Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Silent Madness (1984): or, Spank You Very Much

It doesn't take a high-falutin' trained critic with his finger on the racing and changeable pulse of pop culture to see that 3-D is making a comeback. Superbowl commercials, sit-com episodes, CG kiddie fare, and even DVD releases are COMIN' RIGHT ATCHA in a 3-dimensional wave of excitement and enthusiasm. Yes, it seems like you can't stick your head out the window for a breath of fresh air without seeing SOMETHING in 3-D.

Of course this isn't the first resurgence of 3-D cinema since its heyday in the 50s and 60s. Many of my parishioners will recall a similar enthusiasm for le trois dimensionale that pushed its rebirthing head out of the screen in the early 1980s with a crop of horror films like Friday the 13th 3-D, Jaws 3-D, and and today's little-seen entry in the slasher sweepstakes, Simon Nutchern's Silent Madness. And yet unlike those other entries, Silent Madness is largely forgotten. Why?

Somewhere in Manhattan, the Cresthaven Mental Institution is feeling the crunch. Crowded and understaffed, the ship of the hospital's future will be sunk if the staff can't lighten the load. Therefore, the Evil British Poof in Residence, Dr. Kruger (Roderick Cook), has stepped up the release of some of Cresthaven's more harmless patients. Things start to look a little pear-shaped when bushy-tailed and frosty-haired go-getter Dr. Joan Gilmour (career TV guest-star Belinda Montgomery) notices that one of the five uncured-but-harmless patients Kruger claims he released is actually still living at the institution. And yet, five patients *were* released. What could it mean?

"Let's play...Global...Thermonuclear...War..."

Well, after a little unauthorized snooping on the asylum's state-of-the-art computer system, Dr. Gillmore learns the shocking truth: due to a data-entry snafu, instead of releasing harmless paunchy retard John Howard, the doctors in fact cut loose convicted Sorority House Massacre perpetrator and still-dangerous psychopath Howard Johns (Solly Marx). Which, if you think about it, is totally understandable. I mean, God knows how many times I've placed an online order for Lady Fingers, expecting a delicious Italian dessert treat via post, only to end up receiving some kind of invasive vibrating sex apparatus. So often that I don't even bother sending them back anymore, at least. Same thing here, I would imagine. Honest mistake.

ANYWAY, horrified at the idea of having loosed a maniac upon an unsuspecting and perky populace, Gillmore goes to her superior, kindly supervisor-cum-Power Matron Dr. Anderson (Stanja Lowe, who looks like nothing so much as Harry Shearer in drag), begging her to call the authorities. Though Anderson seems to take the do-gooding Gillmore Girl's side, it soon becomes apparent that she sympathizes more with Dr. Evil Poof's CYA plan, which involves claiming Johns died in their custody weeks ago and thus the computer glitch did no harm. That way the hospital's reputation is preserved, the public is not needlessly panicked, and the psycho has the opportunity to return to his hometown and start hacking up co-eds again. See? Win-win-win.

Meanwhile, the footloose and sanity-free Johns is on his way to the local College For Women, just itching to make up for lost time. Along the way he happens upon a horny young couple out for a camping weekend in what has to be the MOST BITCHIN' FUCK-MACHINE ON WHEELS ever committed to film. Check it: blue Dodge van, bare mattress in the back, deeply tinted windows, and a lush interior that boasts not only a hanging plant (for that homey feel, you know), but the most luxurious long-haired blue shag it has ever been my pleasure to witness, affixed to nearly every surface: the walls, the ceiling, the dashboard, the instrument panel, EVERYTHING. Seriously, it looks like someone hit a sale on Cookie Monster at the Jim Henson Tannery Workshop.

Don't Bother Knockin'.

After the girlfriend performs a textbook pointless t-shirt change to provide us with our first glimpse of 3-D tech in the film (I thought she'd put my eye out!), Johns attacks, smashing the van up with a sledgehammer before going all John Henry on the van owner (of course we get Victim Hammer View, as required). He follows that by tossing a toy hatchet STRAIGHT AT THE SCREEN to finish off the shrieking girl. Moments later he arrives on campus and kidnaps a random skater grrl, dragging her into the basement of the sorority house and crushing her head in a vise. Say what you will about Johns, but he's not one to sit easy when there are victims out there just waiting to be killed.

The rest of the flick stays pretty much on the slasher-movie rails, with one or two notable exceptions. Disgusted by the stonewalling back home, Gillmore channels her inner Donald Pleasence and heads off to college to see if Johns has returned. Befriending the off-puttingly smarmy star reporter of the local newspaper, Joan decides to go undercover at the Delta Omega sorority for...some reason. There she meets the current Delta-Os, a likable if acting-ability-challenged group of girls who stayed a few days after classes were out in the hopes of getting horribly murdered.

Despite the Crazy Ralph-esque warnings of crotchety house-mother Mrs. Collins (a wonderfully warped-as-always Viveca Lindfors, of Creepshow and Exorcist III fame), Dr. Gillmore presses forward, leading to the expected body count, final confrontation/battle, and a twist that might as well have been delivered by Samuel F. B. Morse himself.

Put your glasses on...NOW.

Overall, Silent Madness is no great shakes as a slasher film. It shamelessly rips off the Halloween score and half of that movie's ideas, only without the style or mystery required to make that a good thing. There are a few interesting shots and Tales from the Crypt-ish lighting set-ups, but mostly the direction and cinematography are pedestrian and unremarkable. The acting proves definitively that with a cue card and a dream, you too can be a star. And as for the 3-D effects--well, even in the surviving 2-D version of the film, you can tell they wouldn't have been much to write home about anyway.

