Madhouse (1981)

I think 1981’s MADHOUSE (a.k.a THERE WAS A LITTLE GIRL, a.k.a AND WHEN SHE WAS BAD) tastes like horror movie comfort food. I don’t know if it’s good but it’s always been good to me. I don’t need or want every horror film to be a blasting, rousing shower of fear; sometimes I just want to sink into a nice tub of lukewarm creepy. MADHOUSE makes me ardently nostalgic even though we never crossed paths in my youth as I was fated to discover it decades after its release in a pile of used tapes in a second hand store. I drug it home thinking it might work as a shrug-off, time waster but from its vivid opening credits (complete with an eerie sing-song rhyme) I found myself strangely ensnarled. Corny, melodramatic and outmoded at birth, it’s easy to understand why this one has eluded much fan-boy recognition. On the other hand, it’s smartly shot, atmospheric and unaffectedly eccentric. MADHOUSE is an out of touch weirdo and it may not have the chops or desire for spotlight attention but I’ve always gravitated to quiet loners anyway. Half mass though it may fly; I spy a freak flag billowing.

One of MADHOUSE’s greatest charms is its lead TRISH EVERLY who christened this her one and only film. As a teenager I read many a horror paperback and I have to say the heroines who I conjured in my head always looked like TRISH even though I was unaware of her existence at the time. What a shame she never went on to other films; I feel like her character Julia Sullivan is the type that we just don’t get to see enough of anymore. She’s an un-hip, unassuming altruist (she teaches deaf children) and she’s a bit of a doormat/pincushion to her horrifically scarred, witch cackling sadistic “twin” sister Mary (ALLISON BIGGERS). Yes, Julia is living the dream as a functioning adult with fantastic hair, a slutty pants-optional best friend doomed to die and a stand up main squeeze with a CAN’T STOP THE MUSIC moustache. Just because she relies on her man to save her ass doesn’t mean she won’t hack a person’s back into hamburger meat with an ax when given a reasonable opportunity. Everyone may think Julia is letting her imagination get the best of her, but time will show that she has a valid reason to suspect her sibling of siccing a Rottweiler to chomp on her favorite pupil. I love Julia Sullivan and I wish she would invite me over to her wicker and fern heavy apartment.

AN ASIDE: It doesn’t hurt that Julia’s pad exists within an incredible Georgian mansion. I Googled this shit up and learned that MADHOUSE was filmed in a real joint called “The Kehoe House” which is now an Inn rumored to be haunted (by twin ghosts no less.) Incredibly none other than JOE NAMATH owned the joint from 1980 to 1989 and he tried but failed to transform it into a disco. Don’t feel bad for Broadway Joe though, it turned out to be a highly lucrative investment. Aw, I love that JOE even when he was a lascivious drunk on live television. He was so swank on THE BRADY BUNCH.

Although filmed in the States, MADHOUSE is an Italian production directed and written by OVIDIO G. ASSONITIS. OVIE may not be the best director in the world but as the man responsible for TENTACLES and BEYOND THE DOOR, he has brought more joy into my world than many a celebrated director ever has. Telltale Italian sensibilities are all present and accounted for. Appreciation for color, shadow and inventive angles abound and God bless whoever rented the wind machine to shove the foliage about. (Attention all directors: if you are too cheap to spring for a wind machine get the crew to shake branches outside the window. Wind is very important for setting a mood for me.) In the end MADHOUSE may be little more than an old, dark house flick hugging on a lady-in-peril with family-issues movie but that’s just fine by this guy. Some movies simply exist to shove me in a canon and shoot me to my happy zone. This semi ridiculous bruiser does so every time.

Believe me I’m not blind to MADHOUSE’s quirks and foibles. I know it’s not without its awkward tics. Some of the stalking scenes drag and some of the supporting players need to look up “supporting” in the dictionary and take it down a notch and the death by Rottweiler bit does become repetitive. Truth told, some of the killer canine set pieces, thanks to slack puppy-puppetry, feel more like TRIUMPH THE INSULT DOG sketches gone awry, but expertly hung Christmas lights and a party attended by corpses tends to salve my wounds.

Many have pointed out that MADHOUSE’s climax resembles that of HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, and I can only touch my nose and point in agreement. Both films came out around the same time so it’s nearly impossible that one cribbed off the other, but the similarities are uncanny. Besides the dead birthday party guests and the rampant sibling rivalry present, both films carry a verbatim line, “Take a good long look!” I blame the collective unconscious and synchronicity myself as those pimps are always up to something. In a way, the two films are mismatched battling twinsies from the same litter themselves and I have no problem awarding both Snausages.

MADHOUSE’s greatest notoriety may come thanks to a questionable inclusion on Britain’s famed “Video Nasty” list. Out of all the films listed it may deserve inclusion the least. I’ve always found it more GASLIGHT than ghastly, but a recent uncut edition from CODE RED does kick the blood and violence up a notch. More importantly, I can now view this pet pleasure in widescreen, which compliments it like an enamored groupie. The darks are darker, the Christmas tree lights blink a little brighter and miniscule details just pour out of the walls. Now if I could only switch RIZ (CANIBAL HOLOCAUST) ORTOLANI’s score to something more sweeping and appropriate rather than randomly blippy.

As is, MADHOUSE hits the spot for me. It doesn’t have the wild youthful energy of some of its contemporaries but instead accentuates a comparatively brooding, more classical stance that scratches a certain itch. Yes, I just used the word “classical” to describe a movie that features a power drill being inserted into a dog puppets head. I guess you can thank TRISH EVERLY for that.

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12 years ago

I saw this about a year ago (I cant help but think someone on HERE recommended it) and I really think the dog puppet ruined it for them. True. They had no way of knowing Triumph would one day come along…but that scene is more laughable than scary. You almost wanna rewind it and watch it again!

I think when this ended it left me wondering which movie actually DID come up with the “Dead Guests At A Party” cliche we’ve all come to know and love. Anyone know if this was the first one?

Amanda By Night
12 years ago

I really like this movie. I did a review of it for Retro Slashres a few years ago, when it was only on vhs. Here’s my link (shameless, I know):

I think Assonitis also did a movie I just saw on Christmas called The Visitor. It’s our new favorite movie. Crazy and wild and nonsensical and amzing!

Here’s a little piece of triva that really means nothing, but the stached boyfriend from Madhouse starred in an episode of Romance Theater with Patch Mackenzie (Graduation Day) and Zohrah Lampert (Let’s Scare Jessica to Death)! The show was hosted by Louis Jordan (Swam Thing) and was a sort of late 70s or early 80s novella soap series that ran in syndication (I totally saw some of them when they originally aired!). These three were in the one called Isle of Secret Passion. I have three of the videos, but they are hard to find. Anyway, when I saw it I couldn’t believe all the horror people in this romance thing. It was awesome!

Another great review Unk!

12 years ago

What’s up with the yellow Snuggie at 2:17?