This 1974 film is on the flip slide of the Theatre of Blood DVD. If not for that, I don’t suppose I would’ve known about it or been able to watch it repeatedly. I’m certain I never saw it when I watched these kinds of movies on late-night TV in the 1970s and ‘80s. It’s an AIP/Amicus collaboration, featuring one major horror-film icon from each studio: Vincent Price and Peter Cushing.
We start with a scene set 12 years ago at a New Year’s Eve party in Hollywood, although it doesn’t look much like the early ‘60s. Horror-film star Paul Toombes (Price) is showing the latest film from his wildly successful series of Dr. Death movies.
AIP’s contribution to this film wasn’t just Vincent Price for the current project, but Price’s earlier work. The clips from the Dr. Death movies that we’ll see throughout Madhouse are actually from Roger Corman’s mostly Poe-based AIP films. These were the movies I did watch on late-night TV in my youth, so part of the fun in watching this is being able to identify them.
The film shown here is the ending of that Poe’d-up adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” Haunted Palace (which I really am going to review one of these days; I’ve been saying so for years). It’s been edited to dub in a line or two about Dr. Death and to insert shots of Price in his distinctive Dr. Death makeup.
After the film is over, Paul announces his engagement to Ellen, an actress much younger than himself. Among the people there to congratulate the couple is an old acquaintance of the prospective bride, Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry); he’s is a slimy producer who makes adult films, and he immediately spoils things by cheerfully informing Paul that Ellen began her career by working for him in nudie movies. Paul is horrified and takes this to mean that she’s “on the make” and only marrying him for his money. The engagement is off, which puts a damper on the party.
Paul goes off to sulk and Ellen goes upstairs to cry and powder her nose at a fancy and well-lit vanity table—and then get murdered by someone dressed in the Dr. Death cloak, fedora, and black gloves, wearing a skull-mask.
After the opening credits, Paul realizes that his fiancée’s early career has nothing to do with her feelings for him and goes to apologize to her for being an ass. He finds her sitting at the vanity table just at the stroke of midnight, but when he touches her, her head falls off.
This beheading has left surprisingly little blood on the fluffy white carpet or furniture.
12 years later, or the present day, in London: Quayle, the jerk who instigated Paul’s and Ellen’s break-up is now a producer for British television, and he’s going to revive the Dr. Death series for TV. The old movies have been well remembered and loved by horror fans, even though the star hasn’t worked since that tragic incident at the New Year’s Eve party. Technically, Ellen’s murder remains unsolved. Pretty much everyone assumes that Paul Toombes killed her after their quarrel even though he was acquitted. He was committed soon afterwards for wandering around at night in his Dr. Death costume and otherwise behaving in a deeply emotionally disturbed manner. He still doesn’t remember what happened that night, but he’s coming to London to play Dr. Death again. Quayle sends his assistant Julie to meet Paul’s ship.
Aboard the ship, Paul is harrassed by an obnoxious young actress (Linda Hayden, who was the evil, overly-eyebrowed Angel Blake in Blood on Satan’s Claw). She has the idea that her career will best be boosted by either seducing this fragile-minded aging actor, or at least making it look like she’s been sleeping with him so she can blackmail him into helping her. She also steals his watch, a gift from Ellen, when she breaks into his stateroom. Paul wants nothing to do with her, which he makes abundantly clear when she pursues him off the ship and tries to cling to him in front of the reporters waiting on the dock. Julie rescues him and gets him into a cab.
Viewers are used to Vincent Price playing suave and debonair, witty characters even when he’s not playing a villain, so it’s something of a shock to see Paul Toombes so vulnerable when he arrives in London. He’s believably a man who’s been out of this hectic world for a long time, uncertain of how to get back to where he was… and just as unsure that that’s where he wants to be. He’s not certain himself whether or not he killed Ellen, and he’s afraid of Dr. Death, afraid of what might be unleashed in him if he plays the part again.
While working in London, Paul will be staying with his old friend and former script-writer, Herbert Flay (Cushing), who is working on the new show. The two created Dr. Death together, and Paul says that he’s only doing this as a favor to Herbert, whom he believes needs the money.
Herbert has been working as an actor in the UK and, to the contrary, seems to be doing very well. He lives in a lovely 16th-century house along the Thames with an extensive garden and peacocks.
And, in the basement, his mad ex-wife Faye Carstairs (Adrienne Corri) lives with her “babies”—a large terrarium full of tarantulas.
Faye was once a beautiful actress, and Paul fondly remembers working with her in one of his Dr. Death films. Both the Flays were at that New Year’s Eve party, although they weren’t married yet. The brief marriage was a disaster, and Faye liked to pick up random guys for sex. One night, she tells Paul, she picked up the wrong guy and not only got beaten up, but the man set her car on fire. She was badly burned and scarred. She covers the scars on her head with a wild red wig, but there’s not much she can do to cover her disturbed mental state, which is worse than Paul’s.
I admire Adrienne Corri’s performance here, not just for appearing in that scar-face makeup, but the way she lovingly holds her “babies” in her hands, plays with them, and nuzzles them close to her face. There aren’t that many people who will cuddle spiders of any size.
