Tales as old as time, Slashers are. Okay, maybe not as old as time, but certainly as old as me, which is close enough. To say the horror market was saturated by the mid ‘80s would be an understatement; every theatre, drive-in, and video store shelf was oozing content involving implements, pretty people, and the dark secret that comes back to haunt them. Speaking of dark secrets that never fail to return, always faddish 3D made a surprising early ‘80s comeback; franchises such as The Amityville Horror, Jaws, and Friday the 13th all threw blurry stuff at blurry screens in the hopes of enticing viewers with varying degrees of success. Converging at the tail end of both, Silent Madness (1984) crams in so much absurdly wonderful plot you’d think the filmmakers were afraid Hollywood was going to stop making movies altogether.
Distributed by Almi Pictures in late October, Silent Madness certainly didn’t bring in Jason cake, and critics were less than enthusiastic, claiming it nothing more than a tired hack and slash. However, those critics chose to narrowly focus on the most familiar of tropes and ignored the fact that it has no less than four stories it wants to tell; sure, it may not give them all their gloriously weird due, but would you sit still for a three hour stab-a-thon? (Well, actually…)
Okay, grab a box and help me unpack this thing, or we’ll be here all day: The Cresthaven Mental Institute has a surplus of deranged, so the administrative body decides to let some go as they’re, you know, cured enough. Amidst all the kerfuffle, and due to an administrative error, Howard Johns (Solly Marx – Neon Maniacs) is released instead of one John Howard. Oops! Far be it from me to say what Mr. Howard would do upon re-entering society, but I can say for certain that Mr. Johns is a bad fit for society, as the first thing he does upon his release is dispatch a couple screwing in the back of a bitchin’ van with a sledgehammer and axe, respectively. You see, 17 years prior Howard Johns was the young, dim witted handyman at a sorority house, and is spotted by the students spying while they perform sexy hazing rituals in the basement. Deciding to show him what’s what, they ply him with booze and strip, much to his obvious chagrin, as he pulls out a nail gun and cuts the session short.
Cue Dr. Joan Gilmore (Belinda Montgomery – Man from Atlantis), who doesn’t quite believe Cresthaven’s administration when they claim that yes, there was a mix-up but Howard Johns died and was cremated shortly before the release allegedly happened. Knowing of his history (and where he may be headed), she teams up with small town reporter Mark McGowan (David Greenan – Battlestar Galactica), and goes undercover at the sorority as a legacy to dig deeper into Johns’ backstory. Is this the, um, day that Howard came home?
Thanks for helping! Okay we’ve uncovered two of the plot strands; Howard Johns (who’s a dead ringer for Robert Duvall’s Boo Radley) heads home, and the cover up at the institute. The latter is fascinating because a huge amount of time is spent on this; one doesn’t usually expect a lot of sociopolitical commentary on the faltering mental health care system, much the same as one doesn’t expect Sydney Lassick (Carrie) to show up as a slovenly sheriff, either.
So what else is going on? Let me introduce you to the two orderlies who are sent by the insidious administration to take care of not only Howard but meddlin’ Joan as well, and for cappers a short, but by film’s end, very committed relationship between Joan and Mark. As I said, Silent Madness has more ridiculous plot than it knows what to do with, yet that’s a great part of its charm; individually, each is shopworn (well, besides the institute – which manages to include secret experiments never explained), but together - sweaty and elbowing each other in a race to the finish line – they provide a solid hour and a half of entertainment.
The 3D itself is another matter. Filmed in Arrivision (the same gear used for Jaws 3D), this is one step removed from SCTV’s Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of Pancakes, with John Candy hoisting a stack to and from the screen. Again, more charm; every object thrust at the camera is stopped and held just short - it’s kind of adorable. (Special props to the animated axe that whizzes through the air like it just don’t care.) As for the kills, well the good news is there’s quite a few, and some of those quite a few are pretty creative, and the best of the quite a few involves a jump rope, a dumbbell, and a window. HoJo’s main kill zone is the sorority house (with its spacious boiler room the size of The Descent’s caverns), although he makes a couple of scenic stops along the way. (Side note: I would love to see a Slasher where the killer sends postcards to his doctor/parole officer/mother.)
Silent Madness also strays a bit from the formula by focusing on the grownups and not on the students; I dare you to remember a single girl from the sorority house, who all are given two characteristics: breathing and then not. This isn’t the young actors’ fault, and for those who can focus their eyes long enough in the grungy aesthetic, the film has two Sleepaway Camp alumni to boot. So the adults get to shine, and Montgomery sure is pleasant and all, but it’s really hard to compete when the long arm of the law is attached to the leering, bug eyed Lassick and the house mother portrayed with handwringing agony by Viveca Lindfors (Creepshow). Montgomery never stood a chance.
Director Simon Nuchtern (Savage Dawn) and screenwriters Robert Zimmerman (Underground) and William P. Milling (Caged Fury) should, at the very least, be praised for attempting so much. Does it all work? God no. But at least there’s an all there; Silent Madness is a try hard in a waning era of attempting little. For enough of the time, HoJo has his mojo working.
Silent Madness is lurking out there on DVD in a PAL Region 2 edition.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: SCREAM BLOODY MURDER (1973)