Monday, May 13, 2019

“Not Exactly a Norman Rockwell” - Silent Madness (1984)

It is time to discuss the classic Silent Madness (1984) aka Silent Madness in 3-D, starring the charming Belinda Montgomery of Man from Atlantis fame. Made by one of the directors who contributed to the infamous movie Snuff (1975), Silent Madness is one of the finer slasher films of 1984.

Some critics refuse to admit that Silent Madness is a classic. Reviewer BA_Harrison writes that the film is "over-talky, virtually bloodless, and lacking in style." Reviewer dagonseve writes, somewhat confusingly, "Silent Madness is a mistake of a can easily be shelved into the Z-grade bank of Slasher-types made possible by hack directors who treated the genre like a playground for Down syndrome children. This colossal number of mishaps supersedes a figure unimaginable." And reviewer Coventry writes, "Admittedly most contemporary teen slasher movies suffer from a lack of originality, but Simon Nuchtern's film is truly an amassment of clichés, stereotypes, predictable plot twists and trite killings."

Read on if you want to know the truth about colossal mishaps and unimaginable figures and trite killings...
Belinda Montgomery plays Dr. Gilmore, a psychiatrist in a mental institution. She is frustrated that the overcrowded institution is forced to release patients who are not ready to join society at large. When she complains to the ranking psychiatrist, the woman explains (somewhat unlike a concerned psychiatrist), “In a perfect world, we would keep every patient here until they were cured. In the real world, however, we barely have enough money to take care of them.”

Later, in an extremely crowded and claustrophobic yard that is part of the mental institution, four or five doctors argue about which prisoners they have released and which they have not. Ms. Montgomery is concerned about a patient named John Howard, whose release has been rescinded. She looks on the institution’s sole computer, however, and finds that there has been a mixup between John Howard and Howard Johns, a dangerous paranoid psychotic. “Oh my God,” she says to herself. “They released the wrong man.”

Meanwhile, we see a couple of young people making out in a van. Someone with a sledgehammer, presumably Howard Johns (whose madness is not so silent) attacks the van, sledgehammers the man, and axes the woman.

After approximately ten minutes watching Belinda Montgomery walk through the institution’s corridors, she runs into a cynical orderly. “These people can’t be helped. They got no minds to examine. They’re the living dead, Doc.” He adds, “Not much for a doctor like you to do.”

The filmmakers then cut to a nearby “college for women,” though there are nearly as many men walking around campus as there are women. In a sudden suspense sequence, a skateboarding college woman is abducted and dragged into a furnace room where her head is crushed in a vise by Howard Johns.

At night, Ms. Montgomery finds a creepy scene behind the locked doors of the mental institution in Ward L. Patients are hooked up to machines, some patients writing in body bags.

Ms. Montgomery seems unaffected by this discovery. She looks at one of the patient’s charts. Then she is interrupted by two male attendants, who tell her she isn’t allowed in the room, where the other doctors are keeping patients sedated in their beds. One of the attendants starts laughing maniacally for no reason in particular. All Ms. Montgomery can do is tell one of the other doctors that she is worried that a dangerous patient has been released accidentally.

Meanwhile back at the college for women, a sorority house is mostly empty for fall break. One of the students goes down to the extensive boiler room to find her suitcases, as she has a flight in the morning. Unfortunately, the practice of storing suitcases in the boiler room leads to the woman’s demise, as Mr. Johns grabs her and pumps some kind of gas into her face.

Back at the mental institution, the administrator holds a meeting about Mr. Johns’s release. “This could have been a monstrous problem,” the administrator says.

The evil doctor responsible for the problem, however, lies and says that Howard Johns’s record should have been marked “deceased.” He also helpfully explains that Mr. Johns had committed murders at a sorority and was found “innocent by reason of insanity.”

“Okay, thanks very much,” says the administrator.

The administrator tells Ms. Montgomery to take the weekend off, and she does so, not before the evil doctor tells her threatengingly, “Two of the patients in Ward L used to be shrinks.”

Ms. Montgomery takes her red roadster to the very college where Mr. Johns is committing his slasher murders.

It seems she is looking for Mr. Johns’s police records at the college. She tells the sheriff the whole story: that she thinks he was released and didn’t die, and that he might have come back to the college for women. The sheriff, played by character actor Sydney Lassick, says, “That worm would crawl back here if you dropped him on the far side of the moon.”

“Regardless, I think it’s important to find him.”

