I went in expecting a typical Vincent Price AIP film but then I saw in the opening credits the words, “An American International Pictures / Amicus Co-Production” and I got excited. While I’ve never liked them as much as Hammer, I am a fan of the better Amicus anthologies and even their weaker films have a unique flavor all their own. They have the foggy British atmosphere of Hammer but the typically modern settings and often ironic endings (to the point of formula) put an individual spin on things.
And “Madhouse” indeed feels more like an Amicus production then one from AIP. Aside from the presence of Price and Robert Querry, the murder-mystery story, which essentially boils down to someone trying to gaslight an old horror movie actor, has the modern setting and serious mind-trick tone of classic Amicus. Price’s performance here is more understated. Since he is playing an over-the-hill horror actor, you can’t help but wonder what personal insight he brought to the role. At the same time, this was also his last horror movie for AIP. He might just be tired. It isn’t particularly hard to figure out who the real killer is, considering which actors get which billing, but the story keeps you involved, if not guessing. Each victim is introduced not long, sometimes just minutes, before being offed and almost each murder is triggered by the showing of one of Price’s character’s old films. (The movies-within-the-movie footage is compiled of Price’s AIP library, a cost-saving measure Arkoff/Nicholson must have loved.)
There are some fun elements thrown in to shake things up, like a spider-obsessed burn victim girl living in the basement, or Price really beginning to loose his marbles during the fiery fake-climax. Vincent Price and Peter Cushing also sword fight at one point, which is almost worth seeing the whole film for. And the Dr. Death make-up is indeed a classic. (Rob Zombie agrees.) “Madhouse” doesn’t shake up the formula or anything but, as far as late night horror entertainment goes, it excels. The performances and the atmosphere make it an easy recommendation. (7/10)
Tales of Terror (1962)
This collection of short stories seems to get overlooked among the other AIP Poe adaptations. Of the ones featuring Vincent Price, it’s probably my least favorite. (Though I’m not remembering very much about “Liegia” right now.) Which isn’t to say it’s not good, because it’s pretty solid. The atmospheric framing device of the film features close-ups on a beating heart and dripping blood (which seems to be a set-up for an adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart” that never comes.) and ominous narration from Price. The first story “Morella,” is easily the weakest, featuring not very likable characters and not much going on. However, the scene of Morella emerging from her death bed and her shadowy figure crossing the room to her daughter’s body is fantastically creepy.
The second story, an adaptation of “The Black Cat,” stars a perfectly cast Peter Lorre. I would’ve loved to have seen a straight adaptation of the story with Lorre in the lead but, alas, this instead deviates wildly from the source material and is mostly a farce. (It’s would still be the most faithful adaptation for a long time, until the “Masters of Horror” episode came along.) Lorre is great though as the embittered alcoholic. Price has a great deal of fun as the foppish wine critic. The story also mixes in the most famous elements of the often referenced and quoted but rarely adapted “The Cask of Amontillado.” Lorre’s post-intoxication state includes vivid hallucinations of snakes, spiders, his victims breaking out of the entombed wall, lobsters, and an iguana. (An influence on Werner Herzog, perhaps?) Despite being the title character, the black cat doesn’t do much in this story, aside from the ending, obviously, which is quite good. This take on “The Black Cat” is funny and has a great cast but, as I said, I can’t help but think of the missed opportunity here.
The final tale, “The Case of Mr. Valdemir” is easily the darkest of the three. Basil Rothbone plays the villain of the piece and is fantastically nasty. This last segment gets off to a slow start but builds to a great ending, that even features Price in some monster make-up. “Tales of Terror” isn’t as colorful, intense, or wide in scope as the other Cormon-directed films from this cycle, but it’s still worth seeing for its stellar elements, a fantastic Les Baxter score, and its great cast. (7/10)
The Comedy of Terrors (1964)
I was worried, since the opening features sped-up comedy, something I usually don’t find amusing. But no worries. This is a jolly pitch black dark comedy. Vincent Price plays a completely unforgivable asshole. He’s abusive to his wife, a drunkard, greedy, and completely rude to everyone in his life. But, it’s still Vincent Price, and he’s having a ball with the opportunity to play such a total jerk. His darkly comical lines are delivered perfectly. Peter Lorre plays the sad-sack, often abused sidekick and it fits the actor pretty perfectly. Price and Lorre have a nice back-and-forth. Boris Karloff shows up too as the half-dead father-in-law. (Karloff looks half-dead too.) The premise of morticians killing people to drum up business isn’t exactly fresh or clever, but the movie still manages to be highly amusing.
The gags are often broad, such as the attempts to bury a most-definitely-not-dead old man, the stealthy break-in into a house that proves anything but, or the climatic sword duel. I don’t know how memorable it’ll end up being but “The Comedy of Terrors” is pretty funny and a nice counterpoint to the Edgar Allen Poe films Price was doing at the same time. It's maybe better written then the similar “The Raven,” even if I think I like that film a little more. (7/10)