MADHOUSE was Vincent Price’s last film in which he stars. He had a long career after this film, but those were mostly lesser roles or comedies. MADHOUSE, though not the best of Price’s films, almost feels like a swan song of sorts. Price plays Paul Toomes, an actor known for his roles in horror films, in particular a role known as Dr. Death. A victim of a midlife crisis which resulted in the unsolved murder of his fiancée, Toomes returns to England to reprise his role as Dr. Death for a television series. As the filming of the series proceeds, the bodies start piling up and all involved begin to wonder if Toomes’ mental state is not well. Price, as usual, is perfect in the role as the oftentimes persnickety, often charming aging actor who has grown weary of playing the same role over and over.
At its heart, MADHOUSE is a mystery. Is Toomes the killer? Or is someone else wearing his costume and murdering the ambitious actresses that cross Toomes’ path? Director James Clark sets up a lot of red herrings with an actor turned director, a producer, and a crazy scarred starlet lurking about. Clark does a great job of laying out the scenes of horror (there’s an especially effective scene where the camera closes in on the eyelashes of one of the dead bodies as they curl from the heat of the flames that is especially amazing) MADHOUSE also may be one of the first of the self referential films we saw too much of in the 90’s (another fantastic scene has the killer being blinded by a Dr. Death film being projected into his eyes) as it pulls back the curtain and shows the behind the scenes drama of the filmmakers making a horror film. The dramatic final scenes of MADHOUSE are especially creepy as we find out who the killer is and how despite the deaths that occur, the show must go on.
Was MADHOUSE Price’s response to a lifetime of horror films? Maybe. Maybe not. Price plays the complex character of Toomes with his usual style and grace. Throughout the film, Toomes is faced with clips of his long career, in scenes provided from some of his real life films such as THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, TALES OF TERROR, THE RAVEN, & HOUSE OF USHER. Price is often shown gazing upon these clips, sometimes with remorse, sometimes with fascination, sometimes with boredom. Price also has fellow horror veteran actor Peter Cushing to share the stage with. In a touching scene, both actors look upon a picture of themselves as young actors with fondness and a little bit of melancholy. Robert Quarry from COUNT YORGA also shows up in this love song to horror films of yesteryear in as especially biting role as a film producer.
If Price were bored with horror, he doesn’t show it in MADHOUSE. In an interview in the movie, Toomes explains the audiences’ fascination with his horror films; “I think it’s because they are not about the ordinary, everyday world around us. They’re about a world that is deep inside of us. A world of impulses and instincts that we have been taught to suppress.” He goes on to say, “—impulses that we don’t dare admit. Impulses that sometimes we don’t even know we have. They’re tamed and caged. Sometimes they prowl around inside of the cages we’ve built for them. And there comes a time in between our sleeping and our waking when they whisper to us that they want to be set free. Well, we don’t set them free. I think maybe that’s why the pictures are so successful, because they do set them free.” Price seems to be speaking beyond the film about his own expansive career in horror and shows an understanding that few in the genre have. Though this column only shows a snippet of Price’s film career, it’s abundantly clear that the horror world would not have been the same without him.