MADHOUSE (1981) Reviews and overview

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‘Many people visit, few ever leave the…’
Madhouse – aka There Was a Little Girl – is a 1981 Italian horror feature film produced and directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis (The Visitor; Tentacles; Beyond the Door). It stars Trish Everly, Dennis Robertson, Allison Biggers, and Michael Macrae.

The movie features a musical score by Riz Ortolani and cinematography by Assonitis regular Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli.

The original title refers to the poem ‘There Was a Little Girl’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

‘There Was A Little Girl,
Who Had A Little Curl,
Right In the Middle of Her Forehead.
When She Was Good,
She Was Very, Very Good.
And When She Was Bad,
She Was Horrid.’

Madhouse was one of the notorious titles on the British 1980s ‘video nasty‘ list of VHS releases banned for their supposedly violent content.

Julia (Trish Everly) is a schoolteacher for deaf children who, rather, unfortunately, has a mentally unbalanced and physically mutilated twin sister Mary residing in an institution. She also has a kindly Uncle James (Dennis Robertson) who is a Catholic priest, and if you’ve seen any horror films – or, for that matter, read any news stories – then you know that supposedly kindly Catholic priests are not necessarily to be trusted.

Soon, people are dying, sometimes via Rottweiler attack. Eventually – and this takes a fair time – Julia’s birthday arrives (a big deal is made of this, even though she has presumably had several during Mary’s time institutionalised) and things come to a head, as the whole family get together in a finale that is suitably frenetic, even if it all ultimately makes little sense.

Quite how the film’s psycho killer manages to use a Rottweiler as a murder weapon is somewhat fudged as an issue as the film slips into a mix of The Shining and Deranged for the rushed final act, but seen in retrospect, it’s at least satisfying to see the film trying to be something a little different from the standard stalk and slash films that undoubtedly inspired it. Yet, Madhouse is also a slightly frustrating affair, a film that is too damn polite for its own good – it would probably benefit from more of the outrageousness of its ‘video nasty’ compatriots.

As it is, the film is too restrained for what it wants to be and falls between two stools – not quite good enough to stand out as an impressive psychological drama, not demented enough to work as excessive splatter movie madness. It is certainly isn’t terrible although it might prove to be a disappointing experience if you come to it aware of its past ‘nasty’ reputation and with expectations accordingly.

In the curious 1980s world of the ‘video nasty’, we can split the films – at least the thirty-nine that finally made up the official, government-designated list of titles ultimately deemed so outrageous that they could never be seen again – into two categories.

There are those movies that you can perhaps understand shocked and outraged some journalists, police officers, magistrates, MPs, juries and petty civil servants in 1983 – the likes of Cannibal HolocaustSS Experiment CampI Spit on Your GraveIsland of Death and the front cover of The Driller Killer were of an excessive bent never before seen in the UK, and regardless of their merits as films, they were bound to seem like the most depraved things imaginable by people whose idea of a gory horror movie was a Hammer film and who were less than cine-literate.

Then, there were the curious films that ended up on the banned list apparently seemingly by osmosis – without any record of an actual obscenity conviction, with no actual content that seemed especially difficult and not even sporting outrageously outre cover art, a handful of films slipped quietly onto the banned list and stayed there forever.

Why anyone would even seize a film called The Werewolf and the Yeti is hard to fathom, and evidence that the film was ever branded as obscene by a jury is non-existent. A cynic might think that the powers that be were simply making all this up as they went along, especially as much more explicitly gory films were dropped from the banned list.

Another great example of ‘how did this film end up banned?’ is Madhouse. Admittedly, the original release of the film was the uncut version, containing a couple of brief gory moments that the BBFC chose to trim – notably the power-drilling of a dog’s head that was probably a trigger image for British viewers (the dog was represented by an unconvincing puppet, in case you were worried) – but the cover and the title were so unremarkable that you have to wonder just how it came to the attention of any eager police officer even at a time when some of the plod were so dim they seized The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and war drama The Big Red One, mistaking them for illicit movies!

