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Review: Madhouse (1981)

Writer: Amanda By Night


The graceful Trish Everly leads a cast of familiar character actors in this classy horror milieu co-written and directed by infamous producer Ovidio Assonitis (Beyond the Door). Everly plays Julia, a sweet and sophisticated teacher for deaf children. Although the exteriors of Julia’s life seem quaint (her uncle is a priest and she dates a charming doctor), the interiors belie a dark secret involving her insane twin sister, who has recently been diagnosed with a deadly skin disease. Julia visits her screwy and horribly disfigured sibling, Mary, only to be warned she plans to make their next birthday unforgettable. Soon afterwards, the insane twin escapes and adopts a vicious rottweiler on her way to Julia’s practically abandoned apartment building (which is really a refurbished mansion). And Mary’s got one last secret which is guaranteed to offer up a gift Julia doesn’t want and can’t return.

Highly stylized and scattered with alarming and sometimes frightening set-pieces, Madhouse is one of those diamonds in the rough that unfortunately gets passed over too often. What is so surprising about this classy thriller is the almost total abandonment of taboos. Kids and animals alike are not shown mercy, which is unusual, even for films with a much meaner spirit. This might be why Madhouse (aka There Was a Little Girl) became a ‘Video Nasty’ in England. However, in the more recent laid back times it has been resubmitted and allowed for release. The uncut version was banned presumably for the animal brutality but the UK also frowns on inaccurate depictions of the mentally insane. The copy I own is cut and is missing the doggy-gets-drilled segment (for which I’m actually thankful!).

Madhouse is also full of quirky, strange characters. The Asian handyman comes equipped with goggle glasses and a thick accent. Unfortunately, the southern-belle landlady is grossly overplayed and her death is by far the most plodding segment in the film. It’s true, every slasher films needs at least one character you love to watch die, and she is it! Otherwise, the strange people who permeate the peripheral of Julia’s life help keep the story moving towards its violent end.

Riz Ortolani lends some strings from his infamous Cannibal Holocaust score to advance the scares along, which it does nicely. It’s funny to think such wildly different films can be shepherded by the same music, but it’s a nice fit. Assonitis has a good grip on the genre and it’s of note, and somewhat amusing, that he went on to produce The Lambada and Scent of a Woman! Now that’s scary!

This elegant horror movie is by no means flawless, but it is also brimming with stunning kills and a strong performance from Everly, who seemed to have disappeared after this movie. Madhouse might not suit all tastes, but will probably be most appreciated on a cold, dark night. Well worth a look.

Thank you Neil Pike for your help with this review.



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