October Horror Movie Challenge 2014, Day 8 – The Mansion of Madness

The Mansion of Madness (Mexico, 1973)

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As we enter the second week of the challenge, it brings its first real disappointment. The Mansion of Madness, AKA Dr Tarr’s Torture Dungeon, turned out to be a poor fit for the month, as, despite its reputation as a horror film, it is far more of a surrealist art piece mixed with classic 1970s exploitation cinema. While this sounds like a heady cocktail, in execution it is surprisingly dull, and that’s where the disappointment lies.

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The Mansion of Madness is visually sumptuous, filled with strange invention and stranger characters, but this is an empty shell. The film is emotionally uninvolving and nowhere near as clever as it seems to think it is. Too many scenes felt like the director simply pointed a camera at the actors and told them to be weird. The result is flat and disjointed. It reminded me of nothing more than various amateur productions I’ve endured on the Edinburgh Fringe, put on by student troupes who mistook being wacky and incoherent for surrealism.

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There is some truly great surrealist cinema, and The Mansion of Madness certainly has the pedigree to be be such a film. Director Juan López Moctezuma worked with Alejandro Jodorowsky on the classic El Topo, also shot in Mexico. Star Claudio Brook appeared in many of Luis Buñuel’s film, including Exterminating Angel. And, perhaps most impressively, the art director was the great surrealist painter Leonora Carrington; if there is a saving grace to this film, it is in the visual flair she brought to its design.

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The script of The Mansion of Madness is largely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s blackly comic story, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether. It follows a visit by journalist Gaston LeBlanc to the sanatorium of Dr Maillard, deep in the French countryside. Maillard guides LeBlanc through the increasingly bizarre and sinister recesses of his estate, where, he explains, the patients are subject to his system of “soothing”. This largely involves indulging their delusions, as exemplified by a man who believes himself a chicken, who is dressed in feathers and fed handfuls of grain. When LeBlanc discovers the dungeons, with prisoners kept in abject conditions, he realises that Maillard is not what he seems and that the lunatics have quite literally taken over the asylum.

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There is an entertaining story hiding somewhere in The Mansion of Madness, possibly locked in a cage and covered with feathers. The problem is that it meanders through repetitive demonstrations of how weird all the residents are, bounces off a superficial romantic sub-plot and ends up going nowhere unexpected or interesting. By the time I was an hour into the film, I found myself spending more time looking at my watch than at the screen. It seems hard to believe that one could make such subject matter dull, especially with the strong visual design, but somehow Moctezuma manages it.

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There is a good chance that I’m being harder on The Mansion of Madness than it deserves. It is certainly not an awful film, and in terms of spectacle, it has a lot to offer. The sheer strangeness of some of the individual scenes — especially the grand party at the end — is admirable (although I found the part where LeBlanc is menaced by an avant-garde dance troupe dressed in feathers to be interminable). The problem is that it desperately wants to be a Jodorowsky film, but Moctezuma lacks the flair, fierce intellect and sheer oddness of Jodorowsky, and what we are left with is art school excess with neither a brain nor a soul.

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