Julia (Trish Everly), a verbalization teacher for Deaf children (a controversial method in the 21st century), is the complete opposite of her insane, violent, and hideously deformed twin sister Mary (Allison Biggers). For most of her adult life, Julia manages to avoid her sister, but, as their birthday approaches, their uncle, Father James (Dennis Robertson), presses for reconciliation. The reunion is soured when Mary escapes the insane asylum with her giant, vicious rottweiler in tow and starts murdering all of Julia’s friends.
Like many of the films that ended up on the British Board of Film Classification’s (BBFC) list of banned films as part of the Video Recordings Act of 1984, Ovidio G. Assonitis’ Madhouse (not to be confused with the 1974 Jim Clark film starring Vincent Price and Peter Cushing) is almost exclusively known for its ‘video nasty’ status. More often than not, the films marked exclusively by such infamy don’t have a lot more to offer and would be better off forgotten. For instance, I doubt that even the most ardent Jess Franco fan really needed Devil Hunter (aka: Mandingo Manhunter ,1980) to be preserved for posterity. But Madhouse (aka: There Was a Little Girl and And When She Was Bad) is the kind of weird, mixed-reference, nebulous nonsense that Euro-horror fans probably would’ve rediscovered it and put on a pedestal, eventually. BBFC offending violence aside (fans assume that a single scene where a very fake dog is graphically killed was just too realistic for the censors), its ‘value’ as a piece of exploitation entertainment is found in its lurid melodrama and strange drive to be at least four different movies at once – a shock-a-minute daytime soap opera, a giallo-style murder mystery, a post-Friday the 13th body-count movie, and a haunted house picture that pays homage to, of all things, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Oh, and a killer dog movie, I guess? The resulting film is amusingly goofy, in a sort of My Bloody Valentine meets Lifetime Original Movie way that only a shlockmeister with Assonitis’ clout could deliver.
Assonitis spent most of his career as a producer. He was sort of like a dollar store Dino De Laurentiis, which still put him head and shoulders above most of his Italian counterparts in terms of the revenue at his disposal. His other work as a (co)writer/(co)director includes the dopey, but popular Exorcist rip-off Beyond the Door (Italian: Chi sei?, 1974), the inexplicably star-studded Jaws rip-off, Tentacles (Italian: Tentacoli, 1977), and Piranha II: The Spawning (1978), the non-funny sequel to a Jaws spoof that is mostly known for being James Cameron’s directorial debut (turns out Assonitis was an uncredited co-director on that one). The one thing his films have in common is the fact that they are desperately trying and failing to appear American-made. Given the generic and predictable qualities of Assonitis’ script (co-written by Stephen Blakely, Roberto Gandus & Peter Shepherd) Madhouse would probably disappear into a sea of movies that impersonated Brian De Palma impersonating Alfred Hitchcock, if it wasn’t for Assonitis’ inescapably Italian sensibilities. Every stylistically American choice is overridden by patently Italian pacing issues, hammy performances, and abstract framing choices. I assume that this will be to the chagrin of the normal film-goer, but this impossibly strange tone is like catnip to us abnormal Italian horror fans even more than the gore.
Madhouse was removed from the BBFC list and released completely uncut in the UK for the first time in 2004 on non-anamorphic DVD from Film 2000. Here in North America, it languished on VHS (there were at least two releases, one from Virgin and one from VCL), because it wasn’t forbidden – it was just another horror movie on the shelf. Its Video Nasties rep eventually caught up with it stateside and Dark Side released a decent, anamorphically enhanced DVD. Arrow’s new 1080p, 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer was created using a 2K scan of the original 35mm negative. Cinematographer Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli’s oh-so-’70s soft focus and diffused lighting really should be wreaking havoc with clarity, but the new scan actually does a fantastic job recreating the plushness without any posterization effects. In addition, the textures and finer details aren’t smoothed over. Grain structure, though occasionally snowy, appears accurate. I decided against including comparison caps from the Dark Side DVD, but I did compare for my own sake, and, while the BD has huge detail, range, and color quality advantages (specifically in terms of overall warmth), some viewers might find the DVD’s higher contrast levels preferable to the BD’s softer tones and slightly brown blacks.
Arrow is presenting Madhouse in both 2.0 stereo (uncompressed LPCM) and a 5.1 remix (DTS-HD Master Audio). In this case, the 5.1 remix isn’t culled from a 2.0 track, but from the original 4-track stereo mix, which makes it sort of special (I’m surprised such a film even had a 4-track mix, myself). I suppose it’s actually more like 4.1 track, but it’s still neat. And, before you say anything, yes, this is an Italian-made picture, but the dialogue was all performed in English. Given the better-than-usual source, I’m going to recommend the 5.1 mix over the stereo track. The sound is richer, especially where Riz Ortolani’s electro-symphonic score is concerned (some might argue that it’s too rich and modern-sounding), the dialogue is more clearly centered, and the LFE gives the whole thing a tasteful little bit of bounce. For the most part, the stereo effects are identical and the remix track has only occasional volume advantages, usually, again, when it comes to the more lively and wider-spread musical tracks.
Commentary with The Hysteria Continues – The team of Justin Kerswell (moderator and author of The Slasher Movie Book), Joseph Henson, Erik Threlfall, and Nathan Johnson approach this commentary in pretty much exactly the same way they approach their own podcast tracks. It features pertinent behind-the-scenes information, but with a personal and amusing slant.
Running the Madhouse (12:40, HD) – Actress Edith Ivey (who plays the ill-fated landlord) recalls her greater career, beginning with radio soaps and ‘50s television, and continuing through to movies, including Madhouse. Her fond memories are surprisingly sharp (considering the sheer number of films she made, not her age) and she is refreshingly not judgmental about the genre.
Framing Fear (19:32, HD) – Cinematographer Roberto D'Ettore Piazzoli discusses his earliest work, collaborations with Assonitis, the invention of the Steadicam, and shooting Madhouse.
Ovido Nasty (7:44, HD) – In Arrow’s final new and exclusive featurette, Ovidio G. Assonitis (who appears to be interviewing himself…) talks about making, selling, and marketing Madhouse, as well as the other movies he considers the film’s biggest influences, Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Frankly, I think he just chose three movies he thought would be considered classics, because I don’t see any relation.
Alternate There Was a Little Girl opening titles (3:01, HD)
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