William Butler’s Madhouse

There are so many horror movies set in mental institutions that it’s pretty much a sub genre at this point, and while these days we realize that the aesthetic of presenting that world in such a.. heightened and lurid manner isn’t all that enlightened, we can still appreciate a good entry on its own trashy terms I guess. William Butler’s Madhouse is a gory little diversion with a kind of messy story that it makes up for with some truly unsettling, deeply disturbing visuals that are very clearly influenced by Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder, but such influences on other works are welcome, even if worn shamelessly on their straightjacket sleeves. Joshua Leonard, who comes across as a kind of subdued, less succinct Sam Rockwell, plays an intern taking up residency at an underfunded, spooky asylum run by a head doctor (Lance Henriksen, naturally) who has little interest or compassion for the patients and whose safety protocols and ethical groundwork are, shall we say, questionable. Most of the patients run about willy nilly and the terrifying subterranean maximum security wing is a furnace heated nightmare corridor of leering monstrosities and deliberately grotesque personalities, like the hallway of prison cells from Silence Of The Lambs went to sleep and had a bad dream. There he finds a sort of ‘patient X’, a mysterious mummified individual who tells him a long forgotten tale of a young boy decades before who was mistreated by the asylum staff (you know, more than usual anyway) and whose ghost still runs around at night, and I found it funny how the script acts as if the ghost of a little kid is the *scariest* thing left to run about the place at night when the film has this level of freaky production design and prosthetic soaked extras on hand, which are really quite impressive, even if the story can’t quite get it up. Henriksen does little more than bluster, but his presence is always welcome, the lovely Natasha Lyonne has an extended cameo as a severely distressed patient and that adorable little southern dandy hobbit Leslie Jordan (a frequent staple of American Horror Story) has a nice bit as one of the facility’s doctors who reaffirms our primal fear of being murked while we sneak out to the refrigerator for that 2am snack. Director William Butler has a solid body of DTV horror work including the Danny Trejo/Tom Sizemore vehicle Furnace and while he can’t quite land the narrative here with overall coherence and the twist is felt a mile away, Madhouse has atmosphere in spades, truly horrific gory imagery that borders on the surreal and a very effectively creepy vibe.

-Nate Hill

Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof

Death Proof is regarded as the weakest link in Quentin Tarantino’s work, but in a career so consistently awesome does that really matter much? It might be weirdly paced and the inherent schlock in trying to recreate the Grindhouse aesthetic makes it hard to take seriously but it’s still a sterling flick in my book and one fucking wild ride at the movies.

I wasn’t around for the Grindhouse era but it seems to me like Quentin and Robert Rodriguez only partially aped the vibe and sort of trail blazed through their own stuff instead of sticking strictly to routine like, say, Hobo With A Shotgun did. It’s a good thing too, because you wouldn’t want two creative wellsprings like these filmmakers limited to doing something that’s cheap to its bones and has little innovation. As such (with QT’s half of the double bill anyways) we get something that’s a healthy compromise of balls out Mad Max style vehicular bedlam and leisurely paced, character heavy interludes of dialogue, which is of course his trademark. There are an absolute ton of characters here, but naturally the one that showboats across centre stage is Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike, a charming but sadistic serial killer who mows down and decimates innocent women in his souped up Dodge Charger. That of course fills up the back half of the film, while initially we are treated to a solid chunk that sees different groups of girls bicker, banter, discourse on everything from John Hughes’ films to the benefits and drawbacks of being a semi-famous radio DJ and generally have a good time. Usually when you think of showcase Tarantino dialogue and characters this film wouldn’t enter the running, and I’m not sure why, he writes some of the most wonderful parts here and these gals positively act the pants off of them to the point that when the highway mayhem kicks in, you’re almost disappointed that the round table discussions and quirky friendships are done with. Russell is absolute perfection and seems born to play this peculiar villain. He’s so charming that bad vibes aren’t even perceived, and even later when he gets downright psychotic there’s this fourth wall breaking sheepishness that gets chuckles instead of screams, especially in the end when he turns into a big baby. My favourite of the gals has to be Vanessa Ferlito as sultry Arlene, Rosario Dawson as tomboyish Abernathy, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as sensitive Lee and Sydney Tamiia Poitier as aforementioned DJ Jungle Julia. Others are fantastic too including Jordan Ladd, Zoe Bell, Tracie Thomas, Marcy Harriell, Helen Kim, Tina Rodriguez and Rose McGowan as angelic Pam, who squares off against Mike in both the funniest and scariest sequence of the film. Watch for cameos from several of the Inglorious Basterds as well as a brief turn from Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks).

The film consists mostly of two things: girls hanging around in apartments, cars and bars talking and beautiful old muscle cars playing havoc along the interstate. When you have Quentin at the helm providing pages of wonderful dialogue and overseeing practical effects based car chases, it makes for something endlessly fun. I saw this as a double bill alongside Rodriguez’s sometimes fun, often lame Planet Terror and viewed together is enough content to melt both brain and eyeballs, especially when you consider that they each have generous runtimes. This is the better of the two films and I think they should be viewed separately as their own entity. Not the weakest thing Quentin has done (Hateful Eight bears that crown for me) and so much more fun than people remember or give it credit for.

-Nate Hill