It's not easy breathing in a paper bag...especially if you're only a head.
The film opens with Dr Martin (Robert Powell) arriving at a secluded asylum "for the incurably insane" located in an unidentified area of rural Britain. He makes his way to the office of the institution's manager, the wheelchair-bound and authoritarian Dr Lionel Rutherford (Patrick Magee). Rutherford explains that he owes his current incapacitation to an attack by an inmate ("Never turn your back on a patient", he grimly advises), before turning his attention to Martin's recent application for the post of head doctor at the establishment. He proceeds to propose an unorthodox plan to determine Martin's suitability for the post. One of the asylum's current inmates is Dr B. Starr, the former head doctor who underwent a complete mental breakdown that left Starr apparently completely unaware of any genuine previous identity (and thus possibly suffering from false memory syndrome). Rutherford challenges Martin to interview the inmates of the asylum, and to deduce which one is Dr Starr. If his choice is correct, then Rutherford will "consider" him for the post.
Martin proceeds to the upper floor of the asylum, where the inmates are held in solitary confinement, and is greeted by the kindly attendant Max Reynolds (Geoffrey Bayldon), who admits him through the security door to the inmates' cells. The framework for the tales to be told now established, Martin proceeds to the first cell, and the first of the four stories within the main plot begins.
In the cell, Martin meets Bonnie (Barbara Parkins), who recounts a tale of how she was having an affair with the married Walter (Richard Todd), whose wife Ruth (Sylvia Sims) has recently started studying alternative religions, particularly voodoo. She is also refusing to grant Walter a divorce. Walter and Bonnie therefore conspire to kill Ruth. This is achieved by Walter buying her a new chest freezer, installed in their house's cellar. He shows this to Ruth, and then immediately kills her with an axe, before proceeding to dismember her, wrapping the pieces in brown paper, and placing them in the freezer for later disposal. Spotting a voodoo charm bracelet that she was wearing, he contemptuously throws this into the freezer as well, before returning upstairs to await Bonnie's arrival.
However, he is disturbed by a sudden noise, and turns to see the wrapped head of Ruth's corpse "watching" him from the doorway to the cellar. It promptly moves out of his vision and, curious, he heads back down to the freezer, opening the lid to check his wife's remains. Suddenly, her arm shoots out of the freezer to grab him by the throat, dragging him inside...
Soon afterwards, Bonnie arrives. Puzzled by Walter's absence, she in turn descends to the cellar, and opens the freezer - finding (to her shock) his dead body inside, just before she is abruptly attacked by the separate wrapped sections of Ruth's re-animated corpse, which she defends herself against with the axe. However, one severed arm grabs her face, and in a frenzy of terror, she swings the axe repeatedly towards herself in an attempt to dislodge it...
The scene shifts back to Bonnie's cell. She calmly informs Martin that, when the police arrived, the body parts had gone, and that her tale was disbelieved, leading to her incarceration. However, she insists, her story is true - and she turns fully towards Martin, showing her hideously axe-mutilated face to him.
Inside this cell, Martin meets Bruno (Barry Morse), who is sitting cross-legged and sewing imaginary clothing. Max leaves Martin with Bruno, and the latter, insisting on his own sanity, recounts the story of how he came to be an inmate. He states that he was previously a tailor in London, but that business had dropped steeply off, to the point where he and his wife Anna (Anne Firbank) were threatened with eviction by their landlord due to their inability to meet their rent payments.
This situation seems set to improve when a Mr Smith (Peter Cushing) enters the shop one day, commissioning Bruno to make an extremely expensive suit from a special fabric which he provides. However, Smith sternly insists that Bruno must work on this suit between 12p and 5a, stating "there must be no mistake." However, Bruno, while working on the suit. He pricks his finger with his needle, and the blood that drops onto the fabric promptly vanishes without trace. Bruno observes this with understandable concern, and resolves to work more carefully in the completion of the suit.
The suit is duly completed, and Bruno takes it to Smith, requesting his payment. However, Smith proves to be dangerously obsessive. His son had died some time before, and - although he had once been rich - he is now all but penniless, having spent his fortune on a book of knowledge which detailed how the dead could be returned to life if clothed in garments made from the fabric that he had obtained. Bruno is understandably distraught, and refuses to hand over the suit. Smith draws a revolver and attempts to intimidate him into doing so. A struggle ensues, during which Bruno accidentally shoots Smith dead.
