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Film / Asylum (1972 Horror)

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Asylum is a 1972 British horror film made by Amicus Productions. It was produced by Milton Subotsky, directed by Roy Ward Baker, and scripted by Robert Bloch (who adapted four of his own short stories for the screenplay). The film's cast includes Robert Powell, Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Herbert Lom, Patrick Magee, Barry Morse, and Charlotte Rampling.

Dr Martin arrives at a secluded asylum "for the incurably insane" to be interviewed for a job by the wheelchair-bound, authoritarian Lionel Rutherford. Rutherford explains that he owes his current incapacitation to an attack by an inmate.

Rutherford reveals his unorthodox plan to determine Martin's suitability for the post of chief doctor. One of the asylum's current inmates is Dr. B. Starr, the former head of the asylum, who underwent a complete mental breakdown. Martin is to interview the inmates of the asylum to deduce which one is Dr Starr. If his choice is correct, Rutherford will "consider" him for the post.

The attendant Max Reynolds admits Martin through the security door to the inmates' solitary confinement cells, where he interviews each in turn. He hears stories about 1) the revenge of a murdered wife, 2) a tailor who makes a suit with some highly unusual qualities, 3) a woman who questions her sanity when it appears that her brother is conspiring against her, and 4) a man who builds tiny toy robots with lifelike human heads.

Nothing to do with anything else named Asylum.


