Review: Madhouse (1981)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #777

Also known as There Was a Little Girl, And When She Was Bad
Number of Views: One
Release Date: March 4, 1981
Sub-Genre: Psychological Horror/Slasher
Country of Origin: Italy, United States
Budget: $2,000,000
Running Time: 93 minutes
Director: Ovidio G. Assonitis
Producers: Ovidio G. Assonitis
Screenplay: Ovidio G. Assonitis, Stephen Blakeley, Peter Sheperd, Roberto Gandus
Special Effects: Nilo Jacoponi, Gino Zamprioli
Cinematography: Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli
Score: Riz Ortolani
Editing: Angelo Curi
Studio: Overseas FilmGroup
Distributors: Megastar Films, Arrow Video (Blu-Ray)
Stars: Trish Everly, Michael Macrae, Dennis Robertson, Morgan Hart, Allison Biggers, Edith Ivey, Richard Baker, Don Devendorf, Jerry Fujikawa

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Muse “Twin”

[2] Anthrax “Madhouse”

[3] Lesley Gore “It’s My Party”

I’ve always been fascinated with identical twins and fully endorse the belief that they share a telepathic connection. How else could they be expected to communicate with one another while inside the womb if not by brainwaves? Their fingerprints may not be identical or, indeed, their genetics. Hell, it’s even possible for them to have originated from entirely different sperm donors, which I’d imagine to be a logistical nightmare at the sorting phase. But they undoubtedly share some kind of cross-wiring and this can prove to be both blessing and curse. For the record, should you be taller than the national average and consume an outrageous amount of dairy products, then rumor has it that you’re practically begging for a double serving at the baby buffet. Anyhoots, where were we? Oh, that’s right – curses.

I’d imagine “curses” was the first word to leave the rosebud lips of Julia Sullivan (Trish Everly), when her mother kindly explained that her ropy looking identical twin Mary (Allison Biggers) wasn’t, in fact, the afterbirth and therefore shouldn’t be disposed of in the pedal bin. If anything, it’s Julia who spent her childhood endeavoring not to wind up in the refuse as Mary wasn’t only as ugly as sin, she was an ugly sinner also. Apparently nobody ever sat her down for the old “throwing stones in glass houses” chat as she took every opportunity to make life nigh on unbearable for her interchangeable other and all this rigmarole has left Julia sporting an abundance of deep rooted emotional scarring.

It would appear that karma has paid the girls a visit as, while Julia is thriving in her spiritually rewarding role teaching deaf children at the local school, Mary’s flesh is decaying at an alarming rate and, judging by the fact that only the nuthouse will have her, I’d say her psychological well-being isn’t in the best of health either.

Hopeful that a group hug may help, the twins’ uncle James (Dennis Robertson), who also happens to be a Catholic priest, implores Julia to pay sis a long overdue visit, as a nod from God is effectively a step farther from purgatory. Besides, with their joint birthday fast approaching, what better way to bury the hatchet right? Alas, Julia doesn’t take it so well when informed by her dastardly doppelgänger that she’ll soon be made to suffer as she suffered and departs her bedside with old wounds very much open and stinging.

Had I mentioned that Mary had an adorable little puppy dog growing up that just loved to have its belly tickled? While not altogether convinced that this mutton munching mauler was the most fetching Rottweiler in the litter, you can’t fault the little fella’s unshakable loyalty to its owner. Mary says jump, hound from hell inquires “balls or throat?” before lunging at any target specified in a manner some way beyond workmanlike. The good news for Julia is that her rented apartment is on the second floor and animals aren’t permitted; the bad news is that the mutt doesn’t give a shit about being invited in as it can gnaw through a paneled oak door in the time it takes Jack Torrance to position his hatchet. Mary says jump remember.

Thank the heavens then for Julia’s kindly shrink boyfriend Sam (Michael Macrae), whose safe passage is secured for the time being at least as he has himself something of a facial growler. Just as dizzy blonde sluts are encouraged to die horribly at the midway mark, any man boasting a ‘tache in the eighties has himself a bona fide shot at snagging himself a party bag once the cake’s been cut. Speaking of which, preparations are going well for a surprise birthday party in Julia’s honor, although she may not be best pleased once she learns what’s really going on in the basement. To further ramp up her consternation, rumor has it that Mary has somehow managed to escape from the institution and a number of strange unexplained occurrences have her jumping at shadows.

