One in a series of anthology horror films generated by UK company Amicus Productions, Asylum boasts a solid pedigree: The picture was written by Robert Bloch, of Psycho fame, and directed by Hammer Films veteran Roy Ward Baker. The picture also has a solid cast, with Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Herbert Lom, Patrick Magee, Barry Morse, Barbara Parkins, Robert Powell, and the elegant Charlotte Rampling. Like most similar Amicus movies—and, for that matter, like most anthology pictures in general—it’s wildly uneven. On the plus side, the framing story is stronger than usual, and the overall presentation is terrific, thanks to glossy cinematography and solid production values. On the minus side, two of the stories are deeply silly, even by the standards of tongue-in-cheek UK horror. Asylum has its minor pleasures, but it’s not to be taken the least bit seriously.
In the framing story, earnest young psychiatrist Dr. Martin (Powell) shows up to interview for a job at a mental institution. While speaking with his would-be superior, Dr. Rutherford (Magee), Martin is given a challenge—he must identify which of the asylum’s patients is a former doctor, driven insane by dealing with the institution’s lunatics. If Dr. Martin identifies the right patient, he gets the job. Each visit with a patient occasions a flashback vignette with a gruesome twist ending. In “Frozen Fear,” Ruth (Parkins) describes being attached by dismembered body parts that move of their own volition. In “The Weird Tailor,” Bruno (Morse) recalls how a mystery man (Cushing) hired him to construct a magical suit of clothes. In “Lucy Comes to Stay,” Barbara (Rampling) explains that she was framed for murder by Lucy (Ekland), who may or may not be imaginary. And in “Mannikins of Horror,” Dr. Byron (Lom) reveals his hobby of creating tiny robots bearing lifelike faces modeled after his acquaintances.
The bits with the homicidal body parts and the violent robots (you knew they’d get bloodthirsty, didn’t you?) are unavoidably goofy, even though all of the actors give gung-ho performances. Conversely, “Lucy Comes to Stay” is fairly credible, but Ekland and Rampling provide more glamour than talent, so “Lucy Comes to Stay” gets tedious after a while. Still, Amicus had this sort of thing down to a science, and cramming five stories into 88 minutes ensures a relatively brisk pace. Further, Bloch provides more than enough cheap thrills, and Baker casts the whole cartoonish enterprise in a warm glow thanks to his dignified pictorial style. So, while Asylum may not be particularly frightening, at least it’s bloody and colorful and energetic.