That evening, Herbert shows Paul another Dr. Death movie. He has them all (in those pre-VCR days, that meant reels of film in tin cans), and he wants Paul to watch them to get back into character. The title of this one, Herbert says, is The Legend of Dr. Death, but it’s really the “M. Valdemar” sequence from the anthology Tales of Terror.
Basil Rathbone (who gets a special credit in Madhouse for this clip) hypnotizes both Vincent Price in the film and Paul Toombes watching it. Paul snaps out of it when the film breaks and starts slapping around in the projector. Herbert has gone from the room.
Elizabeth, that pushy girl from the ship, just won’t give up. She hangs around the Flay house until she sees a cloaked figure in the garden and, believing it to be Paul, tries to chase him down. It doesn’t end well for her when she catches him.
Her body is found in a rowboat on the Thames the next morning.
Scotland Yard is on the case. Paul becomes a suspect because of the connection between himself and the girl on the ship and because he’s staying in the vicinity. The inspector investigating the case has Paul’s medical/mental history and he watches the movies. In the Legend of Dr. Death, he observes, there’s someone murdered with a pitchfork just the way Elizabeth was. (Note: no one is killed with a pitchfork in Tales of Terror. There was an episode of Midsomer Murders with Orlando Bloom, however…)
The next to go is Paul’s new co-star, Carol, who might as well have “producer’s girlfriend” on the back of her camp-chair in the studio. Paul takes an immediate dislike to her, stating that Dr. Death has never had an assistant before and doesn’t need one now. Just one take of a scene proves to him that she’s an incompetent actress.
Quayle’s rather silly plan–which of course he hasn’t mentioned to Paul–is that once the show is a hit, they’ll kill off Dr. Death and shift the focus to the assistant. At least, that’s what he promises Carol.
That evening, Quayle throws a costume party for the cast and crew. Paul dresses as Dr. Death, as expected. Peter Cushing looks cute in his Dracula outfit. He’s staked so many vampires, but never actually been one. Robert Quarry’s costume is also an in-joke; he’s dressed as Count Yorga.
Carol, bolstered by Quayle’s promises, takes her revenge on Paul for implying that she’s a talentless bimbo by asking him what kind of films his dead fiancee was in. Then she goes upstairs to the playroom rather than watch highlights of more old Dr. Death films with everybody else. She plays pinball, then gets throttled and strung up on a jumprope. Julie’s the one who finds her.
The movies that Quayle shows are Masque of Red Death, the wizard-battle from the comedy spoof The Raven (which is why Boris Karloff also has a special credit) and more of Haunted Palace; this last, the Inspector will later identify as Dr. Death and the Hangman and claim that a woman was hanged in it just the way Carol was (not that I recall…)
Paul couldn’t take watching the violence in his old movies and left the party before the body was discovered. He went back to the Flay house for a rather strange conversation with Faye.
After Carol’s murder, he wants to return to the United States and get away from all this before it’s too late, but Herbert talks him into staying. Besides, Scotland Yard would take a dim view of their main suspect trying to leave the country.
Now, by this time, we’ve seen the murderer in his Dr. Death costume several times and been shown clues that try to tell us that it’s obviously poor, mad Paul Toombes, so we know it can’t possibly be him.
Next up: Elizabeth’s creepy aunt and uncle. They’ve been lurking since the police questioned them after her body was found, and they have that stolen watch with Paul’s name engraved on it; they seem much more interested in getting money out of him than expressing grief or seeking justice for their brutally murdered niece.
We can see where Elizabeth got her unremitting pushiness and ideas about blackmail. When he returned to the Flay house after the party, Auntie and Uncle confronted Paul, waved the watch in his face, and demanded 10,000 pounds. They’ve been hanging around outside the house since, until they are lured inside by someone they mistake for Paul dressed as Dr. Death—and then they too meet a nasty end on the point of a sword.
Since their bodies won’t be found by the police before the end of this movie, we won’t hear which Dr. Death film they’re supposed to be mimicking.
These last two murders show us that, unlike many film’s serial killers, this guy isn’t just interested in slaughtering attractive young women who have transgressed some puritanical sexual code. No, he’s an equal opportunity killer. As the next murder demonstrates more fully.
One of the stunts for the TV show is a bed with convenient manacles and a canopy that comes down to crush its victim. The show’s director, a young man we’ve barely seen prior to this, lies down on the bed to show Paul how it works before they film the scene, but the mechanism for the canopy has been tampered with and the poor guy gets smushed.
When the police examine the mechanism and learn that Paul was meant to be the one manacled in the bed for the scene, the inspector declares that this trap was meant to kill Paul. He begins to reconsider those other murders in a new light.
Julie–who’s been supportive of Paul since they met; he calls her “that nice girl from the studio”–is also interested in who might want to harm him. She does some investigative poking around in Quayle’s office and phones Paul to meet her at the studio that evening before the chat-show interview she’s arranged for him to promote the new show.
Paul does come to the studio to prepare for his interview, but doesn’t meet up with Julie.
