Color, 1981, 93 mins. 21 secs.
Directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis
Starring Trish Everly, Michael Macrae, Dennis Robertson, Morgan Hat, Allison Biggers
Arrow Video (Blu-ray & DVD) (US/UK RA/RAB HD/NTSC), 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 title card of initial DVD versions despite the cover art) and then retitled Madhouse for the VHS 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 bucket loads, 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 (off screen) and that demonic pooch (very much on screen, 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 could chuck that one away in 2008 with Dark Sky's much improved, anamorphic presentation that satisfies far more in every way. 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 13m39s 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.
After several years off the market, Madhouse made the jump to Blu-ray as a dual-format release with a DVD in both the UK and US from Arrow Video, complete with a fresh 2K scan from the original negative. It's still a very dark and somewhat soft-looking film, of course, but the upgrade value here is substantial with far more gradation in the blacks and more natural, less boosted flesh tones. Audio options include English LPCM 2.0 stereo and DTS-HD MA 5.1 tracks; the former is the original mix with the latter respecting the essentials of it while spreading some ambient sound effects and a bit of music to the rear channels, albeit not very aggressively. The film can also be played with a new audio commentary by the foursome at The Hysteria Continues, who thoroughly cover the film's video nasty status, its various home video releases, and its relationship to slasher films of the same year or so, with highlights including a debate about a production design choice as a nod to Suspiria or The Sentinel and frequent mangling of Assonitis's name.
On the video extras side, Georgia actress Edith Ivey appears in "Running the Madhouse" (12m40s) and seems incredulous that anyone is interested in the film, which she recalls as being directed to play "over the top" for her role as a "flustered" Southern lady. In "Framing Fear" (19m32s), cinematographer Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli chats in English about his first collaborations with Assonitis including the tearjerker hit The Last Snows of Spring, with other projects along the way like The Black Decameron, and shares his thoughts about the comparisons between this film and the earlier The Shining as well as the good time he had shooting in Georgia. The new Assonitis interview "Ovidio Nasty" (7m44s) features the colorful producer offering a similar spin on the project as part of his string of horror movies and, oddly, cites The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and The Shining as the primary influences on the film. Why not? Also included are the alternate There Was a Little Girl opening credits and the theatrical trailer (previously available only on Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide), while the packaging features a new cover design by Marc Schoenbach and, in the first pressing only, a booklet with new liner notes by John Martin.
DARK SKY FRAME GRABS
Updated review on June 1, 2017.