer and occasional horror filmmaker Freddie Francis, moneyman producer Max J. Rosenberg, and Baker. Mostly, they are candid about how they wanted to make a lot of money, but their desire to have quality actors and lots of atmosphere marks the difference between these guys and the so-called gentlemen running motion picture studios nowadays.
Though it is sometimes over-praised by aficionados of the horror anthology subgenre, Asylum is a fun, old-fashioned taste of post-mod, pre-1980s macabre in British cinema.