Madhouse goes under a number of names including There Was a Little Girl and And When She Was Bad, but its most recognized title actually shares the same name as a Vincent Price horror film from 1974. It’s easy to see how this 1981 film could be overlooked with such a problematic distribution, and it didn’t help that it was unnecessarily labeled a video nasty in its infancy; but Ovidio G. Assonitis’ Italian/Georgian pseudo-slasher/giallo is a surprisingly fun film despite its often derivative nature, a culmination of styles that often evokes dread through its stylistic cinematography and a likable main character.
Madhouse follows Julia (Trish Everly), a teacher at a school for deaf children whose 25th birthday is nearing. However, Julia’s not one to celebrate her birthday; in her childhood, she was constantly tormented by her twin sister on the day, who – at Madhouse‘s outset – is currently in hospital and afflicted by a horribly painful disfiguring disease. When Julia visits her sister Mary (Allison Biggers) in the hospital, Mary vows to make Julia hurt as much as she does.
Assonitis’ script (written under the pseudonym Oliver Hellman) is immediately weird from the outset despite being grounded in reality. Julia’s visit to her ailing sister, insisted on by her uncle Father James (Dennis Robertson), is a surreal moment, a terrifying sequence aided by well-placed hospital sheets and dark lighting; it’s a quick glimpse into the kind of terror Julia’s been subjected to all her life, and there’s no indication to the audience that Julia is lying or mentally unstable when she talks about her sister’s disturbing behavior despite that being an easy route to take.
Instead, Madhouse gets more complex, introducing an equally disfigured rottweiler into the mix that begins attacking people Julia cares about, including her star pupil Sacha (Richard Baker) in a surprisingly cautious off-screen killing. Assonitis’ focus isn’t on the gruesome killings – although some of the dog maulings can be particularly bloody – but on the emotional toll it has on Julia. Everly, in her only film appearance, carries the film with her character, a smart and well-grounded woman who realizes something’s amiss before anyone else.
Madhouse‘s best work is spent making Julia an endearing character, and there’s a particularly compelling scene once Sacha is killed where Julia and her class share why they liked him. It’s a powerful moment that is, for a horror film of this nature, refreshingly humanistic; and in that moment, it’s easy to understand the scope of the deaths surrounding Julia, something that is often missing from generic slasher films.
Assonitis’ storyline does resemble some of the big slashers and gialli of the time, most prominently Halloween because of its occasional setting; its killer wears gloves, although a blue frilly pair instead of the usual black leather, and atmospherically Madhouse feels very akin to a Dario Argento or Mario Bava affair. While the film never gives its antagonists a satisfying backstory, Assonitis seems to wave that away with a final quotation from George Bernard Shaw about the unsatisfying conclusion of life.
It’s not necessary to focus on the intricacies of the killer, either, besides Mary’s true motive – to disfigure her twin sister, to make her the same. While Madhouse is primarily a realistic slasher film, it works in a supernatural element about twin abilities, how both Julia and Mary are able to channel each other for good and for bad. Combined with the film’s atmospheric setting – an apartment complex that was actually filmed in a funeral home – these elements add a pervasive level of tension that works despite some of Madhouse‘s more generic elements.
Its one flaw is its conclusion, not in the twist itself but in the pacing of it. Assonitis draws the final birthday party sequence out to an unnecessary length, and in doing so Madhouse‘s antagonists become too comical and over-the-top. A little restraint could have gone a long way for the climax; even so, Madhouse features a few excellent scenes at the end, including a grisly dog death.
Madhouse, overlooked in its prime, will probably be rightfully compared to its slasher brethren at the time. Despite its familiar qualities, though, it’s a film that excels because of its off-kilter storyline and courage to get crazy. Assonitis’ film isn’t just eerie, it’s also fun, too, and thankfully Arrow Video has brought this video nasty back to the party for contemporary audiences.
Click next for the Blu-Ray review.