About ten years ago, actor Paul Toombes (Vincent Price) was master of all he surveyed in the field of horror movies, recognised across the globe as the finest exponent in the genre, especially as his famed Doctor Death character. However, one New Year's Eve at a party round at his mansion it all went horribly wrong in real life for him, as after he showed a film of his to the guests, he announced his engagement to Ellen (Julie Crosthwaite). Mere minutes later, producer Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry) approached the couple and informed Paul that he had given Ellen her big break - in pornography...
Which would be bad enough, but after losing his temper Toombes visits Ellen in her room to apologise, only to discover someone has cut her head off. Since then the question remained: did he do this dastardly deed, or was someone out to get her? Or him? This opening, full of bitchiness and sour humour, set the tone for Madhouse, with the location of the title apparently referring to the world of moviemaking, making this yet another film not so much to have mixed feelings about the the profession but to actively despise it. It might have been significant that this was one of Price's last entries in the horror cycle which made his name.
He made others, but none too many, as if he had been spent by his association with the genre given his age was catching up with him, which offered Madhouse perhaps more praise from Price's fans than it otherwise would have. Although it was amusing to watch him go through his paces here, you couldn't in all honesty observe this was one of his career highlights, even if he got to act alongside Peter Cushing in frankly too few scenes, with Cushing playing the screenwriter who invented the Doctor Death character (Price's makeup is really fun; his pink pajamas maybe not so great). In a film full of in-jokes, one of the best was seeing Cushing at a fancy dress party in Dracula guise: oddly jarring, but interesting all the same.
Anyway, after ten years away from the screen thanks to a nervous breakdown understandably brought on by his shock, and nobody arrested for the murder, Toombes agrees to return as his most famous character for a TV series under the guidance of Quayle, who has made a name for himself in more respectable fare by this point. Although Toombes can't be doing with the publicity - and too-ardent fan Linda Hayden who trails around after him - he feels this will be cathartic for him, but wouldn't you know it? Once work begins the killings begin too, as the supporting cast are cut down in their collective prime by a death-masked maniac, leaving us wondering who the culprit could be.
The problem with that was even when the film was over, there had been so many red herrings you still were not very clear on what had happened, with conundrums such as why was one victim replaced with an exact replica dummy, apparently for no other reason than to pay tribute to Price's House of Wax? That was not the only loose end in a screenplay which seemed to have been still in the writing stages when shooting had started, or else how would you explain the murderer's identity being so arbirtrary? A British co-production between Amicus and A.I.P., this should really have brought the best of both sides of the Atlantic's traditions in horror together, but actually landed us with a mishmash of setpieces a la Dr Phibes - essentially how many different methods of dispatch could they think up - combined with a curiously tetchy regard to showbiz. Meg Ryan should be warned if she wanted to watch this, Michael Parkinson appeared as himself, interviewing Toombes on TV. Music by Douglas Gamley.