Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Get in the holiday spirit with these horror anthology films, which offer several scary stories for the price of one.
The rare horror anthology to be bolstered by its framing device, 1972’s Asylum tethers together its four macabre tales with the story of Dr. Martin (Robert Powell), who visits an old rural English asylum run by Dr. Lionel Rutherford (A Clockwork Orange’s Patrick Magee) in order to interview for the position of chief doctor. The twist, as it turns out, is that the person who previously held the post has gone insane and assumed a new personality, and Rutherford will only hire Dr. Martin if, after meeting with a quartet of inmates, he can deduce which one is the former chief doctor. It’s a structure that allows director Roy Ward Baker to generate unease not only from his individual vignettes, all of which are shot with patient ominousness and scored with melodramatic flair, but from the overriding question of which psycho is most likely to be the chief doctor—a decidedly difficult mystery to unravel, given that most of their narratives involve some sort of supernatural surprise.
Asylum was written by Robert Bloch, the author of the original novel Psycho, and produced by the U.K.’s Amicus Productions, which was responsible for a series of horror anthologies during the ’60s and ’70s. Asylum remains, by far, their finest offering, in part because of its pitch-perfect gothic mood, and in part because its stories present varied perspectives on the depths of obsessive madness. The weakest of the lot is a segment featuring a young Charlotte Rampling being prodded into nasty action by a mischievous friend. Nonetheless, Baker’s sturdy direction is consistently unnerving, be it during an opening tale of adultery and murder gone awry thanks to an unruly dismembered body, a finale marked by a small animatronic doll that reportedly houses the soul of its maker, or an unholy sequence in which a struggling tailor agrees to craft a unique suit—only in the wee hours of the night, and using unique materials—for genre icon Peter Cushing’s shadowy customer. In total, they form a potent portrait of uninhibited mania, right up to an out-of-left-field conclusion to Dr. Martin’s saga that ends the proceedings on a simultaneously horrifying and humorous note.
Availability: Asylum is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased digitally from Amazon.