Plus, Madhouse is a slickly produced, almost TV movie-like psycho thriller; one reason many of the ‘nasties’ so shocked people who had not seen many low budget films is that the production values and visual style of these films – be they scuzzy low budget schlock like Mardi Gras Massacre, gritty indie films like The Driller Killer, or outsider works like trash auteur Andy Milligan’s The Ghastly Ones – were so far removed from what people knew as cinema that they automatically seemed dubious, not the work of ‘real’ filmmakers and therefore not ‘real’ films. You can’t say that of Madhouse. It looks like a mainstream North American horror movie, sitting comfortably alongside slick contemporaries such as He Knows You’re Alone or Prom Night rather than more ham-fisted and slightly ‘off’ titles like Nightmares in a Damaged Brain.

In any case, last year’s Arrow Video release of Madhouse is the uncut version, allowing the patient viewer to enjoy not only the aforementioned dog puppet drilling but also a hilariously excessive axe attack, which makes up for with enthusiasm what it lacks in gory realism.

Interestingly, although it looks it, Madhouse is not an American film at all. It’s an Italian production, directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis, who was remarkably good at making his movies look like genuine stateside productions, avoiding the usual pitfalls like international casts, post-production dubbing and so on. This might have helped his films sell to the U.S. market, but it also risks stripping them of any individuality. His 1978 film The Visitor is a remarkably bonkers affair, yet Madhouse looks and feels like everything else from that era. It’s well-made and it’s efficient, yet it’s entirely forgettable, even as you watch it.
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA

In June 2017, Arrow Video released the film uncut in the UK and US on Blu-ray + DVD with the following special features:

  • Brand new 2K restoration from the original camera negative
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition presentations
  • Original Stereo Audio (Uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Brand new audio commentary with The Hysteria Continues
  • Brand new interviews with cast and crew
  • Alternate Opening Titles
  • Theatrical Trailer, newly transferred in HD
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach
  • A booklet featuring new writing on the film

Buy Blu-ray:

Other reviews:

“Ovidio pays homage to Suspiria (or maybe the same year’s The Beyond) by having the big black doggie ripping out some throats in full-blooded detail […] While ’80s slasher fans should get a kick out of this one, it also carries a strong Pete Walker vibe (albeit shot in America) with its strange character relationships and fractured psyches aplenty.” Mondo Digital

“The influence of Dario Argento’s films is easy to spot in this candy-colored slasher film – from the primary lighting gels used to add atmosphere to the dog attack scenes that really remind one of Suspiria even if the plot goes in a completely different direction. On the flip side of that coin, like some of Argento’s films, Madhouse also has its share of plot holes and head-scratching moments of confusion.” DVD Talk

“The film boasts one of the most violent “hatchet-to-the-back” splashes of bloodshed, and although Assonitis maintains a decent, stylized level of dark despair and fear of the unseen, the acting is either too bland or over-the-top (much in the case of Dennis Robertson’s Father James).” DVD Drive-In

“The final slaughter feels too underwhelming to be offensive to anybody and is framed off-centre so it hardly shows up as a major set piece, and while the setting of the final act tries to strike a morbid atmosphere it just feels like it is playing up the dark humour a tad too much and in all the wrong places.” Flickering Myth

“Corny, melodramatic and outmoded at birth, it’s easy to understand why this one has eluded much fan-boy recognition. On the other hand, it’s smartly shot, atmospheric and unaffectedly eccentric.” Kindertrauma

“Although the story sounds simple, there are some surprises. Stylishly filmed and well acted, with a bigger budget this might have been a classic. As it is, it’s worth a look.” Mick Martin and Marsha Porter, DVD and Video Guide 2005, Ballantine Press, 2004

Main cast and characters:
Trish Everly … Julia Sullivan
Michael Macrae … Sam Edwards
Dennis Robertson … Father James – Dark Night of the Scarecrow
Morgan Hart … Helen
Allison Biggers … Mary Sullivan
Edith Ivey … Amantha Beauregard
Richard Baker … Sacha Robertson Jr
Don Devendorf … Principal
Jerry Fujikawa … Mr Kimura

Filming locations:
Savannah, Georgia, USA

Watch trailer on YouTube

Watch The Arrow Video Story on YouTube

The ’80s Project: Watching Every ’80s Horror Film – 1981

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