Judge David Johnson has had more coherent experiences recovering from anesthesia than watching this insane movie.
What the %@$#?!!!
Mexican director Juan Lopez Moctezuma crafted this black comedy in the early '70s: part political satire, part horror film, part commentary on the human condition, and all whacked, The Mansion of Madness will hurt your brain.
Facts of the Case
The Mansion of Madness is loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story, though Poe, even in his most opium-drenched state, would be hard pressed to put together something as nutty as this.
Gaston LeBlanc (Arthur Hansel) is a famous journalist, interested in documenting the goings-on of an infamous sanitarium. Operated by the brilliant Dr. Maillard (Claudio Brook), the asylum has adopted some unique "soothing" treatments for its patients, which basically have them running amok.
As Dr. Maillard walks Gaston through the asylum, the journalist is continuously wowed by the bizarre sights and sounds of the inhabitants. However, the biggest attraction for him is the beautiful Eugenie, Maillard's eccentric, belly-dancing niece. As Gaston spends more time in the Mansion of Madness, it dawns on him that things may actually be weirder than they seem, and prompted by a plea for help by Eugenie—appearing as a topless, ghostly apparition—Gaston realizes that Dr. Maillard is not being entirely truthful with him.
Yowzers, what a trip this flick is. The Mansion of Madness is as surreal as it gets. Moctezuma has seemingly thrown open the doors to his subconscious and vomited up some of the weirdest crap I've ever seen in a movie.
The first half of this movie is incoherent. It took me forty minutes before I was able to grasp any kind of concrete narrative thread. This chunk of the film finds Gaston on a tour of the sanitarium with Dr. Maillard. The good doctor takes his guest—and by proxy, you the befuddled viewer—through the different rooms of the asylum. There await such characters as the Chicken Man (exactly as it sounds) and a weird proto-punk-looking quasi-New Wave high priestess. Through each room, Maillard babbles on and on in stream-of-consciousness blather that makes zero sense. It's like a deranged Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and that's saying something.
However, once the boundaries of "what-the-hell-is-this-crap?!" storytelling get stretched to the limit, the film grounds itself with a big reveal:
(SPOILER WARNING, I guess, though the disc synopsis makes no effort to hide this plot twist.)
Maillard is in fact a fraud, and had released the inmates and jailed the guards. So Gaston must contend with faux Maillard and his army of weirdos. Thankfully, at this point the film had embarked on a tack that was easier for me to sink my teeth into. And, in retrospect, this explained Maillard's loony ranting in the beginning; how Gaston didn't pick up on this, though, is beyond me.
Not that the film ceases to be any weirder. It doesn't. Gaston rescues Eugenie from a bizarre ritual where she's covered in grapes, and the two try to escape to the woods, while fending off guards in some odd slapstick scenes, set to even odder music. Hence the comedy aspect of the film. The Mansion of Madness is certainly lighter than the title sounds, and much lighter than the title it went by during its American run: Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon.
Apparently, distributors attempted to market the film as a sex-and-gore sleazefest, but when the inevitable boom lowered on the unsuspecting audience these expectations were of course crushed. There's some brief, nonsexual nudity (including a group bathing scene that is more stomach-churning than titillating), and gore is pretty much limited to one gunshot wound.
What The Mansion of Madness is, is a movie that features some underlying social commentary (the effects of total power, the difference between classes), but mainly a vehicle for delivering profoundly bizarre imagery, which is simultaneously compelling and alienating.
This is most likely a work of art born of prolonged exposure to nail polish remover.
Mondo Macabra's treatment of this film is loving, if technically ho-hum. A disclaimer prior to the feature basically says "We tried our best, but the original prints sucked, so don't expect much from the picture quality." Well, it's true: Don't expect much from the picture quality. Some sequences are obviously damaged, and there are plenty of dirt and scratchy moments. But the studio tried (I can't imagine where they dug up the prints), so we'll go easy on them. The Dolby 2.0 mix is thin and just sounds dated. There is little for your speakers to do here except transmit insane dialogue.
This studio does an excellent job framing their films within context, and the extra features on this disc supplement the move well. You get a documentary on Moctezuma, a text interview with the director, and an interview with Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro, in which he praises Moctezuma as a major influence. An "About the Film" essay is small and hard to read, but packed with information.
Too abstract and wacky for my tastes, The Mansion of Madness does have that hard-not-to-watch vibe going because, well, it's so abstract and wacky. Coherence takes shape halfway through the film, but by then you may have already turned it off and watched something less bizarre, like The Wiggles.
Guilty of Drinking a Paint Thinner Frappé Then Making a Crazy Movie in the third degree. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Mondo Macabro
• Featurette on the Director
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