Asylum remains one of the best-regarded horror anthology films; it’s well-crafted and bracketed around a premise that, though ludicrous, is intriguing.
The frame story involves Dr. Martin (Robert Powell), an idealistic and professional psychiatrist who is visiting an asylum for a job interview. Martin finds his reception curious. He’s told that the doctor who contacted him, Dr. B. Starr, had an unexplained breakdown a few days ago and is now at the asylum as a patient; Starr’s delusion is supposedly so complete that Martin could interview all the inmates and not identify them as the doctor in question. He’s challenged to, in fact, and conveniently enough, the asylum is able to rustle up a handful of patients whose names start with B. And so the game begins, with each patient’s story constituting a segment of the anthology.
This is, of course, ridiculous, but it’s more interesting than most anthology frame stories, and Martin gradually emerges as not just an audience surrogate but a character in his own right–and one who almost touchingly refuses to acknowledge that he’s in a horror movie. At the end of the film, when asked to make his guess in this odd mental health shell game, Martin’s response is horror and outrage at the conditions he’s witnessed and the lack of true help the patients are getting. His genuine concern for the people he’s interviewing softens the typical horror treatment of the asylum and gives the film a kind of metafictional verve.
The individual stories are all solidly done, with “Lucy Comes to Stay” being perhaps the weakest–it depends too much on a twist that audiences (at least by now) will have seen coming a mile away. Even it, however, is braced by strong performances from Charlotte Rampling and Britt Ekland. An odd overarching theme here is “things that shouldn’t move shouldn’t move,” which I suppose I agree with, and it’s present in three out of the four stories. In “Frozen Fear,” a cruel, possessive wife is murdered and dismembered, but her body won’t stay still–it’s like a cheap, dumbed-down, supernatural Diabolique, but still enjoyable. In “Mannikins of Horror,” a man becomes convinced that he can animate tiny dolls with his mind. “The Weird Tailor” is probably the best of the batch, grounded in the titular tailor’s poverty and desperation: on the verge of eviction, he takes an unusual commission, making a suit that must be sewn only at night for a man (the always great Peter Cushing) who offers to pay him an absurd sum. He’s supplied with an unrecognizable, silver-white fabric and very detailed instructions. “The Weird Tailor” actually succeeds in a few surprises, creating a couple of expectations only to go off in new directions, and the dilemmas in it are metaphorically potent.
If Netflix is looking to create a horror anthology show, they might take a leaf from Asylum‘s book; they could do worse for a premise than “world’s weirdest job interview” and far worse for execution than this solid craftsmanship.
Asylum is available for free on Amazon Prime Video.