Last month, something happened that I never could have predicted in a million years. Arrow Video released 1981’s MADHOUSE on Blu-Ray. Frankly, up to this point, I was convinced that it wasn’t real, and I had only seen it in a fever dream. But now, with a crisp 2K restoration, this is either the longest fever I’ve ever had or one of the best re-releases of the Summer.
You see, I love MADHOUSE. A.K.A. AND WHEN SHE WAS BAD. A.K.A. THERE WAS A LITTLE GIRL. A.K.A. SCARED TO DEATH. A.K.A. FLESH AND THE BEAST. (Can you tell it’s an Italian movie?)
From schlockmeister Ovidio G. Assonitis (TENTACLES, BEYOND THE DOOR), directing under the Americanized pseudonym Oliver Hellman, MADHOUSE is the poster image that comes up when you look up the word “bonkers” in the dictionary. Here’s a brief description of the plot:
Julia (Trish Everly) is a teacher at a school for the deaf. She has a happy life with her doctor boyfriend Sam (Michael MacRae), her sultry best friend/coworker Helen (Morgan Most), and her favorite pupil Sacha (Richard Baker), but when her priest uncle Father James (Dennis Robertson of DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW) convinces her to visit her abusive twin sister Mary (Allison Biggers) in the hospital after being estranged for 7 years, this reignites the madness of her childhood in the days leading up to Julia’s birthday. She’s allegedly turning 25, even though everyone in this movie looks well over 30.
Mary escapes from the hospital and a vicious Rottweiler that looks suspiciously like her old pet begins mauling Julia’s friends and acquaintances. Will Julia even survive long enough to blow out the candles on her birthday cake?
Yes, you read that right. The main weapon of this slasher movie is a dog. Dog attacks aren’t entirely unheard of in slasher films, especially in those of Italian descent (those guys were to animal violence what Jason Voorhees is to skinny dippers), but this one is basically a living butcher knife.
The cherry on top is that these dog attacks are actually very well-shot. Normally, these sequences tend to look silly, switching between a real dog with a happily wagging tail in wide shots and a SESAME STREET hand puppet in the close-ups. One stunt scene has an obvious puppet, but every attack is a near-flawless operation that expertly combines a legitimately dangerous creature (reports from the set have the cast and crew being actively afraid of the beast and nervous to even move a muscle while in its sights) with realistic-enough makeup effects. And this dog just has a look, you know? Wonky jagged teeth, bulging eyes, and a squat stature give him an otherworldly, villainous allure that sells his menace more than any other movie dog I’ve seen.
Essentially, MADHOUSE is a retelling of that same year’s HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, through the twisted lens of a Z-grade Italian giallo, and if that’s not what you’re looking for from a feature film, we are not on the same page.
Everything about MADHOUSE is delightfully cockamamie, like it wanted to be a cliché slasher but found itself a couple inches to the left every time. Perhaps the biggest example is the fact that there’s a cat featured in this film that never at any point jumps out at our Final Girl during a moment of distress. Now that’s progress!
MADHOUSE is never quite predictable. Take Julia’s landlord, a bizarre character whose presence permeates the film despite not appearing until past the halfway point. This is thanks to the massive, calligraphied signs she has posted all over the apartment’s lobby with friendly little messages, all signed with her gloriously loopy John Hancock. The more you see of them, the more you wonder about this recluse with the chipper syntax. And the moment you meet her, everything you could possibly have dreamed of comes true, and more. She dances ballet on her patio. She’s possibly agoraphobic. She talks like her name should be Moonbeam Delight. But her real name is better than any parody name I could ever conceive: Amantha Beauregarde. You can’t make this stuff up.
There’s a lot of fun to be had with the instantly iconic Amantha Beauregarde and a cotillion of colorful, only occasionally racist side characters, but the best scene in the movie is a horse of a different color. [SPOILERS in the rest of this paragraph, not that it really matters with this type of movie – you have to see it to believe it] After Julia’s star pupil Sacha is mauled by the dog (offscreen, thankfully), she has to sit down with a classroom full of deaf students and tell them their friend is dead. Perhaps MADHOUSE doesn’t truly earn the brutality of this scene, because it never really pays off in any way, but the fact that it can so successfully pull off a grounded, emotional moment like this smack dab in the middle of a ludicrous slasher is pretty impressive. And I suppose its randomness adds to the overall campiness factor, if you have a heart of stone. [END OF SPOILERS]
To top things off, MADHOUSE is actually – sometimes – even a teensy bit scary. Allison Biggers is an eerie presence as the unhinged Mary, and her infrequent appearances are fraught with berserk tension. And then the whole thing ends with a George Bernard Shaw quote, just to remind us that we couldn’t possibly claim to know anything about what is going to happen next. I can’t say MADHOUSE was a masterpiece or anything like that, but everything in this admittedly slow-paced slasher is either weirdly good or damn crazy, and I’m more than happy to give it a pass.
I urge you to check this one out if you’re a connoisseur of strange cinema. This is one of those movies that you didn’t think could possibly be unearthed by the spiffy Blu-Ray market, but sometimes life is full of delicious surprises.