Madhouse seems like it has a lot going for it:
decent production values, special effects by Optic Nerve's John Vulich, a cast with at least a few familiar faces, and a writer-slash-director who's spent the better part of the past two decades acting in genre movies. William Butler, whose filmography includes Leatherface, the Night of the Living Dead remake, Ghoulies II, and Friday the 13th Part VII, takes everything he's learned on the sets of those movies...and apparently every other film he's ever watched...and churned out Madhouse, mining every conceivable cliché in the process.
Blair Witch alum Joshua Leonard stars as Clark Stevens, a psych student hoping to shore up his 4.0 GPA with a stint at the Cunningham Hall mental facility. He's quickly left with the impression that something's not quite right there, and not just because an inmate grabs him early on and lobs out some foreshadowing, and not just because head honcho Dr. Franks (Lance Henriksen) seems to be more interested in curiously misspelled tomes about parapsychology than proper care for his patients. No, there's a killer lurking the halls of Cunningham...Hall, and Clark is determined to uncover the mystery. He goes a-sleuthing with pint-sized cutie Sara (Jordan Ladd), and you can tell when they're investigating because Sara kicks off those scenes by saying something like "I can't believe we're doing this! We're not supposed to be in here!" Clark's also helped out by an inmate in the basement who calls himself Hanni...I mean, Ben, sticking to the shadows and tossing out the sorts of cryptic riddles that genre convention demands. Who is the killer? Does it have anything to do with that lone inmate we saw escape in the prologue? How 'bout that ghostly kid who skulks around the asylum? Why did Natasha Lyonne agree to have such a meaningless bit part in this movie? All of these questions -- okay, maybe not that last one -- and MORE are answered throughout the course of Madhouse's kinda-interminable 91 minutes. Unfortunately, most viewers ought be able to answer 'em before the movie does, and that's assuming they're intrigued enough to stick around for the full hour and a half.
Okay, shots of snakes. Jittery sped-up twitching and lotsa quick cutting. :nods: Yeah, that tranny with the lip gloss sure does like licking that window. He must be crazy! These standard issue set pieces are too overly familiar to get much of a reaction, and most of the inmates ham it up too much to be particularly unsettling.
Optic Nerve tosses in a few gruesome special effects, but the body count's kept to a bare minimum. With only two memorable on-screen kills (the others occur either off-frame or are obscured in some way), there isn't that much of the red stuff slopped around. I get that a movie shot in such a short amount of time with a threadbare budget isn't not going to be wall-to-wall special effects, but a slasher's going to need something to fall back on if it's not going to serve up much slashing. I guess you could say that Madhouse goes for a more psychological angle, but if I were the one saying that, I'd have to wrap sarcastic finger-quotes around "psychological". There's no sense of dread or suspense whatsoever. Madhouse sticks to established formulas with such unwavering precision and an almost religious fervor that anyone who's ever sat through any horror/suspense flick should effortlessly be able to predict every telegraphed jump scare and know exactly when and where the killer will strike in each of the handful of death scenes. Jaded, cynical viewers like me also shouldn't have much trouble predicting the twist and obligatory epilogue near the end that, aside from not being particularly surprising, would send Charlie Kaufman reaching for a straight razor.
The mystery's unengaging, the dialogue's spotty, the theoretically scary parts aren't so much, and the first half hour in particular unfolds at a plodding pace. I think the cast and crew are capable of putting out a solid horror flick, but this material doesn't give them much to work with, leaving Madhouse too derivative and too dull for me to really recommend.
Video: The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen video is remarkably clean, boasting deep, inky blacks and a palette that really suits the material. Detail and sharpness are okay -- a few scattered shots are considerably softer than the rest, but that appears to date back to the original photography and shouldn't be considered a flaw with this transfer. There really aren't any glaring flaws to point out, although maybe I'll gripe that the mildly awkward layer change could probably have stood to be bumped back a fraction of a second or so. Overall, though, no major complaints.
Audio: Even though I didn't really care much for the movie, I have to say that its Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (384Kbps) is pretty well done, serving up a healthy smattering of rumbling bass, and to try to amp up the creepy ambiance of the place, droning voices and assorted eerie sounds leap from speaker to speaker.
Directionality is solid too, and it's clear that this was a soundtrack designed with multichannel audio in mind. Dialogue is clear and easily discernable throughout, and even though the score has that unmistakable Guy with a MIDI Controller sound, it comes through about as well as can be expected. A stereo mix, encoded at the usual bitrate of 192Kbps, is also available, along with subtitles in English and Spanish and closed captions.
Supplements: Joshua Leonard and director William Butler contribute one of those audio commentaries that's more fun to listen to than the movie's real soundtrack. They come across as good guys...affable, dare I say!...to the point where I almost feel guilty writing such a negative review of their movie. As proud as they are of the finished product, they don't seem to take it overly seriously either, poking fun at a lingering close-up of the inventively titled and very subtly placed book "Ghosts and Hauntings" in Dr. Frank's office and a bottle of pills poking out of Sara's purse. Some of the highlights include comments about the project emerging from the ashes of Necropolis, the number of couples in the cast and crew, some faux-Tool in the electrocution scene (am I a bad person for saying that I kinda dug it?; and with a character named Dr. Frank, why not pop in some MTX?), overcoming the language barrier with their pork-gobbling Romanian crew, shooting in a working hotel, and relentlessly playing David Bowie's "I'm Afraid of Americans" to set the mood.
They really seem to quiet down for the last twenty minutes or so, but it's a good commentary and is worth taking the time to give a listen, even if you're just renting this DVD.
There are also ten minutes worth of deleted scenes and outtakes. It's pretty clear at a glance why these three deleted/alternate scenes were lopped out of the movie, consisting of unnecessary additional dialogue, a lengthy alternate kill that winds up looking pretty goofy, and a ridiculously over-the-top alternate ending. The three outtakes run around a minute total, featuring Jordan Ladd strutting her stuff, a botched special effect, and a reel of Clark saying nothing but "hello" in different scenes. For some reason, I thought that last one was hysterical. Eight and a half minutes of trailers round out the extras. Madhouse comes packaged in a keepcase with no insert, and it includes a set of 16x9 animated menus and 18 chapter stops.
Conclusion: Madhouse shamelessly rehashes clichés from so many different movies that my initial viewing felt more like the thirteenth time than the first. The suspenseful parts aren't suspenseful, the scary parts aren't scary, and even though Madhouse did manage to make me squirm a few times, that's owed more to its sluggish pace than anything else. The DVD is put together pretty well, but Madhouse as a movie is too mediocre for me to recommend as anything more than a rental. Rent It.