Returning to the shop, a horrified Bruno explains what has happened to his wife, and insists that she burn the suit. However, she foolishly places it on a tailor's dummy. Instead of Smith's son being given new life, the dummy is animated instead, and in the ensuing alarm causes Bruno's shop to be set on fire... The scene returns to Bruno's cell, and he breaks down in tears as he explains how Anna was killed and the dummy went missing, so that the police refused to believe his tale and he was incarcerated. With a look of pity on his face, Martin takes his leave of the pathetic sight and moves on to the next cell...
In the next cell, Martin is greeted by a surprisingly cheerful and affable young woman, Barbara (Charlotte Rampling). She freely admits that she is no stranger to asylums, having been in one before, and tells us the story of what happened when she was last released from one.
It begins with Barbara's brother George (James Villiers) and her nurse, Miss Higgins (Megs Jenkins) welcoming her back to their expensive-looking home. While they both have her best interests at heart, they are concerned for her welfare in a near-draconian way, especially in their attempts to wean her off of her medication. They are also concerned for her when she begins confidently asserting that her friend Lucy (Britt Ekland) will soon be coming to visit.
One night soon afterwards, Lucy - a vivacious young blonde woman - abruptly appears in the house, and insists that Barbara must leave the oppressive household with her, although she also expresses anger that Barbara is still taking medication - "You always needed them more than me!", she rages. Barbara is keen to co-operate, even when this leads to the amoral Lucy killing both George and Miss Higgins. However, the murders attract attention, and Barbara is arrested for Lucy's crimes... We cut back to the cell, where Martin asks if Barbara might know where Lucy is now - whether, maybe, she can be found and Barbara released. Laughing, Barbara announces that "she's right there", and points at her vanity mirror. From the glass, Lucy's face laughs back at the split-personality Barbara. Martin asks Max to escort him to the final cell...
In the cell, Martin meets Dr Byron (Herbert Lom), who is aware of Rutherford and appears to regard him with fury and contempt. He informs Martin that he is working towards soul transference. He is planning to do this with the aid of a small automaton whose head is made in likeness of his own, and shows Martin a cupboard full of earlier models. He is planning to effectively "will" his own mannequin to life, and tells Martin that the interior of the robot is organic, a miniaturised version of his own viscera. His aim is apparently to prove his sanity via this momentous breakthrough.
Martin concludes his interview, and Max shows him downstairs to deliver his judgement to Rutherford. Meanwhile, Byron stares intently at his mannequin. Suddenly, the mannequin stirs into life. A triumphant Byron places it on the floor of his room, and it proceeds stealthily out of the door and into a dumb waiter, heading to the ground floor. Downstairs, Martin chooses - rather than deducing Dr Starr's identity - to confront and lambast Rutherford for his harshly pragmatic regime. He argues that the isolation of the inmates, plus the lack of any attempt to cure or re-habilitate them, amounts to barbarism. Rutherford coldly argues in return that the inmates of this asylum are completely incurable, and impossible to release. Holding up a lobotmising tool, he states bluntly, "This is the only way to deal with Byron's sickness..."
The argument continues to rage back and forth, and, as it does so, the mannequin makes its way onto Rutherford's desk, picks up the discarded utensil, and stabs him fatally in the back of the neck. He slumps forward, and the shocked Martin sees the Byron mannequin moving away. Still in shock, he stamps heavily on it, crushing its mid-section - which, to his horror, he sees is filled with tiny internal organs. The mannequin "dies" - and, almost simultaneously, a scream sounds from upstairs in the asylum. Running up, Martin collides with a shocked Max, who informs him that he heard the scream from Byron's cell, and that, when he ran to check, he found Byron dead - and with his torso crushed as though by a huge weight...
Martin has heard, and seen, enough. Almost as an aside, he announces his decision that Byron (presumably due to his scientific success) was Dr Starr, before purposefully heading towards Max's office to telephone the police, ignoring Max's sudden cry of "No, don't go in there!"
Inside the office, Martin discovers the corpse of a recently-murdered intern. He turns in shock to Max, who almost apologetically informs him, "I'm afraid your guess was wrong... I am Dr Starr." The two struggle, but Starr gains the upper hand, and uses a stethoscope's tubing to strangle Martin. Having carefully also used it to assure himself that Martin is dead, Starr begins quietly giggling - a giggle which quickly builds to maniacally triumphant laughter... The scene changes to some time afterwards. A new applicant for the post of head doctor arrives at the asylum, to be greeted by "Max". Closing the door firmly behind them both, the latter affably states, "Got to keep out the drafts - as Dr Starr used to say ..."
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