Monday, January 4, 2010
Movie vs. Book: Asylum
Asylum was the first Amicus horror movie I’ve ever seen and, after watching it, I’m ready for more. Sure, it had its flaws but man, Asylum (aka House of Crazies) is one fun ride.
Young Dr. Martin goes for a job at an insane asylum. The head, Dr. Rutherford, informs him that another doctor recently went mad and had to be admitted as a patient. If he can figure out which patient it is, he gets the job. This is a fantastic setup for an anthology-style horror flick. Each of the patients has their own back story, all getting their own segment.
The cast included horror greats like Peter Cushing, Patrick Magee (best known as the writer in A Clockwork Orange among many fantastic roles), Britt Ekland and Charlotte Rampling. Every actor seems to be having a fantastic time in their role. Even when the stories get absurd, there is bliss in all the scene-chewing glory.
The script for the flick was written by the great Robert Bloch, and, wow, he seemed to be having a blast, too. Most seasoned horror fans will be able to predict where each segment is going and what will happen at the end. That really is of no matter. With Asylum the fun isn’t in the end but the ride itself. These are old school horror stories, with creepy ghosts, evil overtones and comeuppance for all who deserve it.
Asylum for me is like a fantastic meatloaf. That may sound like an insult but meatloaf is one of my favorite foods. It’s a warm, tasty bit of comfort. That is the best way I can describe how Asylum felt to me, the comfort food of horror. Classical, gore-less morality tales that yes, can sometimes be predictable but are wonderfully delicious nonetheless.
If you’re looking for the kind of movie from back in the day that made you the horror fan you are, I cannot recommend Asylum enough.
Asylum is double-duty for me. First, I get to read the Robert Bloch short stories upon which the four anthology pieces are based, and then I get to read the novelization by William Johnston.
The first part of that duty is fun. The second isn’t.
Bloch’s work could suffer under repetition. Because of the large quantity of short fiction he produced (the better to pay the bills) and his tendency to focus on specific themes, large Bloch collections often had similar stories. Spousal murder attempts, morbid puns, multiple personalities and streetwise criminals were regulars in his stories.
In small clusters of stories, however, or in the course of a novel, the man’s writing was nothing less than wonderful. He was from the writing school that insisted on clarity of meaning, creating work which was descriptive and evocative while simultaneously capable of propelling the action forward.
Such is the case with the four stories which Bloch later adapted for the screenplay: Frozen Fear, The Weird Tailor, Lucy Comes to Stay and Mannikins of Horror. The newest of these stories was written in 1952, twenty years prior to the Amicus adaptation. Despite their age, the stories are effective and exciting.
The same cannot be said for William Johnston’s novel. The stories are written in a basic, workmanlike fashion which sucks all of the interest out of the reader. The book deviates from the movie, and by doing so could have carved its own place for fans of the Amicus anthologies, but even the deviations are poorly conceived. For the scene, early in the film, where Dr. Foster observes archaic, cartoonish art decorating the walls and depicting the abusive treatment of asylum patients in centuries past, the book suggests that Foster temporarily but strongly imagines himself drawn into the art, suffering as did the ancient mad… and then nothing comes of it. During the four inmates’ stories, the action is repeatedly broken by interruptions from Dr. Forest. These did not have any counterparts in the movie itself, undoubtedly because they would have diminished the movie.
Find the Bloch stories. Read them. Enjoy. Four stars out of five, because some of the stories while good aren’t among his best (Frozen Fear, Lucy Comes to Stay). The Johnston book? One star out of five, trying for a two but coming up short because of the example set by the original tales.