The first thing that struck me when watching Madhouse, a film that somehow managed to escape my attention until Arrow Video kindly provided it the 2K restoration treatment from the original camera negative, was how slick the overall package was. Back in 1984, it was one of the 39 films seized by the DPP and prosecuted as a video nasty and, considering its director Ovidio G. Assonitis (Beyond the Door, Tentacles) was widely regarded as a hack, I naturally presumed there was nothing much to see here.

In fact, it’s a very accomplished slow burn chiller, with a great deal to commend. Beautifully shot, with slick cinematography from Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli and a wonderfully discordant score by Riz Ortolani of Cannibal Holocaust fame, it calls to mind the work of Lucio Fulci at the turn of the eighties although with a far less convoluted narrative.

It’s almost inconceivable that this is Everly’s one and only screen credit as she is downright superb as the harassed birthday girl and every last one of her actions and reactions ring true. Support is decent too, with Macrae putting in a credible turn as her knight in shining corduroy, Biggers wonderfully wild-eyed as her cross to bear Mary, Robertson increasingly outlandish as her god-fearing Uncle James, and blonde bombshell Morgan Hart proving a more than welcome distraction as close friend Helen. Granted, a couple of the characters are played far too broadly, including a horribly misjudged Asian maintenance man and overly eccentric landlady, but if anything, this just adds to the film’s undeniable charm.

The ace up Assonitis’s sleeve is that, in addition to a rampaging Rottweiler and Mary Mary not quite so contrary, we also have a third ever more dominant threat to the peace which is kept under wraps until the obligatory closing act reveal. Comparisons have been drawn between this and J. Lee Thompson’s above par slasher Happy Birthday to Me with regards to the tail-end twist but, considering both movies surfaced around the same time, it’s hard to suss out who’s riffing from whom. Besides, while there are inescapable similarities, Madhouse plays out considerably differently from its Canadian counterpart and benefits greatly from the Italian connection.

This is where Madhouse gets it bang on the money. There’s no question of the spaghetti sauce ladled on by its short order chef, Assonitis, but this is essentially an American production from floorboards to rafters. That means no cringe-worthy dubbing track to contend with, a bright and sunny Savannah setting to savor, and all with precious little lost in translation. Let’s not twist the tagliatelle here, the pacing could do with being a tad tighter and Assonitis seems uncertain of the sub-genre within which he should be planting his flag. But this is unquestionably his most accessible film and will set you up for the bat shit crazy but flat-out fantastic The Visitor, another Italian-American cross-breed that he had a hand in two years previous.

Working with or for the self-serving Italian producer/director was apparently no picnic. Just ask James Cameron, who Assonitis relinquished from his directorial duties ten days into shooting Piranha II: The Spawning or Lance Henriksen, whose recollections of working on The Visitor are colorful, to put it kindly. But even in the most erratic consternation, the stars have to align sometime right? It just so happens there’s a cluster of the little dazzlers sparkling at the Madhouse as we speak and in the shape of a Rottweiler’s head, oddly enough.

Thus my sound advice would be to pay this digs a visit. Father James will take your coat, Mary’s already down in the basement cutting the cake, and the whole gang are here to pitch in with the celebrations. Help yourself to tea and cucumber sandwiches at that nice Amantha’s apartment, try and humor Mr. Kimura as he won’t be around for long, and be sure to look in on Helen as she’s busting out the knee-high socks and over-sized man shirt again. Yippee!

One more thing, I’d strongly advise against petting the pooch. Did you hear about what happened to Julia’s favorite little deaf kid, Sasha? Terrible business that. She may be a fine educator but, given the whole twisted sister affair, I’d have expected her to teach her class the sign for “sick balls!”

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 4/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: It comes as no great surprise that the censors got their knickers in a knot over this one as, if there’s one department in which Madhouse could never be found wanting, then it would be meanness of spirit. The kills are nothing if not varied, ranging from the usual peek-a-boo knife plunges, to full facial bludgeoning, and one of the most gloriously spiteful hatchet dispatches I’ve ever had the good fortune of lusting over. Meanwhile, the numerous canine attacks are surprisingly well choreographed and no expense whatsoever is spared when showing same hell hound reluctantly taking a power drill to the skull. Indeed this scene alone goes some way to explaining the film’s banishment to the BBFC’s naughty step.

Read Happy Birthday To Me Appraisal
Read Don’t Go In The House Appraisal
Read The House of The Devil Appraisal
Read Piranha II: The Spawning Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

Click here to purchase All of Me Vol. I, II, III, IV, V & VI

Click here to purchase on Amazon

© Copyright: Rivers of Grue™ Shadow Spark Publishing™

If you like what you've seen & read please feel free to share your thoughts with us!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.