I've never actually been locked up in the looney bin, although God knows I could have been on several occasions. Occasionally, even I question my tenuous grasp on reality. Still, I am confident that if I ever was to be shipped off to the nut barn, it would not resemble anything I've seen in the movies. The movies have two versions of the nuthouse. Popular Hollywood has them as resorts filled with quirky, agitated, but nonetheless lovable folk who don't seem to do anything but watch TV in the rec room, get fed pills and go on hilarious misadventures. You can find these saps in films like GIRL, INTERRUPTED or one of the most trite film's in Hollywood's last ten years, K-PAX. Horror films, being the devilish little imps they are, have another story. From THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI to SHOCK CORRIDOR and onwards, mental institutions are nothing less than a gathering psychoses in a setting so bizarre that it could play on anyone's mind and the real crazies usually aren't the patients.
So it is with MADHOUSE, the latest film to continue the trend of mental institutions that make the staff... well, mental. The film is notable for starring Joshua Leonard. Although Leonard has a lot of recent credits in his filmography, I haven't seen much of him since THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. In fact, I haven't seen much of any of the BLAIR WITCH cast. Great Caesar's Ghost, what the hell ever happened to Heather Donahue anyway?
We start out with a very freaky opening which stresses lots of flashes, variable camera speeds and spooky ambiance. A little boy runs in terror from an isolated mental institution. He runs through the woods from a force we cannot see, only to be run down by a car. Years later, Clark (Leonard) is a young doctor who gets work at same mental institution. He is introduced to both the staff and patients. In a scene similar to THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, he is at first taken around by a patient who merely pretends to be a doctor.
Clark is eventually introduced to the head of the institute, Dr. Franks (Lance Henriksen, in an admirable bid to appear in every straight-to-video horror film in 2005). I'm not sure if "Franks" is supposed to recall the name of a certain mad scientist in horror movie lore, but there is certainly something off about the old guy. He openly tells Clark that they do not have the funds to cure anyone, merely to maintain them. And why would a learned scholar have so many books on ghosts and the occult?
Much more pleasing to the eyes is fellow doc, Sara (Jordan Ladd - CABIN FEVER, CLUB DREAD). She shares a certain compassion for the patients but has been working under Franks too long to retain much optimism. The rest of the staff range from the charming Dr. Morton (Leslie Jordan) to the witchy Nurse Hendricks (Dendrie Taylor, skillfully emulating Louise Fletcher).
As for Clark himself, he's a bit of a bookish and proper fellow. You can tell this early for two reasons. For one, his name is "Clark." No offense to the Clarks in the audience, but Superman didn't choose the name because it screamed "virile stud coming through." If it's any consolation, try having a name whose entire meaning is that you're from a certain country. Anyway, the other early signal is that in the abandoned foyer to the hospital, Clark takes the time to straighten the pictures on the wall. Clearly, he is a man who likes to keep everything orderly, everything has its place. The viewer is immediately tipped off that an insane asylum, particularly this insane asylum may be a horrible match for Clark. He doesn't know that yet, but we'll have fun watching him find out.
And if things were crazy before, they go pretty much bonkers shortly after Clark's arrival. Clark starts seeing the ghost of the little boy wandering the hallways. He even follows him all the way down to the basement, where all the real crazies are kept. "This is where they tuck away the people no one wants to hear about," someone explains. This is a place where sanitation is non-existent. The place is made up of blood, sweat, urine, feces and bad plumbing. These elements seem so at home here that any architecture seems built around the decay. He begins to have conversations with an apparition in a cell that hides in shadow, baiting Clark and suggesting he may know the secret to the hospital. Around this time, patients and staff alike are brutally murdered.
MADHOUSE stacks up admirably against many other horror films set in the mental ward. Where most of these films fail is in the broad strokes in which their characters are painted. Staff is seen as the absolute evil in the world, the ultimate embodiment of fascist, ignorant authority. MADHOUSE eschews this in favor of a more realistic approach. Yes, there are some real degenerates on the staff and one of them may be the killer, but there are plenty of nice folks too. Everybody there seems determined to do their job and MADHOUSE treats them in light that makes them easy to relate to. Patients in these films are usually worse. Hollywood would have you believe that there are no crazy people, just lovably eccentric folk that don't need anything but a little TLC. MADHOUSE knows this is bullshit. While they aren't all raving lunatics, they are certainly disturbed. It is not interested in offering a clinical study of mental illness, don't think that for a second. However, the patients come off as being much more human than in most films.
The film keeps a decent pace going. In the middle, it hits a few dull spots as it briefly turns into more of a thriller than a horror film. Add to that a few plot holes that aren't quite filled by the time the credits roll.
Certain actors seem wasted in parts that are all too small. Natasha Lyonne for instance is an immensely talented actress who first impressed with THE SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS. From then on, it's been a few decent turns that occasionally interrupt a constant stream of all-to-small bit parts. Chalk up her crazy here as another do-nothing role for an actress who deserves more.
Writer-director William Butler knows the horror genre well. He started out acting in notable horror films like FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII, LEATHERFACE and Tom Savini's underrated remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. He shows his appreciation of the genre by allowing the scares to creep up on you. He has a skilled eye for what works in the genre and keeps things interesting without showing off. Likewise, his script offers lots of moody twists and turns, and is far more intelligent than you would expect. I can honestly say that the film baited me well and I did not predict the outcome. Let's hope the scripts Butler has written for the next two RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD movies are as quirky as MADHOUSE was insightful. But couldn't a couple more drafts have cured those clumsy occurrences that strain the film's credibility?
Overall, MADHOUSE is a film with a good direction, good acting and a script that varies from creative to frustrating. It's not going to tax your brain as much as it would like to, but it's not a celluloid lobotomy like other films populated by crazies.