Color, 1981, 93m. / Directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis / Starring Trish Everly, Michael Macrae, Dennis Robertson, Morgan Hat, Allison Biggers
Dark Sky (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9), Film 2000 (UK R0 PAL)

Just one of the many films inexplicably persecuted during the UK's notorious "Video Nasty" panic wave, this very early offering from the '80s golden era of slasher mayhem comes from a very unexpected source, director/co-writer/producer Ovidio G. Assonitis. Taking a break from his star-studded Italian imitations of American hits, he instead turns out a surprisingly atmospheric and accomplished piece of gory fun originally released as There Was a Little Girl (the title retained on the DVD version despite the cover art) and then retitled Madhouse for the video market. Lensed in scope and packed with enough jolts and surprises to keep horror fans purring, the film never received much play in the U.S. (with a brief VHS release from the short-lived Virgin label in a godawful cut, pan-and-scan transfer) but is now much easier to appreciate in the digital era.

Haunted by nightmares and memories involving her insane, sadistic twin sister now residing in an asylum, pretty teacher of the deaf Julia Sullivan (Everly) is dreading the impending arrival of her birthday, which her sibling, Mary (Biggers), always celebrated with an extra dose of nastiness. Now suffering from a gruesome skin disease, Mary escapes from the sanitarium and, aided by her trained killer dog, goes on a rampage terrorizing everyone around Julia... but a few more surprises still lie in store for our heroine.

Though certainly flawed by the usual oddball Assonitis dialogue and ridiculous bevy of supporting characters, Madhouse ultimately comes out ahead of his usual output thanks to a solid scream queen turn from Everly (who disappeared for some reason), excellent scope photography, and a wild score by Italian composer Riz Ortolani, who was doing similar repetitive duties on Zeder around the same time. Many critics have pointed out the similarity of the film's climax to Happy Birthday to Me, though of course they were shot simultaneously so it's more a coincidence by two different directors going after the holiday-themed slasher box office.

And then there's the gore. Remember what it was like watching red syrup and fake guts flying across the screen before CGI came along and ruined everything? Well, this one delivers it in bucketloads, especially in the aforementioned final act, and of course Ovidio pays homage to Suspriria (or maybe the same year's The Beyond) by having the big black doggie ripping out some throats in full-blooded detail that gives his Italian brothers a run for their money. If that weren't politically incorrect enough, the film even has the nerve to snuff one of Julia's cute students (offscreen) and that demonic pooch (very much onscreen, but thankfully fake). 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. As far as vintage horror rediscoveries go on DVD, this is certainly a good choice to kill a free evening.

Madhouse first appeared on DVD in the UK courtesy of Film 2000 in a non-anamorphic transfer with a wretched, unlistenable soundtrack. Fortunately collectors can chuck that one away as Dark Sky presents a much improved, anamorphic presentation that satisfies on all counts. As usual, the disc comes with optional English subtitles, a nice touch especially if you want to share it with any deaf friends who will most likely be appalled by the time it's over. Extras include a hefty still gallery (including lots of German lobby cards from Warner Bros. with the title, Party des Schreckens!) as well as "There Was a Producer," a 13-minute interview with Assonitis in which he briefly recaps his prior efforts like Beyond the Door and Laure before talking about this film's genesis, the challenges of indie distribution then and now, the Georgia location shooting, and his deep affection for the finished product.

Color, 1974, 109m. / Directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis and Robert Barrett / Starring Juliet Mills, Gabriele Lavia, Richard Johnson, Elizabeth Turner, David Colin Jr.
Code Red (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

One of the more unlikely box office smashes of the 1970s, this nutty Italian horror film partially shot in San Francisco gained immediate notoriety as the first and most blatant imitator of The Exorcist, laced with a heavy dose of Rosemary's Baby for good measure and seasoned with plenty of Eurosleaze elements for good measure. Though Warner Brothers tried to suppress the film in court, the distributor successfully fought back and kept it in circulation, a fortunate outcome not shared by the same year's blaxploitation variant, Abby, which still languishes in the MGM's vaults. While Beyond the Door fared well enough on VHS (from Media), it eventually dropped out of circulation and took over a decade of DVD's lifespan before finally coming out in the u.S. So, how does it hold up now? Read on and find out... if you dare.

