Director: Ovidio G. Assonitis
Review: RJ Bland
Arrow Video have released a whole batch of classic titles over recent years – as well as some lesser known titles too. One of their latest releases is Ovidio Assonitis's 80's slasher 'Madhouse'. Back in the day, it was deemed too violent and obscene to unleash onto British audiences and it was outlawed and added to the 'video nasties' list. Thankfully, 26 years on, Arrow have given us a chance to revisit it with a plush blu-ray release (with a truck-load of special features to boot). We checked it out to see if it has stood the test of time – and whether it's deserving of it's reputation...
Julia is a young teacher who seems quite content with her lot. She's in a happy relationship with a successful surgeon, she loves her job working at a school for deaf children and she lives in a kooky apartment block. Yay! However, one day she gets a call from her uncle – a local Catholic priest – who tells her that her twin sister Mary is a serious condition at a psychiatric hospital. Turns out Julia hasn't laid eyes on her sister for seven years and it's clear that their relationship was far from cordial. Although she's reluctant to see her sickly twin, her uncle pleads with – and manages to convince – her to see her sister. She may not get another chance after all.
However, anyone expecting a touching reunion will be disappointed. Uncle James (the priest) preps Julia at th psych ward and warns her that her sister looks very different from the last time she saw her as she is suffering from a severe skin disorder. He also tells her that Mary is very much looking forward to seeing her and has missed her terribly. Yeah right! The meeting is a disaster. Clever direction means that we only get a glimpse of the disfigured Mary however when she tells her sister she wants to 'make her suffer as she has suffered' it's clear that reconciliation is firmly off the agenda.
A terrified Julia heads back home and tells her boyfriend what has happened. He's pretty shocked (mainly because he wasn't even aware that she HAD a sister) and tries to calm her down but it's no use. Turns out Julia's (and Mary's) birthday is approaching and she recounts how when she was growing up, her birthdays were always terrifying experiences as her sister – with the aid of her horrible pet rottweiler - would use the day to torture her, both physically and emotionally. Kids eh? She's convinced that her sister will somehow find a way to make her life a living hell. To be fair, she's right on the money. One night Mary escapes from the hospital and it's not long before she's leaving a bloody trail in her wake in her efforts to see her sister suffer.
A part American and Italian production, shot by an Italian Director but with an American cast and backdrop, Madhouse is a rather odd affair. The opening credit sequence where we see a young girl bash the face of her sister in with a rock, is probably the sole reason that this movie was deemed a 'video nasty' back in the day. However the effects are such that modern audiences are unlikley to squirm too much. In fact, after watching Madhouse you may even question why it was deemed to be an 18 rating let alone why it was banned here in the UK.
Riding on the crest of the post-Halloween wave, Madhouse is a slasher at it's heart - although it has a European undercurrent running through it. To say it is giallo would not be correct - it doesn't have the mystery or eroticism elements that are inherent with that. However, it does have a flavour reminiscent of that era of cinema. The killer even wears black gloves!
Despite a couple of schlocky exceptions, the performances are generally half decent here - although the over-the-top portrayal from Dennis Robertson as the priest is rather amusing at times. Trish Everly - in her only acting performance of her career - is impressive as the fragile Julia. She's not a typical final girl necessarily but then this isn't a straightforward slasher movie. She's almost philosophical in her outlook on the madness around her. She's rather consumed by guilt and the power her sister has over her. Assoinitis also gives us some kooky B-characters too. The ditzy best friend, the slightly unhinged woman in the apartment above, the agitated Janitor to name but a few.
Although Assonitis is generally assured in his direction, it sometimes feels as if he doesn't eek enough tension out of certain scenes. He seems to prefer a jump scare to carefully managed suspense and there is one chase scene in particular that seems to drag on for an age. Madhouse is also guilty of the cardinal sin of a lot of horror movies of that era. Characters doing stupid things. In one scene, Julia's best friend stays the night to help make her feel a bit safer from the potential threat of her sister. Julia tells her friend that the front door is locked and that it shouldn't be opened under any circumstances. I think you can guess what happens. In another scene a man is attacked by Mary's rottweiler and the director makes no efforts to hide the fact that the victim's arm that is being bitten into is about three times the size of a normal human arm thanks to the padding that he is wearing. We understand that the actor doesn't want a stump for an arm but at least edit it a bit better! The death scenes are adequate enough though (that sentence makes us sound sick doesn't it) and it at least pushes the boat out a little with regards to victims. Even most video nasties didn't inflict pain and suffering on kittens and children!
The further the film goes on, the more unbalanced the film becomes and it all culminates in a climax that is as camply extravagant as it is confusing. In Wes Craven's Scream (1996) the major plot twist was carefully explained. And whilst spoon feeding us this kind of info late in the day is not ideal, it is sometimes necesarry. However Madhouse leaves us in the lurch in this regard. It's twist is never fully explained and whilst that can sometimes lead to interesting debate and ambiguity, here it errr....it doesn't. It'll just leave you scratching your head.
Visually the restoration is top notch, as you'd expect - the 2K restoration from the original camera negatives is a delight. And there are a whole host of special feaures to get your teeth into. Alternate opening sequence, theatrical trailer, cast and crew interviews and audio commentary are all included. The film itself may be a bit of an oddity but it's an interesting one nonetheless and worth checking out.