Madhouse (2004) , a review
Oh boy, oh boy. Another asylum based horror film. Like we haven’t seen any of those before. 2004’s Madhouse was hardly on the face of it the organic original horror that the world is crying out for, and you may be aware of how sick I am of the same old tropes cropping up again and again in horror.
I sat down, glass of stiff liqueur in hand, microwave popcorn in bowl - even the little unpopped kernels that break your teeth when you’re practically shovelling in each delicious handful of puffed corn into your face. The familiar, jarring creak of my DVD player enveloping the disk, and that reassuring space-age whirring that follows. That was it. I was committed.
Let me tell you about how i’m going to approach this review. I’m going to break it down into juicy little segments before coming to a conclusion about how much I think the film was worth watching. I’m not one for snobbish film reviews, if I were I don’t think I’d watch many horror films which poll typically very low from the film aficionados. Much better, I think is to look at the commercial success of a film, though this too has problems. I think we’ve all been to the cinema to see films that we weren’t particularly happy with, and so that commercial success isn’t necessarily reflective of how enjoyable a film is. Equally, some great films have flopped at the box office, The Shawshank Redemption for one. I think that’s just my long way of saying, if you want to know how good a film is, the only way you can categorically say how good a film is, is to watch it. Right, with that, on with the review:
I wanted to start with the acting for one very important reason. That reason is this guy,Joshua Leonard.
He’s an important guy horror wise, appearing in the Blair Witch Project 1999, and has a smattering of acting credits across all media. But that isn’t what’s most important. I watched Madhouse in between playing the original Red Dead Redemption. There’s a character most of the way through the story that immediately made something click. It’s Harold MacDougal, the anthropologist studying the Native American’s nearby. This may not have much relevance to you at first, but here’s my mode of thinking.
John Leonard would be perfect to play this guy in a live action version of the film. Now it’s just up to Rockstar to make it happen…
Anyways, the acting in the film is what I would have to describe as ‘typical horror’, that is rather vaudeville, over the top for the purpose of heightening emotions. It’s a typical way that you see even really good actors behave when they’re on the spooky screen. I suppose it’s best to note that there isn’t any really bad acting in it, unlike in House of Wax for instance.
I’m going to spoil as little of the plot as possible in case you actually fancy going to watch it at some point.
We get to see some past-shenanigans, which of course won’t have any bearing on the events about to unfold. So, we get introduced to Clark Stevens (Harold MacDougal) as he makes his way to his new job. He’s a psychology student see, and before he’s legally allowed to read people’s minds, he needs to go and study some crazy people. He rocks up at the asylum, all keen and happy to begin despite the archetypal insane asylum patients, copy and pasted from the billion forebears to this film. He wends his way up to meet the head honcho. The big cheese. Dr Franks. And frankly this guy clearly doesn’t want to see Clark very much. He’s a guy who doesn’t like to be told that his establishment is falling to pieces, but is pretty happy that there’s a connection between the paranormal and mental illness. Cool.
A nurse takes Clark for walkies around the site, and we eventually end up at the Madhouse, a section of the most dangerous inmates, down in the basement (where else?). It’s so rough and trashed that even Ty Pennington would have a hard time fixing it up.
The whole stereotype crew is here. There’s poop thrower, unhinged transvestite (really, in 2004), creepy old lady from another era, scary twins, deformed guy, a headbanger, and -you know - and a guy armed with a shard of glass. The most important point from here, and the final story point i’ll touch upon is that the prisoner in cell #44 is important.
The overall plot of the film is rather generic. I’ve already mentioned the generic character types, well it may surprise you that the generic characters generically contribute to a generic plot. Generically. There’s a twist, obviously, but it’s not even a new twist. You’ll see what I mean when you see it. It’s a weak story, but at least we can call it a story.
It may not be a good story, but that isn’t always everything. As I touched upon in my Saw video, sometimes the spectacle of a film may be enough to carry it to a decent performance at the box office. Saw was very much an example of this, and, outside of horror, so was Avatar. Both had such formulaic stories, but focused on pushing forward the visuals of the piece. So does Madhouse do the same? Does it wow us with spectacle? Does it ask us to jump on board, don our sunglasses and enjoy the view? No. In a world. Okay, i’m going to be kind for a minute. Let’s look at respective budgets. The original Saw, in my opinion the best of the bunch, cost $1.2 million to make, but it wasn’t a spectacle driven film, heaven forbid instead opting for a storyline. Saw 2, which was much more gruesome and really laid the foundations for what would follow, cost $4 million. Madhouse was happily between the two at $3 million. I get the distinct impression that they would have been aiming at something more like Saw than it’s direct sequel; I think they wanted a good story but just didn’t manage to accomplish it.
This isn’t all to say that the film is ugly. It has some really horrorish mise-en-scene, which is really what we should broadly expect from horror films, and optimistically hope for something a little better. It’s good some good set design, some not-so-good costume design, but hey it only cost $3 million which is cheap as chips.
So, is Madhouse a good horror film? I feel like horror films operate in their own sphere. The best way I can describe it is by drifting over to Pokemon. When you look at the graphics of Pokemon games, their quality is judged not against comparable games outside the franchise, but only from within. So, by the technological standards of the day, Diamond and Pearl were not graphically brilliant. But I still remember being amazed by the way the looked when they came out. Horror films for horror fans have this similar exclusivity - a horror film can be bad on the grand scale, but compared to other horror films could be a masterpiece. So, despite what I’ve said before, can we say that Madhouse is a good horror film?
The honest answer is, it’s okay. It’s possible to derive some pleasure from the horror within. It has those little gory bits, elements of horrific exaggeration, alongside many things we expect to see and hear in a horror film. It’s one of those films that you watch one, then put back on the shelf to never whirr in the DVD player again. I mean, it’s not like you could trade it in. I got quoted a penny for CEX to buy it from me. It would cost me more in fuel to get there to trade it in.
So I guess we’re in for the long haul, Madhouse. You’ll sit forever gathering dust in my collection, never to be watched again. But hey, we had an alright time.