Tonight I have to admit something to you that I don’t often like to admit: I do not really understand Juan López Moctezuma’s The Mansion of Madness. On one hand, it is a Poe adaptation about a journalist named Gaston LeBlanc (Arthur Hansel) who travels from North America to France to visit an insane asylum where some unusual methods are being used. LeBlanc’s father died in such an institution, possibly unjustly, and so he seems to be searching for a clue to his own past as well as researching an assignment.
And the back story about LeBlanc’s father is nicely bookended by his fateful meeting with the female lead/love interest (Ellen Sherman) who has lost her own father temporarily to an unjust commitment. That’s because her father was the doctor at the asylum, before the inmates took over the asylum, led by a fake doctor (Claudio Brook). But since it is a Poe story, this may be the first instance of the inmates ruling the asylum in a story; I’m not sure.
And on the other hand, within this straightforward story we have what can best be described as an LSD trip committed to film. This is not a description I often throw around, but here we have a classic example of late 60s (yes, I know this was from 1972 but that is still the 60s artistically) counterculture psychedelia that actually feels psychedelic.
The trouble is, little of it seems to mean anything. You have a guy in a red suit with tree branch antlers who may be the devil. There are some beatings and a rape followed by a man (Martin LaSalle) escaping through the woods while comedic chase/caper music plays. There is fog and lens flare in the same shot. There are two dance numbers, a man who thinks he’s a chicken, a Roman bath orgy, people who live in chimneys, people who live in crystal boxes, eternal daylight, a guy in a dungeon who represents Dante of the Inferno Dantes, an interrupted human sacrifice that involves grape juice being squeezed all over Ms. Sherman while she is pretending to be insane, lots of xylophone and harp and reverb, stop motion appearances and disappearances, and, of course, some boobs.
The crazy people seem like they’re having more fun than the sane people, but among all the blather from the head crazy guy we get “do what thou will shall be the whole of the law,” so I’m not sure who to root for. Then we get an inscrutable voiceover ending. I’m not sure if I just saw a vision of hell, or a recruitment film for anarchy.
I would watch this again, but I would not advise you to do the same unless you don’t mind a film that makes no sense. The horror here is in the surrealism, in that way that many things of the time period are a little scary because everyone was freaking out. But it’s not that it makes no sense like an Italian film where they don’t care if it makes sense, it’s evidently not supposed to make sense. Sometimes you just have to let art flow over you. And maybe you should ingest some substances first. I’d like to believe that there is heavy symbolism here, but I don’t believe it. The emperor is wearing clothes, it’s just that he’s insane. But it is a pleasant journey back to a simpler time in cinema when being weird for its own sake was rebellious in itself.