Portmanteau is a lovely word, isn’t it? It means the combination of two or more words to create a new word that reflects the component parts. Like Brunch, for instance, or Spork. In cinema, however, portmanteau means something slightly different: a film made up of several separate stories linked by an overarching narrative or framing device. In horror cinema, portmanteau means Amicus.
Amicus specialised in anthology films, and made some timelessly brilliant ones - and ‘Torture Garden’. ‘Asylum’ was released in 1972, written by Robert 'Psycho' Bloch (Bloch wrote 'Psycho', I'm not suggesting he had mental health issues) and follows the pattern brilliantly: an all-star cast, performing in stand-alone episodes of no longer than half an hour, all sort of held together with a common link. The component parts are of wildly varying quality, of course, and, on analysis, don’t really make any particular sense, but who cares about all that? The film climaxes with the horror leaking out into ‘the real world’, i.e. the controlled, safe environment of the framing device is destroyed.
‘Asylum’ starts with a red MG arriving at a forbidding looking building in torrential rain. It’s driven by Doctor Martin (Robert Powell), a young, humourless physician who has a job interview with the director of the institution, Doctor Starr. He’s met by Doctor Lionel Rutherford (the magnificent Patrick Magee), wheelchair bound because he made the mistake of ‘turning his back on a patient’.
Doctor Rutherford tells Martin that they are operating an asylum for the incurably insane, and that their policy is of containment rather than treatment. He also patiently explains in his eccentric purr that Doctor Starr has gone mad, and is now one of the inmates, before setting a challenge: if Martin can identify Starr from amongst the patients, he can have the job (different to the usual interview questions, I suppose. ‘What would you say are your weak points?’ ‘Well, I can be a bit of a perfectionist…’).
Accepting the unusual challenge, and absolutely certain that he will be able to do it, Martin heads up the stairs to the secure unit – and his destiny…well, once he’s made it up to the first floor, that is, as the stairs are lined with old prints that (somewhat insensitively, perhaps) show a load of old 18th century loonies and quack doctors doing nasty stuff to them and, for some reason, we have to spend five minutes zooming in and out on the pictures and then back to Martin’s horrified face. At one point, a picture is turned a full 360 degrees - slowly. In a film that is rather tight for space, it’s a bit of a waste of time.
Eventually, Martin gets to the landing and the door to the secure unit buzzes open. Martin is met by Max, a genial orderly played by Mr Crowman, Sir, the marvellous Geoffrey Bayldon. Max explains that he will introduce Martin to each of the four (is that all? The building is massive!) patients in turn. He will receive no clues, but will be able to question them and hear their stories. At the end, he must decide which one is Doctor Starr. Exposition duties fulfilled, Max opens the door to the first patient room……and you’ll have to wait until 8am to find out what happens next.