  • Actor Allusion: This isn't the first time Patrick Magee played a character confined to a wheelchair.
  • Addled Addict: In "Lucy Comes to Stay", Barbara covertly swallows some yellow pills, apparently a medication she was once prescribed which she developed an addiction to. When Lucy catches her taking the pills, Barbara insists that she 'needs' them and begs Lucy to let her have "one more".
  • Alphabetical Theme Naming: A plot-relevant example, as all of the patients have first names starting with B (Bonnie, Bruno, Barbara, and Byron), and Dr. Martin is tasked with deciding which one of them is Dr. B. Starr.
  • Bedlam House: Dunsmoor Asylum is not a very cheerful place, and Dr. Martin objects strenuously to the manner in which Dr. Rutherford is treating his patients. Additionally, some of the staff seem to be insane.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Dr. Starr does this at the end as we welcomes a new visitor to the asylum, implying that the murder and mayhem will continue. Whether Starr is still posing as Max by this point is unclear.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Dr. Martin crushes Byron's mentally controlled robot underfoot, exposing real internal organs within its broken body — when he runs upstairs, Martin learns that the same has happened to Byron.
    Max: His body was... crushed!
  • Cut Phone Lines: In "Lucy Comes to Stay", Lucy cuts the phone lines in the house so Nurse Higgins cannot call the police when she returns to the house.
  • Dead Guy on Display: In "The Weird Tailor", Smith is keeping his son's unpreserved corpse in an open coffin in an otherwise empty room.
  • A Deadly Affair: In "Frozen Fear", Walter murders his wife so that he can run off with his young mistress Bonnie.
  • Dismembering the Body: In "Frozen Fear", Walter murders his wife Ruth and hacks her body into pieces and hides the parts in a new freezer in the cellar. Later the individual pieces start moving around on their own to extract revenge on him and his lover.
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: Occurs in the Framing Device: in order to get a job at a mental asylum, the psychiatrist Dr. Martin has to interview the patients there and determine which of them is really Dr. B. Starr, the former asylum head who had a mental breakdown and adopted a new personality. None of the patients are B. Starr — Max, the orderly who has been taking him on a tour of the asylum, is... Once Dr. Martin guesses incorrectly, Max takes the opportunity to kill him.
  • Downer Ending: By the end, Byron has succeeded in murdering Rutherford, has been killed himself by the destruction of his mentally controlled doll, and Martin — the closest the film has to a hero — has been murdered by Starr, who is last seen welcoming another man into the asylum, presumably to kill him as well.
  • Dr. Psych Patient: Both inverted and played straight: Dr. Martin is challenged by Rutherford to determine which of four interviewed patients is the previous head of the facility, Dr. B. Starr, who has suffered a breakdown and no longer remembers being a staff member. The concluding twist has Max the attendant, who'd let Dr. Martin into the interview rooms, turn out to be Starr, having killed the real Max and assumed his identity in order to confuse Dr. Martin.
  • Dumbwaiter Ride: A variation in that the rider is not human, and justified given its small size. When the patients' dinners are sent up to the ward by dumbwaiter, Byron directs his robotic instrument of murder to sneak into the dumbwaiter, riding it down to the first floor where it can murder Dr. Rutherford.
  • Gun Struggle: In "The Weird Tailor", Smith attempts to take the suit off Bruno at gunpoint. Bruno throws the package at him and attempts to wrestle the gun off him, which ends with Smith being shot.
  • Helping Hands: In "Frozen Fear", Ruth's severed arm strangles her murderous husband Walter, and later attempts to strangle Walter's mistress Bonnie.
  • Imaginary Friend: This is what Lucy appears to be to Barbara in "Lucy Comes to Stay". At the end of the segment, it turns out that Lucy is really a Split-Personality Takeover.
  • Insane Equals Violent: Rutherford believes that his patients "can't be cured, they can only be confined — and kept from being dangerous". He gives the example of Dr. Starr, who attacked him and injured his leg, leaving Rutherford wheelchair-bound. Of the patients who Dr. Starr might be among, the only one who apparently averts the trope is Bruno — of the rest, both Bonnie and Barbara have been accused of murder (which they blame on an apparently nonexistent party), and Byron uses a Living Toy to murder Rutherford. When Starr's identity is finally revealed, he proves to be just as violent as Rutherford claimed, having killed and replaced an orderly and murdering Dr. Martin when he discovers the body.
  • Kill and Replace: The final twist is that none of the patients is Dr. Starr — he's actually assumed the identity of the orderly Max, who he strangled to death and hid in Max's office.
  • Laughing Mad: At the end of "Lucy Comes to Stay", when Barbara asks Dr. Martin if he can see Lucy in her mirror, she starts cackling in a clearly unhinged matter. After Starr strangles Dr. Martin to death with a stethoscope, he uses it to listen for a heartbeat; after confirming that Martin is dead, he begins to giggle madly, which slowly turns into full-blown maniacal laughter.
  • Living Toys: In "Mannikins of Horror", Dr. Byron has constructed a group of toy robots with human heads, and he declares his determination to bring them to life. He succeeds in animating one whose head is modeled after his own and sends it to murder Dr. Rutherford. When Dr. Martin crushes it beneath his foot, he discovers that it has real internal organs.
  • Lobotomy: Dr. Rutherford considers Byron so far gone that the only cure for his insanity is a prefrontal lobotomy. Dr. Martin understandably protests this as inhumane.
    Martin: Do you believe that surgery is a substitute for psychiatry?
    Rutherford: It's effective.
    Martin: Yes, it's effective... in turning intelligent human beings into vegetables.
  • Market-Based Title: The film was subequently re-released in the US as House of Crazies.
  • Mask of Sanity: Three examples:
    • At first, Barbara appears to be the sanest of the patients seen yet, demanding that she see her lawyer and insisting that Dr. Martin can see that she's "not ill". The only hint of madness is her insistence that what happened was not her fault, it was Lucy's, which gives the viewer an indication of what her story is going to be like. However, it's the end of her story that conclusively shows her insanity, as she points out "Lucy" in her own reflection before laughing madly.
