Monday, 23 June 2014

The Mansion of Madness (1973)


Dir. Juan López Moctezuma

"The lunatics have taken over the asylum..." sung Fun Boys Three, in an entirely different context, but still appropriate for this Mexican film inspired by the work of Edgar Allen Poe. Far from spoiling the twist of the narrative, where the patients of a mental hospital overturn the doctors and become dominant, it's very obvious something will be amiss just from the title, or the alternative one Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon, and that when the protagonist, a journalist sent to research the innovative techniques of a psychological hospital, arrives, along with his travelling friends, he's met by armed guards in period French military uniform aiming muskets at them. When Dr. Maillard (Claudio Brook), who runs the hospital, appears, he looks like Napoleon in his choice of dress, vaguely looking like Peter O'Toole and with his English voice dubbing reminiscent of Criswell. From there the journalist is taken on a tour of the asylum, of patients building shrines to the "Electric Sphinx", a chicken man, and the dungeon deep below, increasingly clear this Dr. Maillard is insane. The friends, a woman and another doctor, find themselves jumped upon by inmates while trying to leave.


If there's an immense flaw with The Mansion of Madness, it's that the film is too dependent on a generic plot structure and narrative despite moments that live up to the madness of the title. The narrative could be found in any horror film, baring occasional details, and really doesn't more into interesting tangents with it. Some of the asylum is seen in tantalising detail, then the truth is revealed and the film immediately jumps to its final act without more to linger on. It's briefly discussed that the inmates have invented a new religion represented by a spiral, and that they've developed an isolated society from the rest of the world, to live freely and create machines that don't work but keep minds occupied, something that would've been great to see more up close than it was. It evokes Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), the infamous Terou Ishii film that culminates in the island of the titular individuals, a film which is head and shoulders above this one in terms of the delirious content and how vast it is within it. An alternative take on the same story is found in Jan Svankmajer's Lunacy (2005), which makes the ending of The Mansion of Madness, where good wins out, very conservative and flat, Svankmajer's adding a more subversive and questioning tone to his. In The Mansion of Madness's flaws is that it sticks to conventions for how it turns out to be too much. A shame, because chunks of it are vastly more interesting than my review may paint the whole film as.


On the plus side, this film is what happens when a work is directed by a person with considerable talent visually. Depth of field, front and background, is something you'll notice in this film, in terms of content onscreen, when Dr. Maillard takes the journalist around many parts of the hospital. Large expansive sets with many extras, and despite the crippling nature of the plot structure, the content can break past it, as suggested in a flash-forward into the narrative, shown in the opening credits, done in bleeding, psychedelic reds. A naked woman riding a horse. People huddled up in glass boxes in perfect rows. The chicken man, who acts like a chicken, living in a room full of poultry. Extras in the background or the middle of the screen acting out in exaggerated frenzies. Plainly surreal images are depicted, such as a female character, naked, laid on an alter outside in the wilderness covered in grapes and various fruits surrounding her form. There is a giddy, unhinged nature to the entire proceedings, everything immediately off-centre of normality from the beginning, fed by the heightened voice acting in the English dub. The result is entertaining.


The regret is that this content is not supported by an interesting narrative through line. Still entertaining, but far from the reputation the director is said to have with a film called Alucarda (1977), a movie that is even more enticing now because it suggests director Moctezuma had less compromise in that one instead of here. That is not to say The Mansion of Madness has no virtue. It looks interesting, is rewarding for what it is, but there was more that could've been done and its left to be somewhat standard as a cult film goes. Sticking to a conventional structure like it does tends to make it very difficult to say a lot about it because convention lacks real interest for me as entertainment or art. I would have to write about the entire narrative progression, which is not appropriate to avoid spoilers, because there's more after the obvious twist that takes place, but also because narrative cinema should be about the effects of the narratives, not the mere mechanics of said narrative. Moments suggest what could've been. The niece of the apparent doctor performing an ancient dance in a trance only for something to arise that gives the truth away. The centrepiece of the dark, underground dungeon, with direct Christian imagery and stark use of shadows over the central image that shows the atmosphere and effect this film could've had in a better form. The hordes of extras acting in elaborate pockets of insanity, or pulling along railed carts or, in one case, merely passing by with sheep following her, character being built of the denizens as a mass. Giving the journalist a heart attack by moving a rope ladder while he's still on it or banding together for a debauched celebration scored by distinct, off-kilter salon music on string instruments. The regret is furthered in that this isn't made a backbone to the film, but like a Hammer film, merely a outside threat to normality while time passes in the film length that should've been used better. It was good while it lasted, but I can't write as enthusiastically as I hoped for. It's worse when, viewing it, Horrors of Malformed Men and Lunacy came to mind, not helping its case either.  It feels merely like an interesting time waster.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Ultimately the dependence on a conventional narrative arch can effect a film in terms of tone and content. Very few, and rare, films can be very conventional in story arch but be utterly strange in what you see. Usually, despite the conventions of the script its moving to, films that are strange or unwordly in tone have cracks in the veneer of conventions, a metaphor apt in the concept of a haunted house which looks like any other but has pockets, no matter how small, that look out of place from anything else. It's obvious that if a film is not going to stray, even a little, from convention, such pockets won't be found, and in many cases, which The Mansion of Madness thankfully avoids, the results are unbelievable dull and morose to sit through. The mansion itself however has been cleaned of most of its alien underbelly sadly baring a few cobwebs and naked men in glass boxes.

Personal Opinion:

Fun while it lasted. Memorable? I'll see if it comes to mind in the months that past. In a year. Many years. The difficult in given a final opinion is the problem of how unreliable first viewings can be and how the viewer's mind, even if not writing amateur blog reviews, can be fickly to an extreme and jump between opinions like they're lovesick. I did expect more from The Mansion of Madness, seeing eye widening clips of it in an awesome YouTube compilation of surreal films from the birth of cinema to now, a guide to what to see if ever there was one, those brief glimpses at something spectacular stuck with aspects that were merely derivative. From the films that have been officially released to English speaking film fans, it leaves Alucada, the director's more famous film, the female film to this male one, to give Juan López Moctezuma another shot at impressing me. It would be great to add a Mexican entry or two to this blog catalogue, so I really don't want my encounter(s) with Moctezuma, depending on what happens, to be damp disappointments.


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