Madhouse (US - DVD)
Gabe Powers' deformed twin and killer rottweiler actually pay him some rent...
Deaf child teacher Julia (Trish Everly) is the complete opposite of her insane, violent, and hideously deformed twin sister Mary (Allison Biggers). For most of her adult life Julia’s managed to avoid Mary, but as their birthday approaches their uncle, Father James (Dennis Robertson), presses for reconciliation. When Mary escapes the insane asylum with her giant, vicious rottweiler and starts murdering all her friends, Julia begins to worry a bit.
I talk a lot about the UK’s Video Nasties list in my horror reviews, but usually I’m expecting nothing but schlocky garbage. The truth is that, like most collectors and fans, I really just have a pointless need to see everything on the previously banned list. Thanks to websites like the now banned from DVDActive Dave Brock’s Bearded Freak, and excellent books like David Kerekes and David Slater’s ‘See No Evil’, and Marc Morris and Harvey Fenton’s ‘Shock! Horror!’, I’ve learned which films I can expect more than boredom from. Madhouse (aka: There Was a Little Girl, a better title) is one of the few items on the BBFC’s original list that features any sort of positive buzz among fans (save a few Argento and Fulci films that we’ve had easy access to for years), and it’s been missing from R1 DVD.
There’s nothing on the books to say that Madhouse won’t be schlocky garbage. It’s directed by sleaze king Ovidio G. Assonitis, who mostly made a name for himself as a producer, but who did direct the popular (but stupid) Exorcist rip off Beyond the Door. The cast is either unknown, or known for being limited at best. Most importantly, the story sounds a whole lot like a million other thrillers about twin sisters, save the dog aspects. Somehow the stars aligned this one time, and the film is surprisingly effective as both an entertaining horror movies, and as a minor psycho-thriller.
Assonitis does his best impersonation of Brian DePalma impersonating Alfred Hitchcock, but cannot escape his obviously Italian roots. Every step taken towards making the film appear American made, including the surprisingly capable cast, is overridden by a clearly Italian era pacing, framing, and editing style. In many ways Madhouse strikes as one of Lucio Fulci’s ‘80s films, though the thin veil of actual narrative structure will make the film an easier (if not less interesting) watch for non-fans. The plot twists end up a little too easy to predict, but are appreciated, and there are two or three really good scares wrapped into the mostly derivative script.
The film’s strongest, and ironically enough, most Italian-specific elements are Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli’s interesting, but not too flashy photography, the BBFC bothering gore, and Riz Ortolani’s electronic and symphonic score. The Video Nasty cataloguing is pretty silly, as even at its most violent the film is pretty tame compared even to standards of the time, but there is a sense of anything goes dread that probably genuinely disturbed the folks at the BBFC when the film was first released. There’s also the ridiculous possibility that they fell for the special effects in the animal slaughter scenes.
This is my first experience with the film, so I can’t compare Dark Sky’s release with the PAL R0 copy that came out a few years back. I can compare with the studio’s other releases, and the comparison is quite positive. Madhouse looks really good for what it is, and is presented in what appears to be the correct 2.35:1 framing. The transfer is not without its dirt, grain, and minor artefacts, but overall Dark Sky has cleaned this sucker as fresh as a daisy. Details are occasionally inconsistent, though it appears that most of the image softness has more to do with soft focus choices made during filming. Piassoli’s oh so Italian use of colour is realistically rendered, and both bright and dark hues are rich and full bodied.
Dark Sky’s disc features a generally clean Dolby stereo audio track, with clear dialogue, solid mix levels, and generally very little distortion. As seems to be the norm for low budget horror, Madhouse doesn’t feature a whole lot of aggressive sound effects, depending more on its music for stab scares and atmosphere. Madhouse has the advantage of being scored by a pro like Riz Ortolani, who makes do with very few cues (I’m guessing Assonitis couldn’t afford the composer’s full price). Ortolani uses a lot of electric bass (as was popular among Italian composer’s at the time), and even without an isolated LFE track the bass levels are generally impressive for such a film. During a few of the film’s more noisy musical moments the mostly centred stereo track suddenly and awkwardly switches to a fully separated track, and I caught a few slices of drop out, but the track’s clarity mostly makes up for these minor issues.
There aren’t a lot of extras here (two to be exact). The first is an interview with director/producer Ovidio G. Assonitis, who apparently only acted as director this time around because he couldn’t find someone else in time (or at least someone that worked for more than ten days). It’s a pretty lethargic interview, but Assonitis shares quite a bit of valuable information about the making of the film, and in place of a commentary track or making-of documentary the interview does fine. The other extra is a still gallery.
That’s one more to check off my list of banned must sees, and satisfyingly enough, a decent little thriller that didn’t waste ninety minutes of my life. Madhouse is a nasty little treat for Italian horror fans, and Dark Sky’s disc is a fine introduction for region one audiences. The film isn’t quite good or original enough to transcend fan lines into being a must see for average movie watchers, but those on my side of the fence will be happy enough.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 25th November 1995
Disc Type: Single side, single layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo English
Extras: Director Interview, Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ovidio G. Assonitis
Cast: Trish Everly, Allison Biggers, Dennis Robertson
Length: 93 minutes
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