Madhouse (1981) Blu-ray Review: A Film Where No One is Fully Committed

Arrow Video's recently discharged slasher flick is so lazy, its composer ripped-off his own work.
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Perhaps one of the most alluring features to be observed within the boundaries of Italian exploitation movies was the industry's tendency to rip-off anyone's work, including their own. Sometimes, the references are quite obvious, such as when they make sequels to other people's movies. Other times, the connections are much more subtle (by Italian filmmaking standards, that is). In the instance of Madhouse, however, we're served a little bit of both: its various parallels to other works are undoubtedly noticeable, but none of them can hold a birthday candle to the fact that the legendary, late great composer Riz Ortolani recycled his own music cues.

And while that might not necessarily sound like a bad thing, the music in question Ortolani reused here happened to hail from his best known work: the early orchestral/synthesizer score from Ruggero Deodato's infamous gut-muncher Cannibal Holocaust. One can only imagine Ortolani's salvaged score was put there at the behest of Madhouse's low-budget auteur, Ovidio G. Assonitis ‒ a filmmaker who has never been too terribly bashful about reclaiming the accomplishments (or abandonments) of others, having previously brought us ripoffs of both The Exorcist and Jaws under his better-know anglicised alias, Oliver Hellman.

Or maybe the Riz was just phoning it in that day, who knows. The latter would certainly make a lick of sense, too, since absolutely no one involved in the making of Madhouse was fully committed. Released in 1981 ‒ sometimes under much creepier-sounding titles like There Was a Little Girl or And When She Was BadMadhouse tells the unbelievable (to say nothing of unbelievably dull) tale of young Julia (Trish Everly, in her one and only film), a school teacher for deaf children living in Savannah, Georgia (where the film was shot) who doesn't have the best relationship with her estranged (and very sadistic) identical twin sister, Mary.

With their birthday approaching fast, Julia learns from her seemingly kind Catholic priest uncle that her sister's overall health has deteriorated over the last couple of years from a rare skin disease. In fact, the incurable illness has malformed Mary's face to the point where she now looks like she is wearing a couple of cheap latex appliances in a vain attempt to cover up the fact she's a totally different actress (and a really bad one at that)! But that's all relative in this awkward, bloody, and thoroughly uneven mess which kicks into a lower gear once sister Mary (Allison Biggers ‒ who, oddly enough, appeared in more productions than her onscreen sibling) escapes the loony bin.

With her faithful, devilish, killer canine companion in tow (said dog routinely transforms into a hand puppet, by the way), Mary quickly starts killing off anyone and everyone who comes into contact with her sister ‒ including one of Julia's young students! Meanwhile, Julia herself seems to do little more than fret about a lot, even after the apple in her eye is offed offscreen. But then, there isn't much in this Madhouse that makes a whole heck of a lot of sense. Of course, after about ten minutes or so, even the average Italian horror movie aficionado might find themselves checking the counter to see how much more they have to endure, so I guess it doesn't matter.

I mean, even the plot twists suck here. Not only can you see them getting out of their car (quite literally, in one scene) and walking up to the pathway to the door, but it's almost as if Ovidio G. Assonitis repeatedly reminds us they will be coming ‒ over the PA system, to boot ‒ throughout the movie prior to their arrival. In the hands of an accomplished producer and a competent director, Madhouse's script would probably have made for a tight little thriller. Instead, Assonitis tackles those responsibilities himself (or at least partly), leaving so room for error in his painting that you'd swear you were staring at nothing more than a blank canvas the whole time.

It's a real pity, too, as there are certain aspects of Madhouse which would most certainly have qualified as being genuinely effective (especially Dennis Robertson's supporting role as Father James) if the film had been crafted by someone who was actually dedicated to the material. Instead, Assonitis felt his native English-speaking cast (which he directed via a Scottish interpreter, according to one of the extras included in this Arrow Video release) should just camp it up as they saw fit. Needless to say, the end-result of such a poor decision results in a movie that is exactly what you'd expect it to be once you've carefully examined the subject's case history.

Also featured here are Michael MacRae (who looks like the offspring of Howard Hesseman and I. Stanford Jolley) as Julia's psychologist boyfriend; Morgan Most as a busty blonde bimbo (one whom we do not see nearly enough skin from); and Edith Ivey as the off-center landlady (who is also one of the few performers in this production to play their part with grace). But the best supporting actor by and far here would be Chinatown's Jerry Fujikawa, who shamelessly laps up every beam of limelight shone upon him in one of his juiciest (and last) roles. Alas, even his hilarious death scene really doesn't make Madhouse worth visiting.

I mean, this is one of those rare instances where I can't even recommend a movie because of its soundtrack, since you can hear a much better version of it ‒ and see a much better movie in the process ‒ by watching Cannibal Holocaust instead. And yes, I realize I just compared and recommended one of the most controversial, serious horror movies ever made over something that seems to have been constructed entirely as a joke to everyone except for people who actually expect a gory good Italian horror thriller. Granted, Madhouse has plenty of gruesome moments to shove in our faces, though they always seem to lack any heart (in a matter of speaking).

Ultimately, Madhouse has an overwhelming inefficacious aura about it from the get-go which only gets worse as the story lingers on. Nevertheless, I must commend Arrow Video for preserving this title for future generations. After all, if you ever need to show any would-be horror film students a clear-cut example of how not to make a scary flick, this is the one! Moreso, Arrow has done a fine job restoring this doggone tale from the original 35mm negative, removing all instances of debris and grain with the exception of one graphic scene which looks to have been culled from another source (the runtime is a good eight seconds longer than the old Dark Sky DVD).

Accompanying the (otherwise) beautiful 2.35:1 transfer are two audio options. The first is an LPCM 2.0 selection; the other, a 5.1 DTS-HD MA redux of the original 4-track stereo mix. Unlike most of Arrow's Italian horror offerings, there is no audio Italiano here (we get English SDH subtitles, just the same), and ‒ contrary to Arrow's liner notes, which claim the sound was recorded in post-production ‒ many of the poor performers who signed up for this career killer sound like they were recorded on the spot. But I could be wrong. As a matter of fact, I truly hope that I am wrong ‒ for that would mean at least one person here did a good job on this flick!

Special features for this doggone tale of mediocrity kick off with an audio commentary by The Hysteria Continues. Amusingly, one of the participants involved in the recording professes he only saw the movie once as a kid on VHS and that was it ‒ which officially tallies him in at being one step ahead of me. Next up is an interview with aforementioned actress Edith Ivey, whose presence here in the extras section more than makes up for how terrible the movie is itself. Contributions from residents of the other side of The Pond include cinematographer Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli and the chief culprit behind the whole bloody affair, Ovidio G. Assonitis himself.

Lastly, we get an alternate opening sequence featuring the There Was a Little Girl alias, which may have an extra frame or two in it as opposed to the main presentation (but again, I could be mistaken). I'm pretty certain I saw a few missing moments in the included theatrical trailer, which makes for the final on-disc bonus item. A collectible booklet (limited to first pressings only) features an essay by John Martin, and the reversible artwork of this Blu-ray/DVD Combo includes newly-commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach on one side. All in all, there's quite a nice gathering of goodies to be found here, even if this former "video nasty" is very dull at its very best.

Recommended for inmates fans of Madhouse, slasher/Italian horror perfectionists, and the truly curious only.

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