While he’s dressing in his cloak and costume, apart from the skull-like face makeup, he’s surprised by someone else wearing the same costume but with a skull mask.
Whether Paul thinks that this is an hallucination of Dr. Death made manifest from his own deranged mind, or he realizes that he’s faced with the true murderer, he ends up pursued by this person through the sets for the TV series. There’s a fight. The killer goes at him with a battleaxe, then makes a second attempt to crush him on that bed. Paul escapes unharmed, and runs to an elevator, then gets off on another floor and wanders confusedly through the corridors of the building until he ends up almost literally running into the man who’s waiting to interview him—and it’s real-life BBC personality, Michael Parkinson.
Parky was not a person I expected to show up in another one of my horror-movie blogs after Ghost Watch, but here he is again, asking Paul Toombs about the appeal of horror movies. Price himself would probably have better and more articulate ideas on the subject than Paul does, but what he says about the acting out of subconscious desires sounds like a kind of confession to the police, who are watching from the back of the in-studio audience.
The film clips Parkinson shows to his audience are from The House of Usher, which he doesn’t give a Dr. Death title to, but calls “one of [Paul’s] greatest” and The Pit and the Pendulum, “one of your first.” These are shown in black and white rather than Technicolor so they appear to be older movies than they really are.
While it’s fun to identify the movie clips, very few of them make sense in the context of what we’ve heard described as the typical Dr. Death movie. Those sound more like Dr. Phibes or Theatre of Blood, in which Vincent Price gleefully commits multiple, thematically connected and imaginatively staged killings. He isn’t even the villain in some of the clips we’ve seen.
Being under police surveillance during this interview does give Paul an alibi for poor Julie’s murder.
While all of this has been going on, Julie was in Quayle’s office and found the Dr. Death TV show contract, which has an interesting clause about what will happen if Paul Toombes isn’t able to carry on with the show due to, oh, let’s say, his tragic death. She doesn’t get to tell anyone about it, though, since that’s when the cloaked killer finds her.
After hastily exiting from his interview during the Usher clip, Paul finally goes to meet Julie… but it’s too late. Her body is arranged in a setting very like that of his fiancee all those years ago, except that instead of being beheaded, this murdered woman has a knife through her neck.
Paul flips out. He carries her body off to the set for his show.
The police are soon in pursuit, following the drips of blood on the carpet to the stage door, which is locked. They can’t get in.
Inside, Paul is giving a great soliloquy to the dead woman, whom he addresses as “Ellen.” He blames Dr. Death for her murder. He goes on about the celebration of death before he declares that Dr. Death must die, and then when the lit candles in the room fall over and start a fire, he sets fire to himself and Julie’s body with the camera running to capture it all on film.
Throughout this monologue, Natasha Pine, who plays Julie, sits perfectly still with her eyes open, but as the room goes up in flames she is replaced by a melting waxwork figure. I would say it’s a bad special effect gone wrong, except that we’re shown the face melting in closeup. I’m not sure quite what to make of it. If it’s meant to be a total break with reality, there’s more of that to come.
[If you haven’t seen this movie and don’t want the ending spoiled, read no further.]
Well, Paul is dead (miss him, miss him) and the police have decided that he must have been the killer after all in spite of any evidence that could prove he wasn’t. Herbert Flay signs up with Quayle to be the new Dr. Death, which was that clause in the contract Julie had discovered.
Quayle also give Herbert the film of Paul’s death. Don’t ask me how it survived that blaze in the studio, but it’s useless looking for anything that makes sense in a rational world beyond this point.
At home, Herbert settles down to watch the final film of his late friend Paul Toombes…
And instead of falling down to perish in the flames, as we just saw him do, Paul gets up, turns around, and heads toward the camera. He steps out of the film and into Herbert’s living room.
He’s not happy. He knows what his friend has done.
First-time viewers will probably be saying “What the hell just happened?” all during the battle of the Dr. Deaths that ensues. It takes multiple viewings to listen to the conversation between Herbert and Paul and to realize that the explanation for the killings would require the murderer to know that the given victims would be in specific places at certain times and get into costume in time to kill them. Also, if you rewatch the interview scene, you can see that Herbert’s alibi for Julie’s murder is nearly as good as Paul’s; he’s sitting in the audience and never gets up as far as we’re shown. Quayle, on the other hand, leaves the audience and comes back near the end of the interview. It seems more likely that Oliver Quayle actually committed that last murder. Are the two men in cahoots as part of the plan to get rid of Paul? If so, there’s never anything in the dialog, even when Quayle and Herbert Flay are alone after Paul’s death, but one wonders if Paul misses out on full revenge when he makes his unexpected supernatural return.
But you won’t be thinking about the logistics required for the murders while watching the very end of the movie. My last thought is always But Vincent Price is much taller than Peter Cushing. Six or seven inches taller!
Because of its resemblance to Italian horror films, with its elaborate murder scenarios, ineffectual police, lack of plot coherence, and very, very weird twist at the end, I like to think of this as a rare example of an Anglo/American giallo. And you can’t watch gialli with the rational part of your mind. That way lies madness.