(Editor's Note: I could not find a copy of Madhouse Mansion to save my life.
But instead of depriving you, Good Reader, of video captures, I instead
added pictures of comedian Benny Hill. Like the film, he too is British.
Enjoy!)

Madhouse Mansion

Director: Stephen Weeks

UK - 1974

  Hoff! Hoff!  

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This subtle, sophisticated supernatural period piece is actually the 1974 British film Ghost Story (not to be confused with the disappointing 1981 U.S. production of the same name), directed, produced, and co-written by the talented Stephen Weeks (I, Monster, Sword of the Valiant). As far as I know, it never played theatrically on these shores, but was released here quite a few years ago, as Madhouse Mansion, on the Comet Video label, an event that went largely unnoticed.

Larry Dann, in a moving performance, stars as Talbot, a sympathetic chump who, in the 1930s, accepts a cryptic invitation to holiday at an eerie, empty country estate with two former college acquaintances. The first half of the film is devoted to the chilling psychological cruelty inflicted on the vulnerable Talbot by his two so-called friends, who whisper to each other in his presence, play bitchy mind games on him (a certain amount of male homosexual coding is evident here), and generally keep him --and the viewer--off balance and in the dark as to exactly what's going on.

In the second half, though, the supernatural element comes to the fore as Talbot, somewhat like the outcast Eleanor Vance in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, is singled out by the ghosts, in this case to receive visions of the place's nasty, tragic past involving incest, alleged insanity, and fratricide. Interestingly, the film's second half, in which Talbot is granted access to the spectral information that his two "friends" are not privy to, can be seen as an ironic counterpart to the first half, in which Talbot was denied access to the knowledge his partners possessed.

The latter portion offers set pieces that seem conventional in comparison to the rarefied nature of the first section: a spirited doll ambulating toward Talbot (weakly staged), an asylum director attempting to set fire to his establishment with the inmates locked inside, and the same director's horrible death at the hands of the escaped inmates (effectively staged).

The picture is markedly oblique throughout its length, a quality which works to its advantage during the well-observed, artfully disorienting first half with its hazy horror-of-the-mind approach, but which fails to jibe with the more literal imagery and plot developments of the second half.

 Nevertheless, Stephen Weeks' direction is consistently atmospheric, stylish, and thoughtful. Filmed in southern India. With Marianne Faithfull, Barbara Shelley, Vivian Mackerall, and the intrinsically offbeat Murray Melvin (The Devils).

 

 

-- Copyright 2001 by D. Walker

 

 

 

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