Madhouse (2004)

Starring Joshua Leonard, Jordan Ladd, Lance Henriksen, Dendrie Taylor, Leslie Jordan

Directed by William Butler

There are a handful of mysteries to probe “Scooby-Doo”-style within the unkempt halls of Madhouse; the only one that I cared about a third into it was: what’s left for this flick to pilfer from? The answer is: not a whole helluva lot. You see, Madhouse is, as a friend of mine coined the phrase, a “kitchen sink” flick. It crams in as much as it possibly can into its running time. None of it very inspired, all of it feeling like pieces cut from some other film and Scotch taped together to make this one. When Madhouse eventually runs out of tape and cinematic scraps to work from the writer (in this case, the director too) panics and resorts to a weak twist ending, a desperate last gasp that only backfires on the film and every story point to come before it.

Having kicked around a few horror sets himself, William Butler should know better. An actor turned writer/director (in the last decade), Butler has mingled with some of the best, or at least those with some experience in the genre. Romero and Savini (Night of the Living Dead ’90). John Carl Buechler (Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood). The crew of Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. I should say that’s better than great company to get a crash course in filmmaking with. So what gives, Bill? Surely you could’ve made something better than a film that reads like a “movies to mimic” checklist. It appears you had a budget of some worth at your fingers. The movie looks good. Vulich pulls his weight with some gnarly gore effects (a particular tongue-chewin’ gag made me squirm). Hell, the cast believe in what they’re doing, although Josh Leonard’s nerdy schtick is hard to grasp. Everything else is just so bland. Let’s look close at that list, er, script of yours.

Clark Stevens (Leonard) is a psych intern working towards some college credit by taking up a brief residency at the Cunningham Hall Mental Facility. He answers to the stern and mysterious Dr. Franks (Henriksen), quickly rubbing his new boss the wrong way by submitting a proposal concerning Cunningham Hall’s need improvement in both practices and facilities. Franks wants none of that and promptly shuffles Stevens into the Hall’s day-to-day duties with Sara, a young nurse with a few secrets of her own. He also meets head nurse Hendricks (Taylor) and Dr. Morton (Leslie Jordan of Jason Goes to Hell), staff veterans at Cunningham Hall who may or may not know more than they let on about recent spooky shit happening around the joint. It’s not long before the stuffy and determined Stevens (is Leonard trying to put on an accent or is that the way he really talks?) begins to look deeper into the facility’s past, as he does so, however, someone is picking off the employees in a grisly, Argento-esque fashion (the first kill feeling very Opera), sans the craftsmanship of that Italian director unfortunately.

For an insider’s take on who may be behind the killings Stevens turns to a patient locked up in Cunningham’s madhouse, a wing devoted to those “society wants to forget” which could also double as a profitable circus freakshow. The inmates are nothing short of bon-a-fide freaks with a capitol “F.” There’s a she-male (or whatever it is), a worm man, a pair of creepy twins, all that’s missin’ is a bearded lady. But I digress. Stevens strikes up a Clarice/Dr. Lecter relationship with this seemingly “sane” inmate and begins to piece together some revelations about Cunningham Hall and himself. We shouldn’t forget to mention Natasha Lyonne’s turn as a Cunningham patient haunted with visions. Her character goes nowhere. *Cue crickets chirping.*

Butler’s set-up is appealing enough if you’re schooled in the House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts remake guide-to-ghosts. There are the requisite skittish visuals and super-speed spooks to assault your senses with clipped, scratchy sound effects. And Butler can pull it off, there’s no denying that, but haven’t we trekked through this dark, Halloween maze before? And I’ll be up front, it’s hard for me to be scared when I can’t even hold a straight face during unintentionally humorous moments like when we first meet Stevens who, lost in Cunningham Hall, asks a patient for directions – a patient, folks – or when we spy a book on Dr. Franks’ shelf that reads “Psychiatric Practcises” on the spine. (Sheesh, shame on the prop department or set dresser for that one.) You’re left with no choice but to pick out these finer details when you’re one step ahead of the plot at every contrived twist and turn, especially when it deviates into a languid investigative thriller.

If you think I’m coming down too hard on Madhouse, I am, damn it. I’d like to say that this was one with potential, but you’d need to have a core idea that was cool to begin with. Butler just didn’t have one. He did, however, surround himself with an impressive cast and crew, it just wasn’t enough to elevate Madhouse beyond being a watchable but mediocre haunted house thriller, er, supernatural murder mystery, or whatever it is. Like some of the damn patients inside Cunningham Hall, Madhouse can never find its own identity, and that’s enough to make me beg for an extra dose of painkillers the next time my nurse makes her rounds.

2 out of 5

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Jon Condit