Asylum is one of a series of anthology films made by the Amicus studio during the 1960s and 70s, as they tried to rival the Hammer Horror movies. The acting and writing vary from story to story and are at times the best and the worst elements of the film, leaving a patchy but still enjoyable slice of 70s British Horror.
The script is by none other than Robert “Psycho” Bloch, based on four of his own short stories. As is standard practice for a compendium film, each tale is linked by a framing story, in this case that of Dr Martin (Robert Powell), a young psychiatrist who arrives for a job interview at an isolated asylum for the incurably insane. Doing the interview is Dr Lionel Rutherford, currently wheelchair-bound due to an attack by an inmate. Rutherford says he will give Martin the post, if he agrees to interview four patients, listen to their stories and correctly guess which one is Dr Starr, the psychiatrist who ran the asylum, until a nervous breakdown made Starr an inmate.
The opening credits play out over the strains of Mussorgsky's Night on a Bare Mountain, suggesting a tone that is loud, lurid and portentous almost to the point of parody. What follows is thankfully not quite like that, and of the four tales, the first two are the most successful, for different reasons.
The first, “Frozen Fear” starts with a woman called Bonnie, who tells how she plotted with her lover Walter to bump off Walter's wife, dismember the body, hide it in a freezer and run off with her money. However, sometimes, you can't keep a good corpse down... While the situation is not so original and the characters are bland and forgettable, the segment succeeds due to the creepy denouement, EC comics style cruelty, and some fairly well executed special effects.
By contrast, the second segment, "The Weird Tailor" works so well because of the lead actor, with Peter Cushing at his effortlessly chilling best as the mysterious Mr Smith, who hires down-on-his-luck tailor, Bruno (Barry Morse) to make him a suit. There are some strange conditions attached though - Bruno can only work on the suit after midnight, and it must be made entirely from an unusual, glowing fabric. Cushing moves subtly from cold and determined to desperate, as the reason for the suit becomes apparent, while Morse is believable as a hard working honest man, also driven to desperate measures. Director Roy Ward Baker had an eclectic career working in a number of genres, but shows in this story great understanding of how to make this work as a horror story, keeping the direction simple and letting the actors get on with it. His only misjudgement is the ending, which feels hurried.
Sadly, neither the writing nor acting can save the third segment. Here we meet Barbara (Charlotte Rampling) and find that this is not her first time in an asylum. Her story starts with her being released from the facility, and going to stay with her brother George and a nurse. The only relief from the boredom of her confined life is when her mischievous friend Lucy (Britt Ekland) comes to visit and plots to help her escape - but is Lucy all she appears to be? A very easily guessed twist ending, coupled with some wooden acting from Ekland make this a real test of patience.
In the final segment, Martin speaks with a Dr Byron (Herbert Lom), who is using his incarceration to work on his plan to transfer souls into miniature automatons and end what he sees as Rutherford’s reign of terror at the asylum. The episode feels rushed in execution and the automaton models look very silly, but at least it cleverly links to the main story, and Lom is never less than entertaining.
Beyond the merits and faults of the stories themselves, there is one point of particular interest about the script. The unreliable narrator is a well-used idea in storytelling, but here, instead of one, we get several - in fact, none of the characters could be who they say they are. This also means that we never see the world beyond the asylum other than through the characters, and much of that world is indoors. While this may have been for budgetary reasons, it also gives Asylum a subtle feeling of claustrophobia.