Genre: Horror and Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 32 min.
Release Date: November 12th, 1982 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jack Sholder Actors: Jack Palance, Donald Pleasence, Martin Landau, Dwight Schultz, Erland van Lidth, Deborah Hedwall, Lee Taylor-Allan, Phillip Clark, Elizabeth Ward, Brent Jennings, Carol Levy, Lin Shaye
yron “Preacher” Sutcliff (Martin Landau) strolls into a cafe and orders the “usual” – which turns out to be a whole fish, staring up at him on a conspicuously white plate. Seconds later, a frog hops across the countertop. And then rain pours into the building as Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasence), dressed as the chef, wields a mighty cleaver to slash the startled customer in two. Fortunately, it’s all just a bad dream.
The next morning, Dr. Daniel Potter (Dwight Schultz) arrives at the Haven Mental Hospital in Springwood, New Jersey, an innovative insane asylum, to see the unorthodox Dr. Bain about taking over the duties of another doctor who transferred to Philadelphia. Potter is miffed when he’s initially turned away by the receptionist, who believes the founder is invisible, and therefore cannot attend a meeting. As it turns out, Bain allows his patients to wander about the facility and conduct menial tasks – and the receptionist is actually a delusional inmate. The asylum is intended to be a haven, not a jailhouse, so despite the advanced security system, the residents aren’t treated in the customary manner of psychopathic criminals.
Even the third floor, which houses the most violent patients, or “voyagers” – including Colonel Frank Hawkes (Jack Palance) and rapist Ronald “Fatty” Elster (Erland van Lidth), along with arsonist and murderer Sutcliff – isn’t really a series of cells as much as it is a classroom and recreational area, full of items of creative distraction. Floor monitor Ray Curtis (Brent Jennings) warns the newcomer about the dangers of the third floor voyagers, but Potter is used to raving maniacs. Surely he can handle it.
“You gotta be a little crazy to be a good shrink.” Daniel’s wife Nell (Deborah Hedwall), young daughter Lyla (Elizabeth Ward), and returning adult sister Toni (Lee Taylor-Allan) – who recently suffered a debilitating mental breakdown (presenting the most original aspect, which parallels the villains) – attempt to lighten the mood in the Potter household, as the therapist’s work takes its toll on his mental wellbeing. A heavy-metal concert (featuring such classics as “Chop Up Your Mother” by the Sic F*cks) certainly doesn’t do the trick; and when a citywide blackout occurs (either an act of sabotage or an act of God), the electricity-based defenses at the Haven reveal no failsafes. The ultra-deranged members of the third floor are suddenly free to terrorize the unsuspecting townsfolk.
The premise (a classic escaped psychopath/home-invasion scenario) isn’t too far removed from “Halloween,” which also starred Pleasence, though the number of unstoppable, juggernaut slaughterers has increased. Here, they also have varying degrees of intelligence and cunning, which leads to different sorts of stalking and killing. It’s not long before mayhem ensues, boasting some amusingly destructive violence. And, of course, the heroes are predominantly alone in the dark.
“Alright, they’re crazy! Isn’t everybody?” Though the threats are sincere, the tension isn’t immediately cinematic. The misunderstood monsters steadily ramp up the menace, building their characters before unleashing bodily harm. Yet for such a simple setup, designed chiefly for B-movie shocks, the delays are rather detrimental.
Nevertheless, the sexy babysitter slips off her clothes for a secretive rendezvous with her boyfriend, destined to be interrupted by bloodthirsty chaos; psychopaths infiltrate homes with conspicuous ease; sounds emanate from closets and things creep under beds; and gratuitous nudity pops up from time to time as if to meet a quota. But for every jump scare, there’s also a scene for socializing or small talk; the lead-ins to carnage are quite lengthy. Normally, this would cause the eventual payoffs to be even more effective; but with the low budget, oddly serene music, and limitations in inventive gore, the visual constraints cause the film to be considerably dependent on mood and the quality of the acting. Fortunately, everyone takes their roles seriously, and the combination of Palance, Landau, and Pleasence (this is a great opportunity for them to embrace their wild sides) imparts extra gravitas – and some unintentional humor. Plus, the finale is consistently suspenseful, unexpected, and brutal. “I don’t know what’s normal anymore.”
– Mike Massie