Director: Ovidio G. Assonitis
Cast: Trish Everly, Michael MacRae, Dennis Robertson
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
You guys! This is the last 1981 slasher for Census Bloodbath! We’re about to cross over into a brand new year with brand new gory adventures! But that’s a story for another time. Our topic today is the film Madhouse, also known as And When She Was Bad, a title that should have immediately tipped me off that it was an Italian production. They do love their florid naming conventions.
As it stands, I didn’t realize its country of origin until IMDb carved right through director Oliver Hellman’s pseudonym to reveal the shadowy figure of Ovidio G. Assonitis, who further made his mark on 1981 with the film Piranha II: The Spawning, which he directed from behind the shoulder of neophyte James Cameron. Luckily, this film’s a great deal better than Piranha II, even if it doesn’t quite rise above the rest of the 1981 slasher muck.
But even that’s enough to clear out the sour tang of A Day of Judgment.
In Madhouse, 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 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.
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?
And will ANYONE believe she’s – as the script states – “25?”
If you’re a consummate slasher fan like Yours Truly or at least have devoted yourself to following along with my Census Bloodbath project (Thank you, by the way), you probably noticed something a little… off about that synopsis. Yeah, the main weapon of this particular slasher is a dog. Dog attacks aren’t entirely unheard of in slasher films, especially in those of Italian descent (those guys are to animal violence as Quentin Tarantino is to feet) but never at this high a volume. There’s a reason slashers don’t carry guns – it’s hard to supply cool, creative kills when you’re just shooting people in the face like a bemasked Chuck Norris. I never thought I’d have to add dogs to the list of verboten slasher tools, but never underestimate the envelope-pushing ability of an Assonitis. He’s got a real Boy Named Sue complex going on.
Luckily, Madhouse at least boasts some very well-shot dog attacks. Usually, 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.
Other than Toto, I mean. That guy’s a badass.
Everything about Madhouse is a little cockamamie like this, slightly twisted away from the now set-in-stone slasher formula. 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, even as it launches through a rote plot with a dire, half-hearted stab at teasing a potential twist where Julia is the killer, sublimely average body count padding, and a finale that bizarrely mirrors that same year’s Happy Birthday to Me almost to a T. But it’s not the plot that matters, it’s everything hanging onto it like plump, garish remoras on the belly of an exceedingly stupid shark.
Possibly my favorite bit of business in the entire affair is Julia’s hippy landlord, a bizarre character whose presence permeates the film despite not appearing until past the halfway point thanks to the massive, calligraphied signs she has posted all over the apartment’s lobby. 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. Her name? Amantha Beauregarde. She’s straight out of a Dickensian fever dream! You can’t make this stuff up.
While there’s a lot of fun to be had with Amantha Beauregarde and a cotillion of colorful, only occasionally racist side characters, the best scene in the movie is a horse of a different color. [SPOILERS, not that it really matters in a Census Bloodbath feature] 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. At this point my notes get a little illegible as my tear ducts spray like an out-of-control fire hose. I daresay Madhouse doesn’t truly earn the brutality of that scene, because it never really pays off in any way, but the fact that it can so successfully pull off a grounded, emotional scene like this in a ludicrous slasher is pretty impressive. And I suppose it adds to the overall campiness factor if you have a heart of stone, you monster.
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 crazed tension. And then the whole thing ends with a George Bernard Shaw quote, just to remind us that this whole shebang is just a powder keg of ridiculousness. I can’t say Madhouse was a great film, but there’s enough in this slow-paced slasher that’s either weirdly good or damn crazy that I’m happy to give it a pass.
Killer: [Uncle Father James (Dennis Robertson) and Mary Sullivan (Allison Biggers)]
Final Girl: Julia Sullivan (Trish Everly)
Best Kill: Come on! A CAT IS HANGED. That seems like overkill, by the most literal definition.
Sign of the Times: Every musical sting sounds like the chorus of Scissor Sisters’ “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’.”
Scariest Moment: The opening credits slowly zoom in on a rocking chair as a creepy lullaby plays, until – apropos of nothing – a woman gets her face smashed in with a rock.
Weirdest Moment: When we finally meet Amantha Beauregarde, she has a full conversation with Julie during which she never stops pirouetting on her balcony.
Champion Dialogue: “Sorry, I got held up by a last minute schizoid.”
Body Count: 10; and I’m including animal deaths because they get the most slashery demises of them all. So cute - they think they’re people!
- Woman has her face smashed in with a rock.
- Security Guard gets his throat ripped out by a dog.
- Mr. Kimura is stabbed in the chest.
- Sacha is mauled by a dog.
- Leroy the Cat is hanged.
- Helen is mauled by a dog.
- Amantha Beauregarde is stabbed.
- [Mary is stabbed in the back.]
- Rottweiler is drilled in the head.
- [Uncle Father James is axed in the back.]
TL;DR: Madhouse is a strange, inconsistent slasher that nevertheless provides a solid emotional core and amusing Italian camp.
Rating: 6/10Word Count: 1307