MADHOUSE 2004 promo art
3 and a half stars  
"Let the insanity begin."

directed by: William Butler
starring: Joshua Leonard, Jordan Ladd, Natasha Lyonne, Lance Henriksen, Dendrie Taylor, Mark Holton, Patrika Darbo, Christian Leffler, Newell Alexander, Dan Callahan, George V. Grigore, Todd Stites, Rosemary Alexander, Muffy Bolding, Adam Lazarre-White

choice dialogue:

“Your everyday garden variety maniacs.”

- A killer lurks in the asylum.

slash with panache?


[review by JA Kerswell]

  Clark (Joshua Leonard) and Sara (Jordan Ladd) try to unravel the mysteries of the MADHOUSE.

Blessed with a great cast of familiar faces, William Butler’s film is a quirky and entertaining puzzle box. Unfairly overlooked at the time of its release, MADHOUSE may not appear to be a slasher movie at first glance, with its faux supernatural flourishes, frantic cuts and the epileptic, juddering ghostly figures that were so en vogue at the time. However, by its closing third, the film is very much an axe-in-hand murder-rama. A young intern starts work at an asylum that has seen better days - then gruesome murders start. In a house full of psychos, who could be the culprit?

Clark Stevens (Joshua Leonard) is a graduate student who has been placed at the Cunningham Hall Mental Health facility for his internship. Although most of the staff make him feel welcome, he notices that it is run down and understaffed. He is further perturbed when the head of the facility, Dr Franks (Lance Henriksen), tells him that his job is to maintain the status quo and there is no money for actual restorative treatment. He bonds with fellow intern Sara (Jordan Ladd), who shows him the lower level of the asylum where they keep the most disturbed patients - which the staff call the Madhouse. Another doctor (Leslie Jordan), tells Stevens that some years before a patient escaped from the lower level but he doesn’t know what happened to him.

The longer he stays at Cunningham Hall the more Stevens discovers about malpractice behind the scenes and begins to suspect that the patients are being kept purposefully ill to keep them there. However, Sara warns him not to take the word of the inmates. “You can never trust a schizo!” she says in slightly unprofessional terms. However, as Stevens delves deeper into the secrets hidden within the facility’s walls the staff start to die one-by-one …

  Leslie Jordan has more to worry about that Karen Walker in William Butler's MADHOUSE.

At its heart, MADHOUSE is a classic slasher whodunnit. However, given the time it was made the film is steeped in a dizzying array of shock cuts, fuzzy visuals and jerky ghost figures just off camera. It was a trend that seemingly originated with the 1999 remake of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL but had somewhat worn out its welcome by the time this film was released. It is all the more frustrating given the fact that most of this is mere window dressing and not really intrinsic to the plot. Still, despite the identity of the killer being pretty easy to guess (by me at least), it is an engaging ride - especially with likeable leads Joshua Leonard and Jordan Ladd as the amateur sleuths.

The film has an entertainingly pulpy feel. Mental health facilities are rarely portrayed with any sense of accuracy or sensitivity in slasher movies (remember the bird bath hair-washing scene in DARK SANITY (1982)?!). In MADHOUSE, Butler isn’t going for authenticity either and the patients in the lower level have an EC Comics intensity about them that is both darkly amusing and sometimes genuinely unsettling. Perhaps one fault with the film is that it has an abundance of interesting characters. Although some are drawn with pathos, including Natasha Lyonne - as one of the patients. Sadly her character somewhat gets lost in the mix as do others. The killer - seemingly draped in a see-through body bag - is also pretty creepy looking, but barely glimpsed.

Trying desperately not to camp it up, Leslie Jordan (possibly best remembered on the sitcom WILL & GRACE as Karen’s nemesis Beverly) puts in an enjoyable quirky performance as one of the doctors - and meets his demise in the film’s grisliest scene. Eagle-eyed viewers may also spot Mark Holton as another nemesis (in that case to Pee Wee Herman in PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985)) as an incontinent patient. Leonard is best known for the found footage mega-hit THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) and Jordan Ladd had found genre success with Eli Roth’s CABIN FEVER (2002). Lance Henrikson’s genre credits are also numerous.

  MADHOUSE obscures its slasher tendencies in much spooky window dressing.

William Butler also wasn’t a stranger to slashers - albeit previously as a victim in front of the camera. He played the wholesome good boy who dies horribly in everything from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD (1988) to the little-seen TERROR NIGHT (1989) and LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III (1990). MADHOUSE was his genre directorial debut. The film was shot in Romania in 2003 and Butler describes the mad exploits and the fallout from an explosive meeting with the producer of the movie in his wonderfully gossipy, insightful and witty 2021 book 'Tawdry Tales and Confessions from Horror's Boy Next Door'. The book has some great anecdotes about making the film - with the standout being Leslie Jordan’s penchant for trying to hook up with Romanian rough trade! Plus Butler being made to begrudgingly reshoot part of the film and add a tacked-on ending against his will. The book also covers Butler’s horror career as an actor, too, and is well worth seeking out.

For whatever reason, MADHOUSE - despite being acquired by Lionsgate - never got a North American cinema release. Although it did play theatrically overseas in some territories and made a healthy profit. It is definitely worthy of a reappraisal.

Buy the DVD of MADHOUSE on Amazon.


BODYCOUNT  bodycount!   female: 3 / male: 4

1) Female killed with electroshock equipment
      2) Male found hungd
      3) Male has head cleaved in half with an axe
      4) Male killed with a hatchet
      5) Male killed with an axe
      6) Female found dead
      7) Female killed with an axe (off screen)



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