Color, 1984, 92 mins. 38 secs.
Directed by Simon Nuchtern
Starring Belinda Montgomery, Viveca Lindfors, Solly Marx, Sydney Lassick, David Greenan, Roderick Cook
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
The 3-D craze of the '80s inaugurated by Comin' at Ya! was already dying down in 1984 when few audience members got a look at Silent Madness, an entertaining and pulpy body count film that also just missed the first slasher wave that would morph around the same time with the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Shot in various locations around upstate New York and New Jersey, the film aimed high with its elaborate pop-out 3-D shocks (many of which were severely cut from various prints and home video releases) but ended up becoming more of a curious footnote, very rarely seen in its intended form. Fortunately it's been given a major new lease on life courtesy of a two-disc Blu-ray edition from Vinegar Syndrome, which offers three viewing options and plenty of extras for some much-needed context.
At an overcrowded mental hospital, new arrival Dr. Joan Gilmore (Blackout's Montgomery) is appalled by a new computer-assisted program designed to save money by dumping non-dangerous but helpless patients out on the street. While digging deeper into the situation, she realizes that a dangerous, homicidal patient named Howard Johns (Marx) has been discharged by accident instead of one named John Howard, something she verifies by sneaking into the closed-off ward for the most extreme violent cases. Sure enough, Howard is embarking on a murder spree starting off with a young couple in a van who meet the wrong end of a sledgehammer, and the outrageously evil and inept doctors in charge are scrambling to cover up the error by claiming that Johns is actually deceased. Meanwhile the nearby Delta Omega sorority house where Johns killed four young women years earlier is emptying out for vacation, with only a few students and the prudish house mother, Mrs. Collins (Creepshow's Lindfors), sticking around while the maniac finds shelter in the labyrinthine boiler room. With the aid of local newspaper man Mark McGowan (Greenan) and an available sorority ring, Joan poses as an Omega alumnus so she can stay in the house for a couple of nights in case her suspicions that Johns is alive turn out to be true. Of course, it's just a matter of time before history starts to violently repeat itself.
Clearly inspired by the success of 1982's 3-D slasher stunner Friday the 13th Part III, this one even recruited that film's cinematographer, Gerald Feil (He Knows You're Alone), who uses his expertise with in-depth scope framing here as well. In fact, he and director Simon Nuchtern (who had mainly worked in innocuous sex comedies to that point and directed the tagged-on finale for Snuff) teamed up again right afterwards for another Vinegar Syndrome staple, Savage Dawn. Though this sounds like a typical stalk and slash film on paper, it's actually a bit different in that the focus rests far more on the doctor heroine than the usual teens in peril; in fact, the sorority slaughter aspect feels like more of an afterthought, albeit one that pays off with a spectacular sequence involving a game of Dragon's Lair and upside-down aerobics. Montgomery is charismatic as always and manages to pull off a potentially drab role, while Lindfors gets to chew up the scenery as usual. The 3-D is only used sparingly as a gimmick for the first hour or so, with an occasional sharp implement (including a hilarious bit of unconvincing animation) flying at the camera. The real visual payoff comes during the climax with a barrage of wild Bava-style lighting and some inventive compositions during a pursuit and cornering in the boiler room. In its uncut form, the film manages to deliver some amusing kills as well with just enough blood to please fans including some knifings and a quick but impressive skull-punching gag that still holds up well.
Initially released on VHS by Media complete with reworked opening credits and trims to some of the gorier moments, this one has suffered from a fairly low reputation over the years due to the shoddiness of existing versions and the rarity of theatrical screenings that might do it justice. Fortunately the Blu-ray release corrects that situation in spectacular fashion including a gorgeous digital 3-D presentation from the original 3-D negative that will be an absolute eye opener for those with the proper capability. The blurry, cropped mess you're used to seeing is replaced here with an entirely different viewing experience, and apart from the ill-advised main titles (which prove why you should never run 3-D credits over heavy background movement), the effects all look great. The first disc also features the option to watch the film in 2-D (automatically detected based on your player and monitor), while the second disc features an anaglyph (red and blue) option with two pairs of enclosed glasses. Though not as ideal as the real 3-D version, it's a solid way to see the effects in action. This less ballyhooed on the packaging, the film's very active and enjoyable stereo track is also included here in excellent quality with plenty of fun separation effects throughout. (Why on earth they decided to mix the end credits in mono is anyone's guess though.) Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided. In any iteration, the film can be played with an optional video intro by Nuchtern (26s) as well as a new audio commentary with him moderated by Michael Gingold. There's a lot of great info here including the story behind the numerous temporary titles assigned during filming (such as The Omega Factor, Beautiful Screamers, and The Nightkillers), the frustration of the theatrical release, and the horror conventions he was playing around with after binging on tons of titles on VHS before shooting. A second audio commentary with the slasher-happy gang at The Hysteria Continues is as fun as you'd expect, going deep into the state of the subgenre when it was at a crossroads, the rocky video and censorship history, the publicity campaign, the joys of Montgomery's "Knot's Landing hairdo," the unusual storytelling choices, ties to many other horror films (as well as Amadeus!), and lots more.
Both discs also feature a promotional sizzle reel (18m23s) in real 3-D on disc one or anaglyph 3-D on disc two, with highlights used to pitch the film including a color version of the pivotal flashback that's monochrome in the actual feature. Though not included here, the theatrical trailer can be found on the first volume of Trailer Trauma. Disc two houses the lion's share of the video extras including "Method to the Madness" (45m47s), a new documentary by Gingold with Nuchtern, producer-writer William P. Milling (who gives his own take on the controversy over Nightmare), effects artist Carl Morano, and actors Paige Price (who was Jack Kethcum's cousin!), Katherine Kamhi, Tori Hartman, Shelly Gibson, Paul DeAngelo, many of them alumni from Sleepaway Camp. It's a colorful look back ranging from stories about the unlikely hospital location in Jersey City to a tie to skateboard documentaries. Also included is a reel of deleted scenes from the doc (6m40s) including even more background on Nightmare, followed by a close-up look at the locations in the video tour "Silent Stalking Grounds" (11m12s) with Gingold guiding you through the major spots from parks to sprawling estates. Finally the set wraps up with a collection of radio spots (2m20s) and a gallery (6m33s) of promotional ephemera and stills.
Reviewed on November 26, 2020