One of the most depressing questions I encounter in everyday conversation is “Who is Vincent Price?” It comes up more often than you’d expect. I got it when I dressed as Price’s version of The Red Death last Mardi Gras. I got it when I was working at a movie theater with a bunch of skateboarding goofballs over the past year. It’s far from cool of me to have Kids These Days moments like this when I’m still just shy of 30, but what is the deal with kids these days anyways? What are they teaching these whippersnappers in school? Surely there’s room in the curriculum for a little Vincent Price 101. Also, I remember the days when Vincent Price movies cost half a nickel and get off my lawn.
Madhouse would be far from my first choice for titles to show the young & curious who Vincent Price was, but it is an interesting addition to the horror giant’s resume because it’s explicitly about his own celebrity. Basically playing a fictionalized version of himself, Price appears here as the aging star of a horror series centered on the wicked Dr. Death. Relying on old clips mostly pulled from Price’s collaborations with Roger Corman in the B-movie legend‘s infamous Poe Cycle (which shared a producer in Madhouse‘s Sam Arkoff, naturally) the meta horror of this film is a little weak in that it constantly reminds you of the superior work Price made in his heyday. There’s a lot of interesting details in the film’s set-up, including Hollywood satire & the idea of a masked killer framing the “real” Dr. Death by recreating kills from his various films, but that novelty eventually wears off (in favor of a Brannigan-esque trip to London) and large stretches of the movie ultimately feel punishingly dull. Anyone with a vested interest in Vincent Price’s career (or meta horror in general) might get a kick out of Madhouse, but that appeal is unlikely to be universal.
That’s not to say that the film is stylistically lacking. Madhouse seems to intentionally ape the style over substance mentality of the giallo genre, even daring to lift images directly from the works of folks like Dario Argento & Mario Bava. A gloved hand enters from off screen wielding a shiny knife intended to slash a young woman down. The faceless mannequins of Blood & Black Lace appear for an odd jump scare. A trench coat, fedora, and mask combo shroud the identity of the killer to make for a sort of murder mystery where the murder is obviously more important that the mystery. Like the giallo it mimics, Madhouse exists as a sort of proto-slasher that would predict many horror trends of the late 70s & 80s to follow. It’s just unfortunate that the space between the kills feels so dull, especially once the Hollywood satire & meta horror fade to the background.
As much as I feel deeply dispirited when one of These Damn Millenials™ doesn’t know who Vincent Price is by name, here’s where I have to admit that I don’t know much of anything about the actor outside his onscreen roles. For instance, I always assumed that he was exclusively homosexual, based mostly on his campy, fey way of performing. Although a public ally to the gay community, Price apparently was married to several women & fathered multiple children. As a fan not previously in the know about this aspect of his personal life, my favorite parts of Madhouse were the ones showing Price’s fictional surrogate interacting with women, who are driven absolutely mad with lust for him. At the beginning of the film he’s depicted as an aging, wealthy actor engaged to marry a young porn star. Late in the proceedings he develops a weird sort of domesticity with an insane woman who raises hordes of spiders as her “babies”. In between these connections there’s several young groupies fighting for the chance to be near him. What’s odd about this is aspect is the way the film criticizes the film industry’s misogyny problem while also participating in it (as most slashers do by nature). In one breath Madhouse will criticize the way young women are left by the wayside at the wrong end of slut-shaming or mere aging. In the next the film will follow that sentiment up with wonderfully bitchy exchanges like “You scared the pants off me.” “Who hasn’t?” It’s an uncomfortably compromised balance, but it does reveal aspects of Price’s personality/sexuality that I was previously unaware of, a detail I appreciated greatly.
I enjoyed Madhouse well enough as a silly little meta horror with taglines like “Lights, Camera, Murder” & as a reflection of who Vincent Price was as an oddball celebrity, but I don’t think the film would hold the same level of interest for those not already predisposed to enjoy the actor’s work/aesthetic. For folks seeking a better introduction I’d recommend checking out pretty much any one of the Roger Corman classics this film tries to pass off as Dr. Death flicks (except for maybe the incomprehensibly inept The Raven; yikes!). The man had a massively impressive career with dozens of titles that help define the best classic horror has to offer as a genre. Unfortunately, Madhouse is more of a distant echo of those works than an active participant, interesting context or not.