Next, Ms. Montgomery checks the local newspaper, a publication which is apparently named The Newspaper Office.

The newspaperman, Mark, flirts with Ms. Montgomery and they come up with a plan that only skirts a half-dozen or so ethical questions for both reporters and psychiatrists. “Like a good investigative reporter, I arrange for you to become an alumnus of the question. It’s mid-semester break, you’re passing through town, there are plenty of empty rooms in the sorority house. There you are, at the scene of the crime!”

Of course, everything works perfectly. Ms. Montgomery parks her roadster in the middle of the road and arranges to stay at the Delta Omega sorority house overnight, with the permission of “Old Miss Collins,” the Scandinavian house mother. She immediately starts her investigation by chatting with the three sorority sisters who are staying during fall break. “Is it true what I heard in town about the sorority?” she asks.

“What were they telling you?”

“Oh, that someone was murdered here a long time ago.”

“Oh yeah, you mean the sorority slaughter,” says Cheryl. She adds, “Blood and guts and everything.”

Next, Ms. Montgomery visits “Old Miss Collins,” who has a perfectly normal shrine in her room with a huge number of old dolls and a picture of a little boy and a wagon. Without any prompting from Ms. Montgomery, Miss Collins says, “The girls are all I have left now that Francis is...gone. Francis was my son. He loved me.” Then she says, unusually, “God took him away.”

Ms. Montgomery pushes her, and Miss Collins tells the story of the massacre. “It was a terrible night. Howard, yeah, that’s the custodian, he always went away during pledge week. So this one particular night, he comes back.”

The filmmakers cut to a flashback in black and white about that terrible night, when Howard spied on the pledges, who were being beaten as part of their hazing in the boiler room.

The girls found Howard and teased him by getting him drunk, taking off their clothes, and spanking him.

“He was so humiliated,” Miss Collins narrates, “so frightened. So finally he...struck back!”

Howard shoots a nail gun at the sorority girls, killing them.

“None of the girls survived.”

Will Old Miss Collins reappear in the film? Yes, she will. [Spoiler.]

Later, Ms. Montgomery tells the story to newspaperman Mark. “Not exactly a Norman Rockwell,” he says, for some unknown reason. Now that they understand the backstory, they decide to search for Howard Johns.

The next morning, Ms. Montgomery finds her sorority sisters to be quite edgy, as demonstrated by one of them pouring Coca Cola instead of milk on her cereal. Cheryl volunteers to show Ms. Montgomery where the murders took place in this very sorority house. “They used to have their initiations in the boiler room, but we can’t anymore,” she explains.

“Why not?”

“Because of the killing.”

“Where did he live?”

“In a room in the back. We keep our luggage there now.”

When they reach the boiler room, Cheryl is even more helpful: “If you look closely, you can find blood stains almost anywhere on the walls.”

Suddenly, a uniformed policeman appears in the boiler room and tells the two women to get “your buns out of here.” The policeman disappears as quickly as he appeared.

Cheryl leaves Ms. Montgomery alone to snoop in the boiler room. Suddenly, Howard Johns appears behind her, but she escapes to find the policeman. When they return, Mr. Johns is nowhere to be found—though we see him when the camera pans up to the pipe-lined ceiling, where he is hiding in a particularly bright pool of light.

Of course, the first thing Ms. Montgomery does is call the hospital administrator on the phone. “You’re more than three hours away and I think he’s violent,” Ms. Montgomery says. “I’m on my way to the sheriff’s office now.”

“That sheriff won’t be able to handle him. You wait until I can get some of our people up there who can cope.”

“Doctor, I don’t trust ‘our’ people,” Ms. Montgomery says.

“Okay, and be careful,” replies the administrator, for some unknown reason. Then she hangs up the phone without saying goodbye, as so often occurs in classic movies.

Ms. Montgomery and Mark take the case to the ornery sheriff, where Mark insists, “If you don’t do something, he could go berserk all over again.”

Unfortunately, the meeting with sheriff goes poorly. He contacts the hospital, where all the doctors tell him Howard Johns died. The administrator betrays Ms. Montgomery: “If you’ll turn on your facsimile machine, we’ll send you the death certificate right now.”

Displaying his insensitivity (and perhaps his sociopathic tendencies), the sheriff says, “That’s the best news I’ve heard since the mayor dropped dead.”

