Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Revenge of 3-D: SILENT MADNESS (1984)

Released on the tail-end of the 80’s 3D boom and bust and shortly after A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) and FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER (1984), SILENT MADNESS was doomed to fail from the onset. As much as I’d love to wax prosaic about this being a diamond in the rough, over-shadowed by the plethora of 1984’s mega-hits and minor classics, that just isn’t the case. Even if it didn’t have to contend with a bumper-crop of trend-setting genre films this little drive-in flick only manages to be entertaining in fits and spurts and really doesn’t warrant much more than a passing nod for simply being an '80s 3D slasher film. Of course when you put it like that, it sounds pretty awesome. I promise you, it’s not.

The Cresthaven mental asylum in New York is suffering from overcrowding and in an effort to alleviate the burden, five patients are released back into society. Due to a computer glitch, instead of releasing harmless idiot John Howard, the infamous sorority murderer, Howard Johns (Solly Marx), is let loose to pick up where he left off. Yes, the real horrors that concern the filmmakers here are bureaucracy and technology.
Before you can say “kikikiki… mamamama” a couple of campers are quickly dispatched by Johns via sledgehammer (that smashes through the screen as he attacks the camper’s van) and axe. Before you get all excited I should point out that these kills, like almost all of the attacks in the film, happen off screen. Though, in fairness, director Simon Nuchtern (who went on to direct the slightly less mediocre SAVAGE DAWN in ’85), features a totally and completely gratuitous topless shot of the female camper changing t-shirts before promptly being attacked. C’mon, you know the rules... never change your shirt! In addition to the campers, Johns randomly grabs a spiffily-attired skater chick in the middle of a crowded college campus and quickly shoves her head in a vice (did he kidnap her right outside of a shop class?) where she screams until a trickle of blood rolls down her forehead. Simon, you had a serial killer put someone's head in a vice and I don't even get a some cheap-ass gore effects? You and I are going to have words.

Back at Cresthaven, plucky Dr. Joan Gillmore (Belinda Montgomery) finds herself thinking that maybe the wrong man got released, but of course no one believes her. Even more damning is the fact that the arrogant Dr. Krueger (Roderick Cook) has a secret ward in which he is conducting seemingly unethical experiments, and he is trying to cover up the mistake. Dr. Joan decides to investigate Krueger’s mysterious “Ward L” and finds that he is keeping patients on life-support in body-bags and Johns’ bed is empty! Gasp! This sequence would seem like a launching pad for a cool little Michael Crichton-esque subplot with some deranged science experiment attempting to create an army of super-deranged killers! Uhhhhh... yeah, you'd think that and you’d just be setting yourself up for disappointment because nothing even close to that is going to happen. Actually this is the first and last you'll hear of it. Simon, you are really pissing me off now. Anyway, Krueger’s two sleazy maniacal attendants try to intimidate the doc like a couple of highschool bullies by chestbumping her and worse, using really bad sexual innuendo! After the horrified Dr. Joan makes her escape, one laughs maniacally for what seems like an eternity. I can understand the audience, but did the editor fall asleep here?

A sorority house outside of Manhattan was the site of a mass murder in the ‘50s. Now, most of the girls have left for spring break (Yay! We can save money on extras!), and the handful that remain are planning their vacations. After the girls start talking about all the “fun” one of the girls is going to have in Ft. Lauterdale she pretends to strip (showing off only her bra), the housemother (Viveca Lindfors) flips out screaming that she is a “whore” and generally goes all nutty-batshit-psycho. Hmmm… now why would that be? Hmmm... Since they are all getting ready for vacation, we get treated to a riveting scene that utilizes the magic of 3D to its fullest extent. The mock-tease girl goes down to the basement and pulls some luggage off a shelf, rummages around and places some luggage back on the shelf! Granted it doesn’t beat the bent reed in JAWS 3D, but if there is anything I desperately want to see pop out of the screen in 3D, its luggage! This is also a perfect time for the killer to strike again, as he grabs the girl and holds her face up to a steam-release valve and we cut away. Yep, not even a cheesy red-latex and tissue-paper burn effect. Nothing but some “steam” and a scream. I am so over this movie.

Meanwhile Dr. Joan finds herself stonewalled by the local Coors-drinking sheriff, played with customary strangeness by Sydney Lassick, who is the first person I think of when I think “sheriff” and “Coors”. Wacky, neurotic neighbor, yes. Redneck sheriff... not so much. The doc is also talked into pulling a Nancy Drew by the local allegedly-dreamy newspaper editor Mark (David Greenan). Going under-cover as sorority alum from another chapter, Dr. Joan snoops, pries and generally acts about as obvious as freakin’ possible without raising even a flicker of suspicion. No one thinks anything of it, not even the housemother who tells her tale of the fateful day when Johns, then the janitor is sexually teased by the sisters to the point where he decides to uhhhh… “nail” them all… hey, hey! What are you thinking? …With the nailgun that all sorority janitors kept on them in the ‘50s! How do we know it’s the ‘50s? Because it’s in black and white! Duh! It sure as hell ain't because of the period authentic hair.

Since Dr. Joan and her new flame Mark are stirring up too much trouble (by going on candle-lit dinner dates), Dr. Krueger decides to send his sleazy attendants after them and collect Johns in the process. While the attendants fantasize about inserting things in Dr. Joan’s dorsal orifice, the sorority sisters discover all their cars have slashed tires and the phone lines have been cut. This is absolutely no cause for alarm however, as it is no doubt the frat boys playing a prank… not the sorority serial killer who Dr. Joan has been telling everyone is on the loose and who she actually ran into in the house’s basement earlier in the film!

There are a couple of memorable moments at the end of the film, one is that a sorority girl is stabbed while playing a version of “Dragon’s Lair” that for some reason only plays Dirk’s death-scenes over and over, another is the fact that the basement of the sorority house is a massive labyrinth of corridors, hallways and human sized air-conditioning ducts that it almost seems like they shot it in an abandoned factory… no, no, of course they wouldn’t do that. That would be silly. I’m sure it’s just the basement of the Tardis. The main defining moment in the end is a scene that is missing from some prints of the film. A bound and gagged Dr. Joan is placed on an electric drill-press (what sorority house doesn’t have one of these in their basement?) as bait in a trap to kill one of the attendants. When the attendant who is trying to rape her tells the other to turn on the lights, whammo! The press powers up and drills right through his skull. As simple as the gag is (the head is seen only from the back and is clearly a dummy head with a toupee), if the film had more moments like these instead of using cut aways and perspective shots (one person is stabbed with a crowbar and it is clearly stuck in the wall under his arm-pit), it might be slightly more entertaining. Interestingly, while the film was butchered of every drop of blood (of which there are very few), intimidation of women and even the coarse language in cert-era UK, some of the US versions actually omit this scene while leaving the rest of the film intact.

No matter how you slice it, this movie fails on pretty much every level. Unfortunately it doesn’t epic fail. The stable of TV actors are decent enough, the script’s dialogue doesn’t veer into absurdity, the 3D effects are minimal and worst of all, for a sleazy, low-rent slasher film, it just doesn’t deliver the goods that you’d expect. Unless there is some super-obscure uncut version that nobody knows about, it’s easy to see why nobody is petitioning Shout! Factory for a Blu-Ray special edition.

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