By the mid-70s, Vincent Price was already known well enough for horror roles that he could star in a tongue in cheek murder mystery homage to them, 1974's Madhouse. The film's awareness of its own camp never amounts to the joy of a Rocky Horror Picture Show or Little Shop of Horrors serving instead merely to undermine tension. It amounts to a soft serve vanity piece for Price but it has some fun in its way.
Price basically plays himself, an actor named Paul Toombes known for his roles in horror films from the 50s and 60s, particularly for a recurring character named Doctor Death.
Unlike Price--or at least, so I suspect--Toombes is constantly beset by beautiful young women trying to get into his pants and advance their careers. The novel on which the movie is loosely based, according to Wikipedia, has Toombes in a more predatory role regarding women, familiar to to-day's headlines about powerful men abusing women in Hollywood. Maybe Price objected to playing a character so close to himself behaving so apprehensively though the film does retain an almost uncannily Harvey Weinstein-ish producer named Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry) who's trying to revive Toombes' career.
Toombes career had stalled some years before because, as we see in the prologue, his fiancée was decapitated by someone in a Doctor Death costume. Toombes has spells of memory loss but there are also several likely suspects in the film for the crime that, of course, is soon repeated as other girls are murdered once Quayle brings Price back onto the scene. Did Toombes commit the murders? Was it Quayle? Was it Faye Carstairs (Adrienne Corri), his former costar whose love he rejected? Or was it former Doctor Death screenwriter and wouldbe actor who warmly invites Toombes to stay with him in his weird mansion, Herbert Flay, played by Peter Cushing?
It's not hard to figure out, really. The film does a lot of silly things to keep us off the trail, though. One of the murders takes place on set of the new Doctor Death movie where the director is crushed to death by a slab of metal that lowers over a bed, something meant to be a device of Doctor Death. It's weird how often movies about movies portray filmmaking in such an unrealistic way--why would some goofy effect actually be lethal?
The movie's attempts at ghoulish fun mostly made me feel impatient. I longed for a more sincere vehicle where Cushing and Price had more screentime together.
Twitter Sonnet #1052
A mountain like a puppy placed a call.
In scrawling inks of hist'ry signals float.
Above the rains now shining down the wall.
The snowy tops with steps're surely wrote.
In cordless mazes fit for phones we walked.
Approaching beams appeared to hold the car.
Facades in shades of marble sweetly mocked.
Discursive pipes could not the throatless mar.
Reminding ghosts of screens the sand arose.
In timing roofs to hit the store they built.
From amber dust horizons were composed.
From massive forts and castles came the silt.
A giant foot eclipsed the canopy.
In sleep, the ghost reversed an entropy.