In a scene that might be considered by some to be bizarre, the doctors back at the hospital, led by the administrator, concoct a plan to send their orderlies up to the college for women to kill Howard Johns themselves in order to be spared the embarrassment of an incorrect death certificate. “I want this job done quietly,” says Dr. Kruger. “No uproars.”

“Dr. Gilmore also?” the orderly asks, referring to Ms. Montgomery.

“Oh, yes.”

Ms. Montgomery and Mark return to the sorority house, only to find that the students’ car tires have been slashed, the phone lines have been cut, and Old Miss Collins is not answering her door. Despite these warning signs, neither Ms. Montgomery nor Mark is alarmed by their situation. They decide, perhaps unwisely, that Mark will drop one of the students off at the local lake, where her sister is camping with her boyfriend (soon revealed to be dead, of course—the first victims of Mr. Johns), while the others will lock themselves into the house (where, incidentally, Mr. Johns was last seen) with Ms. Montgomery.

In another scene that might be considered by some to be bizarre, the orderlies chase Mark (who is driving Ms. Montgomery’s roadster) with their ambulance. When he tries to explain the situation to the orderlies, they knock him unconscious and imprison him in the back of the ambulance.

Meanwhile, the remaining students occupy themselves inside the sorority house by hanging upside down on a chin-up bar and by playing the old Don Bluth laserdisc arcade game Dragon’s Lair. Unfortunately, Howard Johns kills both of them.

The orderlies confront Ms. Montgomery in the house. “Get her!” one of them yells, as hospital orderlies are wont to do, as they carry a hypodermic needle and an electric prod up the stairs. To make matters worse, she barricades herself into a bedroom where Mr. Johns is hiding in the closet. After a chaotic fight involving an iron that is choreographed like a bar fight in a Western, Mr. Johns punches Ms. Montgomery in the face and carries her downstairs into boiler room where, like a villain in a fine melodrama, he ties her underneath a drill press, whose presence in the boiler room remains unexplained.

The orderlies make their way to the boiler room and, surprisingly, subdue Mr. Johns by squirting a drug into his mouth with the hypodermic. One of the orderlies tries to rape Ms. Montgomery, but chaos ensues when Mr. Johns becomes conscious again and kills the orderlies, impaling one with a crowbar against a water tank.

The finale is a chase through the various floors, corridors, and ventilation ducts of the massive boiler room, where Mr. Johns has hidden the bodies of his previous victims in classic slasher movie style.

In short order, Ms. Montgomery traps herself underneath an exhaust fan, escapes through a ventilation shaft, finds the campus policeman dead, and lets Mark out of the back of the ambulance. “Take the gun! Take the gun!” he screams at her.

She takes the rifle from the ambulance, but screams back, “It won’t shoot!”

He screams, “Release the safety!” as Mr. Johns assaults her. The gun is dropped, and Ms. Montgomery runs back into the sorority house, chased by Mr. Johns, who fortunately has not picked up the rifle.

In the end, Old Miss Collins appears from nowhere, screaming for help. Then she reaches out to kiss Mr. Johns’s fingers, asking him to forgive her, while Ms. Montgomery kills Mr. Johns by plunging a broken mirror into his back.

Shockingly, but perhaps not completely unexpectedly, Old Miss Collins reveals herself to be Mr. Johns’s mother, who was herself responsible for the nail gun murders of the sorority sisters years ago. Furthermore, Mr. Johns was mute (hence his titular silent madness), so he couldn’t defend himself. Naturally, as soon as he escaped, he returned to the sorority and murdered the remaining sisters himself. All that can remain is four minutes of credits as a smiling Belinda Montgomery drives away in her roadster with Mark.

In a way, Silent Madness is the best of two worlds: It has the feel of a classic protoslasher, but the body count of a true slasher movie. It also displays its fair share of 3-D images, including Howard Johns swinging a sledgehammer. And it features a nightmarish ending in which the mystery is explained, and yet not explained: Why, after all, did Howard Johns kill the sorority sisters in 1984 when his mother killed sorority sisters 17 years earlier? Like a fine novel, the film ends on a note of ambiguity about motivations and guilt, while the protagonists drive away happily in a tiny MG roadster.

All in all, Silent Madness is perhaps one of the greatest protoslashers of all time, hindered only by the fact that, unlike all the other protoslashers, it was released after the height of the slasher boom, and thus could have little influence on future protoslashers because slashers had already made them obsolete. I, for one, would rejoice in the return of the protoslasher as a genre, a return which, though logically impossible due to the flow of time, would also be indescribably wonderful.