The very fragmented storyline begins with a bizarre prologue involving a satanic ceremony featuring a naked woman on an altar and lots of candles. One of the participants, Jessica (Juliet Mills, formerly a TV darling from Nanny and the Professor), elects to leave the sect and abandon her lover, Dimitri (Zombie's Richard Johnson). Much of this is actually conveyed through voiceover from Satan himself, which is a bit unorthodox, but then we flash forward to a funk music recording session presided over by Jessica's jackass husband, Robert (Deep Red's Gabriele Lavia), a music producer who chasizes his soulful jam artists by telling them they "have as much balls as a castrated jellyfish." Robert and Jessica have a happy home life with their two kids, Gail (Barbara Fiorini), a foul-mouthed brat who keeps reading multiple copies of Love Story all day, and Ken (David Colin Jr. from Mario Bava's Shock, also released as a fake sequel to this film), who doesn't do much besides playing with toy cars. When Jessica finds out she's pregnant, at first everyone is overjoyed... but soon her personality begins to change. Meanwhile Dimitri (who's died in a car crash but now returned at Satan's whim, or something like that) stalks the couple around San Francisco as part of a deal with the devil to deliver a new hellish spawn on earth. Jessica quickly spirals out of control, smashing open her husband's fish aquarium, puking green bile and spinning her head backwards just like you-know-who. Will Dimitri let this evil plan come to fruition, or does the devil have an even nastier twist in mind?

Watching Beyond the Door as a linear narrative is a largely frustrating experience, as the various story threads (including a very oblique double-twist ending) only bind together if you really, really pay attention. However, the film is a huge amount of fun as a simple spookshow experience, with some truly skin-crawling experimental sound experiments and more than a handful of unforgettably grotesque images. Much of the dialogue is ridiculous (especially Lavia's), but Mills' intense dedication to her part still results in a harrowing third act when her full possession kicks in. The amazing funk score by the great, underrated Franco Micalizzi adds to the strange brew, with crazy saxophones and soul music mashing together in one of the weirdest horror soundtracks ever produced. Of course, this film is also notable for really kicking off the career of Egyptian-born producer and occasional director Ovidio Assonitis, who had earlier put his name on such films as Who Saw Her Die?, Man from Deep River and the insane Labyrinth of Sex. However, here he really found his niche by taking successful elements from U.S. hits and mashing them into something wholly berserk and unique, a formula he put to even more bizarre use in Laure, Tentacles, and his ultimate cracked masterpiece, The Visitor. If you're looking for an introduction to his derivative but fascinating style, look no further.

Released in America running barely over 90 minutes, Beyond the Door also circulated in a longer, 109-minute edition entitled The Devil Within Her, which appeared on UK videotape and eventually as a non-anamorphic Japanese DVD. Code Red's American release easily bests all prior editions with a colorful anamorphic transfer accurately replicating the dark but effective photography, and it's the complete European print under the Devil Within Her title. For the record, the extra footage consists mainly of the original opening title sequence (involving the aforementioned funk performance of "Bargain with the Devil"), additional dialogue, and some especially weird footage of oddball San Francisco residents on the street.

The disc also comes with a rich bounty of extras explaining exactly how this film came to be. The first audio commentary features a cheerful Mills and Intruder director Scott Spiegel chatting about the film with moderators Darren Gross and Lee Christian, who cover not only her work on this film but the rest of her career and her memories about shooting in the American-to-Italian locations. Next up is a commentary with Assonitis, and in the interests of full disclosure, I'm one of the participants along with Christian, so no comments on it here apart from the fact that you'll get his detailed story about working with (and firing) James Cameron on Piranha II: The Spawning, which is worth a listen all unto itself. Hopefully you'll enjoy it. On the video side, the biggest extra is a 20-minute featurette, "Beyond the Door: 35 Years Later," which features Mills, Assonitis, Richard Johnson, and co-writer Alex Rebar (best known for playing The Incredible Melting Man) continuing their reminiscences about the creation of the film and its unusual but successful release history, which paved the way for a flood of possession films well into the early 1980s. Last up, you get an additional brief featurette with Johnson ("An Englishman in Italy") talking about some of his other Italian films (mainly Zombie), a gallery packed with lobby cards, stills, posters and VHS art, and (along with other Code Red promos) the U.S. trailer and TV spot. Pop out the Campbell's pea soup and enjoy.

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