At its best it can be a tense, compelling, immersive experience that draws us into the heart of the experience of the story. At its worst, it ends up a contrived, chaotic jumble of shaky camera work and muffled sound trying to coalesce into coherent narrative. For most of its 83-minute running time, Ross Perkin’s first feature film sits enjoyably close to the former, although it suffers at times when it leans a bit towards the latter. I say ‘enjoyably’, although the truth is that watching such a frightening, intrusive and violent tale rendered in this realistic form is, in fact, far from what we might think of as enjoyable which, of course, is a credit to its effectiveness in making this genre work.
The story, inspired by a true occurrence, begins as successful businessman, Dale (Matt Hastings), sets up his new iPhone. This, then, becomes the medium through which we ‘see’ the various aspects of the story. Dale has a seemingly perfect life with loving wife, Natalie (Dearbhla Hannigan) and teenage daughter Gabby (Tequila Rathbone). Using the camera function, voice mail and other apps on the phone, we’re drawn into a deeper truth about Dale’s life; his brush with infidelity and eventually the shadier side of his business dealings. It’s here that Mad House gets the found footage idea right – the means by which the footage is captured is integral to the understanding of the story. The superficial appearance of Dale’s successful life (and, by extension, maybe our own) is betrayed by what the iPhone knows that not everyone else does. When that knowledge falls into the wrong hands, then we’re introduced to a horror far great than monsters or aliens or dark forces outside our understanding of the world. That horror arrives in the form of Bryce (Aaron Patrick), Cass (Jess Turner) and Wes (Perkins himself) three drug addicts who gain control of Dale’s phone and his secrets, invade his happy home and take he and his family hostage until he provides them with what they want. But Dale doesn’t want to give them what they want, nor does he want to admit to what he’s been up to in the seedier side of his life.
Dale’s iPhone may be the narrative device here, but Ross Perkins’ iPhone is the means by which the film is made and the clever use of this piece of ubiquitous personal technology as something that is integral to what goes on on both sides of the camera (well, in fact, it is the camera) enhances the effectiveness of the found footage style. But Perkins goes further than just using the phone as a means of recording the footage that tells the story. At times (especially with Cass and then later with Wes) the phone is used as confessional in a way that provides a deeper insight these two characters who we should hold in contempt but are more likely to find a bit of sympathy for in the way we understand what the lives they are destroying could, in other circumstances, have been. Obviously, the judges agreed with this when they gonged Mad House with the Best Feature Film Award at the San Diego International Mobile Film Festival in April last year.
On the downside, the film suffers at times from the less appealing aspects of the found footage genre; the rough, shaky, inelegant images that are necessarily the product of this form of filmmaking can grow tiresome in their sameness and in their anti-cinematography as does the fluctuating sound quality and the mundaneness of some of the dialogue which, for all its terrific authenticity, can sometimes be taxing on the ear. The film also has its fair share of contrivances in relation to how and why we get different perspectives on the characters and shifts within the narrative. The logic of how the iPhone (both in the hands of the characters and in the hands of the director) travels through the film doesn’t always hold as true as it might. These things aside, though, as a first-time feature writer/director/actor/editor working with a handheld iPhone in a demanding genre, Perkins could well have bitten off more than he could chew. It’s pleasing, then, that he didn’t and, instead, produced a tasty little treat.