    • Byron is also quite composed when he meets Martin, even acknowledging that his goal of bringing his toy robots to life sounds far-fetched. However, when Martin starts to leave, Byron realizes that Martin considers him insane and starts ranting about how he'll prove that he's right. After he succeeds in animating the robot modeled after himself, he shows himself to be murderous as well as mad, as he sends it to murder Dr. Rutherford.
    • Dr. Starr is ultimately revealed to be none of the patients seen. He's actually Max the orderly — or rather, he murdered the real Max and took his identity. Not even a trained psychiatrist like Martin realizes that that "Max" is in fact a homicidal maniac, and the mask only slips after Starr has killed Martin, whereupon he too starts laughing madly.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Bonnie and Bruno are clearly insane, which makes their stories of the supernatural hard to believe, but no other evidence against them is provided, and Dr. Byron's psychokinetically controlled Living Toys provide proof of the supernatural (or at least Psychic Powers), suggesting that there might actually be undead dismembered body parts and magically animated shop mannequins out there. Interestingly, the story that seems most likely to be a mad delusion — "Lucy Comes to Stay" — is the one story with no explicitly supernatural elements.
  • Mr. Smith: When Peter Cushing's character places his order for the strange suit in "The Weird Tailor", Bruno asks for his name. After a moment's hesitation, he replies "Smith". Thereafter, the character is only referred to as "Mr. Smith".
  • Murderous Mannequin: In "The Weird Tailor", a magical suit designed to restore the dead to life is placed on a shop mannequin. The mannequin comes to life and attempts to strangle Bruno.
  • One-Word Title
  • The Place
  • Psycho Psychologist:
    • The former head of the asylum, Dr. B. Starr, underwent a complete mental breakdown and attacked his deputy Rutherford. Starr now believes himself to be someone else and is incarcerated in the secure wing. Dr. Martin task is to determine which of four patients in that wing is really Dr. Starr. He's actually Max, the orderly — or rather, he's killed the real Max and has taken his place.
    • Dr. Rutherford is a comparatively downplayed example. He's lost hope that his patients can be treated, considering them so incurably insane that the only option is to lock them away and leave them to their delusions. In Byron's case, he decides that the best treatment for him would be a lobotomy. Dr. Martin rightly calls him out for treating his patients so unethically.
  • Pulling Themselves Together: In "Frozen Fear", Walter murders his wife Ruth and cuts her body into pieces. Later the individual pieces start moving around on their own to extract revenge on him and his lover.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Lucy gives one to Barbara after catching her taking the pills she's addicted to, rebuking her for prioritizing her addiction over her relationships with others.
    Barbara: I can't help it.
    Lucy: You mean you don't want to help it. You always had a choice. George or the pills, me or the pills, and the pills always win. Deep down inside, you hate George. You hate me.
    Barbara: No... No, Lucy, you're my best friend!
    Lucy: [holds up the bottle of pills] These are your friends. Your only friends.
  • Remote Body: Dr. Byron's goal is to project his consciousness into a miniature robot modeled after himself, thus bringing it to life under his mental control. He succeeds in this, but unfortunately for him, the link between him and the miniature goes both ways.
  • Shear Menace: In "Lucy Comes to Stay", Barbara finds George slumped in his chair, stabbed in the chest with the shears Lucy had been using to cut the phone lines.
  • Slipping a Mickey: In "Lucy Come to Stay", Lucy slips a sedative into George's tea to knock him out.
  • Split-Personality Takeover: In "Lucy Comes to Stay", Barbara has just been released from hospital and brought home by her brother George. She encounters her 'friend' Lucy, who appears (to the audience) to be an Imaginary Friend. However, as Lucy commits a series of acts, culminating in the murder of George and Nurse Higgins, it seems that she might be a Not-So-Imaginary Friend — until Dr. Martin interviews her in the asylum and asks where Lucy is. Barbara points at the mirror, and when she looks into it, she sees Lucy's reflection looking back at her.
  • Synchronization: Byron's Living Toy is a tiny Remote Body which he controls through sheer force of will. When Dr. Martin crushes it underfoot, the injury is transferred to Byron's own body, and he is crushed to death from afar.
  • They Called Me Mad!: In this case, they literally called Dr. Byron mad for his goal of bringing his toy robots to life, which is why he's in Dunsmoor Asylum. Byron blames Rutherford for his being committed, and when he sees that Martin has written him off as insane, he goes on a brief rant about how he'll prove that he's not crazy... which he does by murdering Rutherford with one of his robots.
    "That's right, go. Run away and hide from the truth like that idiot downstairs — but it won't do any good, you know! You can tell Rutherford for me! Tell him the truth will find him out! TELL HIM!"
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: The factuality of all three of the patients' stories told — Bonnie's, Bruno's and Barbara's — are suspect due to their clear insanity in the present. However, of the three, "Lucy Comes to Stay" qualifies the most, as it's implied from the start that Barbara is only hallucinating Lucy's presence — in fact, Lucy first appears causally sitting on a chair when Barbara turns around, apparently having appeared out of nowhere. At the end of Barbara's story, we see something from her perspective that is definitely unreal: when Barbara looks into her mirror, she sees Lucy in place of her reflection.
  • Tome of Eldritch Lore: In "The Weird Tailor", Smith says that he spent his entire fortune to buy a very expensive, one-of-a-kind mystical tome. Its full contents are not revealed, but at the very least, it details how to make a suit that will bring a corpse back to life.
  • Two-Faced: At the end of "Frozen Fear", Bonnie pushes back her hair to reveal to Dr. Martin that the right side of her face is crisscrossed with deep scars where she used the hatchet to hack the crawling hand off her face.
  • Wicked Toymaker: In "Mannikins of Horror", Dr. Byron constructs toy robots with tiny human heads. He sends one of these robots to murder Dr. Rutherford.