Still, the movie *does* have a few things going for it, and those things constitute the notable exceptions I referenced earlier. For instance, in addition to the standard "killer comes home to kill again" angle, there's a frankly bizarre substrate plot centered around the asylum's mysterious "Ward L," which is where Johns had been kept until the computer error set him free. Far from being your standard "Ward for the Criminally Insane" set-up, this is a total mad science development center where patients are kept in medically induced comas and fed through tubes, their muscles kept from entropy by cutting-edge electroshock exercise. The shadowed factory-space, beeping machines, bubbling tubes, and plastic-wrapped bodies in Ward L seem to come straight out of another, creepier movie--a movie I'd frankly have preferred to see.

The flick also boasts a few bit characters that are just off-kilter enough to be interesting. The Ward L attendants are a pair of wonderfully slimy gallows-rejects, one a New Jersey-accented Igor with definite rapey tendencies and the other a skeletal Spider-man villain reject with a wonderfully overblown eeevil laugh. These two do get a little more screentime when they're sent to retrieve both Johns and the rogue Gillmore, leading to a nice mid-rape drill-press kill and a 3-D skewering that have to count as highlights.

Better Living through Mad Science

Lindfors's turn as Mrs. Collins is pretty awesome, and recalls her triumph as Auntie Bedelia in the best possible way. (Her collection of creepy dolls adds nothing to the proceedings, but I'm so glad it's there.) But my FAVORITE bit character has to be Sheriff Liggett, portrayed by Zelda Rubenstein's fraternal twin brother* Sydney Lassick. A lawman in the time-honored "sit on my fat ass eating burgers and discouraging anybody from investigating ANYTHING" mold, Liggett steals every scene he's in with his foul-mouthed Truman Capote delivery. (Imagine this sample dialogue spoken in a high-pitched, nasally whine: "Well well well--the Sexy Shrink returns!" "That's the best news I've had since the mayor dropped dead!" And when the reporter tries to get him to help Joan, "Just because the goddamn broad is so good-lookin' don't mean we all have to think with our dicks! Huh? Right?") He may bear an ugly neck scar from his previous run-in with Johns (a scar that makes NO sense in light of the movie-ending twist), but he's no Ahab--he'd just as soon drink cokes and scarf Big Macs and let someone ELSE handle the psycho this time. In short, he rules.

*Not really. As far as I know.

"Don't go toward the light, cocksucker!"

Also in the movie's favor: an almost imperceptible undercurrent of deviant sexuality to the whole thing that only became apparent to me on my second time through, scanning for screengrabs. For instance, we get a black-and-white flashback of the original Delta-Os having an ill-fated initiation, in which panty-clad butts are spanked repeatedly (in 3-D!) with large Greek-lettered paddles. When the younger, helmet-wigged Johns is discovered spying on them, the girls pull him from the shadows, bind him with rope, force liquor down him, and then take off their shirts and give him a sound spanking for good measure. In a word, zang.

This is meant to explain his murderous rampage, of course, but it doesn't stop there. Later Johns captures Joan in the basement and ties her up with a truly unnecessary number of knots, duct-taping her mouth for added security. Igor and the Vulture drive Johns off, and then the New Jersey Jerkinator begins to take advantage of the BDSM scenario in which he finds himself, before a power surge thwarts his plans. Add an extremely phallic cattle-prod appearance, and I think we can speed-dial Dr. Freud.

Finally, added bonuses for the reporter's tied-up, behind-the-back pistol shot miss (A for Effort), a death by upside-down hanging via gravity boots and a dumbell on a jumprope, a Dragon's Lair arcade game used as foreshadowing, and a surprisingly brutal neck-stab to wind things up.

Game Over

In the final analysis, it's easy to see why Silent Madness has been forgotten, and I wouldn't expect a big-budget remake anytime soon. Still, if you can use the little weirdnesses to buoy yourself up through the boring and inept bits (of which there are plenty), you might not have too bad a time. Since I like a good bondage/spanking as much as the next guy (so long as the next guy is the Duke), and since Sheriff Liggett rules so much, I'm giving Silent Madness a soft 2 thumbs.

Now--does anyone know a good auto-upholsterer? I'm thinking the Vicar-mobile needs a new look...

Good God, it's COMIN' RIGHT AT US!


The Duke of DVD said...

"Undercurrent of deviant sexuality" you say? Mid-rape drill press kills AND Jim Henson's Tannery? This sounds like my kind of flick.

Bravo, Vicar, on once again driving us to the trough of awesome movies and forcing our heads under the water, where we drink until we slide blissfully into the abyss of cinematic brilliance.

~Trix. said...

How is it you can be so brutally honest about a movie's mediocrity and yet still make it sound so...enticing?

In the right hands a gift such as yours could prove to be dangerous...and I think that's danger I'm sensing.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@The Duke--"cinematic brilliance" is probably an overstatement, and I should reiterate that the "undercurrent of deviant sexuality" is really barely perceptible unless you're looking for it. Of course having planted that seed in the fertile field of an imagination such as yours, I suppose the point is moot now. :)

@~Trix: It's a gift, and a curse, I suppose. Above all, I go into these films looking for FUN--and dammit, I aim to *find* it, however well-hidden! ;)

Soiled Sinema said...

Never heard of this and that depresses me so. Good review.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks, Soiled Sinema! Don't be too depressed...the flick is findable in its 2-D form, if you know where to look.

Million Dollar Video said...

I stumbled upon this movie recently. Aquired some 3D glasses.
Overall, this movie gave me a giant headache.

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