Madhouse (1981)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-06-02 00:26

Madhouse (1981)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: June 13th, 2017

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

I realize this sounds like an odd thing to say about a genre that mostly exists just so audiences can watch people die horrible, gruesome deaths, but hear me out: generally speaking, slashers are meant to be fun diversions. At their best, they’re raucous party movies that allow people to revel in their gnarly thrills, and there’s a reason studios cranked these out on a nearly monthly basis for a while: people really, really enjoyed watching young, beautiful people die. Nobody was looking to be bummed out, much like nobody ever rides a dangerous rollercoaster in the hopes they’ll be truly terrified. And yet, that didn’t stop Ovidio Assonitis from hatching Madhouse, a nasty little number perched right in the midst of the slasher epoch in 1981. Where most of his contemporaries were looking to entertain viewers, Assonitis seemingly wondered how he could craft one of the most genuinely unpleasant slashers imaginable.

To put it bluntly, Madhouse is exactly the sort of effort that contributed to the genre’s negative reputation. It’s the sort of film Siskel and Ebert must have seen every time they deigned to check out a Friday the 13th or whatnot. Granted, its skeletal plot is virtually indistinguishable from any given collage of slashers: Julia (Trish Everly), a teacher at a school for the death, is haunted by a traumatic childhood involving her psychotic twin sister. Now committed to an institution and suffering from a mysterious skin disorder, the lunatic Mary (Allison Biggers) resents her sister, much to the dismay of their priest uncle (Dennis Robertson). On the eve of their birthday, Mary follows up some cryptic, ominous remarks by escaping from her institution to wreck Julia’s life once and for all by murdering everyone she loves.

Believe it or not, it’s not exactly difficult to see how this sort of thing could theoretically be appealing—especially once you learn that Mary’s M.O. involves unleashing her giant pet dog on victims. Assonitis, however, seems to be ruthlessly committed to draining all the fun out of this wild premise by bumming you the fuck out at every turn. Every scene feels like you’re watching him think aloud, “how can I make this as unappealing as possible?”

The answer: you open with a young girl bludgeoning her sister right in the face. You script not one, but two scenes of animal cruelty, including one that prominently features a graphic power drill burrowing straight into the creature’s head. You introduce some of the most genuinely pleasant supporting characters—like the kindly maintenance man at Julia’s apartment—just to dispose of them. You not only kill off a deaf kid, but you also script a follow-up scene where his classmates reminisce about him. Jesus, every copy of Madhouse should ship with a complimentary pack of Zoloft.

If it isn’t abundantly clear, Assonitis—as he was often prone to doing—approaches this material with exactly the wrong tone. Madhouse is wickedly mean-spirited, which, to be fair, is sometimes a compliment. Obviously, every film—hell, every slasher—need not be a popcorn-flavored romp. However, those films that do divert in tone should at least do so with some purpose (and, no, tacking on a profound George Bernard Shaw quote –as is the case here—isn’t enough), or at least be helmed by someone with some grasp on said tone. Past experience reminds us that Assonitis is perhaps the last person you’d expect that from, though: forget grasping tone—I’m not sure the man has ever quite grasped what actual human interaction is like.

Madhouse is yet another reminder of this, as it certainly looks the part of your typical slasher film, right down to the violence and story twists. Its eccentricities (any decent slasher boasts its fair share), however, are confounding, as you begin to wonder if you’re meant to laugh at the “absurdity” unfolding on the screen. I could easily see a midnight crowd losing their shit at some of it, even the scene with the class full of grieving deaf kids; at home, though, I couldn’t help but think Madhouse truly earned its Video Nasty status, as it’s a mean piece of work that’s hard to really enjoy.

And it’s not like this thing couldn’t be enjoyable. Look no further than Happy Birthday to Me—a film that serves as sort of a spiritual cousin to Madhouse—as proof. The two films have eerily similar plots, but the former doesn’t resort to the same kind of unseemliness this one does. Watching a jock get crushed to death by his own weights is funny; watching a teacher and her students grieve over a slain classmate is not. This is just basic science. Likewise, Happy Birthday to Me at least has some flair for the dramatic when it unravels its twist, whereas Madhouse’s big twist—which is also found in another slasher—is so predictable that its casual reveal is just as well. Seriously, what should be a climactic, shocking development just sort of happens out of nowhere, and with 30 minutes left to boot. I truly have no idea what Assonitis was thinking, which, to be fair, is par for the course.

It’s fair to say that maybe I just didn’t click with this one. In more enjoyable Assonitis efforts, that zaniness feels like grace notes; here, they just feel like misguided provocation that sink an otherwise promising film. Because the truth is, there’s a lot to like about Madhouse, particularly the colorful array of characters. Everly’s offbeat, overwrought line deliveries at least leave an impression, so Trish isn’t as immediately disposable as many slasher protagonists. She’s supported by a loving boyfriend (Michael Macrae) whose extreme decency sets you up to expect the worst for him since this is the sort of film that reserves awful fates for, well, everyone. Look no further than the aforementioned maintence man or Julie’s kooky landlord (Edith Ivey), both of whom suffer grim fates.

Both Biggers and, eventually, Robertson deliver a couple of delightfully unhinged turns. For much of the film, Mary is only glimpsed and heard, with her maniacal cackles reverberating throughout Julia’s cavernous apartment building. When she’s fully revealed, Biggers goes big and vivacious, crafting an indelible performance in a film that I wish did more to deserve it. With so much to like—and I haven’t even mentioned Riz Ortolani’s haunting score—Madhouse positions itself as one of the more memorable efforts from a very crowded era.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t leave a mark so much as it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Look, it’s not like I want to be too critical of a movie that boasts gnarly hatchet murders and a dog ripping chunks of viscera out of people’s throats, but it’s not at all rousing like it should be. Maybe it hit me at the wrong time and I’m just getting closer to pearl-clutching age, in which case, fuck Madhouse even more for making me realize that.

The disc:

Of course, I still wouldn’t go so far as to suggest the thing be banned, like Britain insisted when it tagged it as a Video Nasty, a designation that only made it more notorious. Consider it somewhat ironic, then, that UK outfit Arrow Video is set to release a definitive edition, complete with a brand new 2K restoration to highlight the film’s solid production values (that’s the other frustrating thing about Madhouse—it’s really well-shot and almost tricks you into liking it).

Arrow has also provided a decent amount of supplements, including interviews with the cast and crew, an alternate opening titles sequence, a theatrical trailer, and an audio commentary from The Hysteria Continues, a horror-themed podcast. The first pressing of the edition will also boast a booklet featuring newly-written liner notes that will presumably further illuminate the film’s sordid history.

If nothing else, Madhouse does prove to be memorable. Given how deep we are into the slasher well at this point, it’s not common that something this distinctive still turn up on Blu-ray, and that has to count for something. I can’t say that I’ll ever watch again, but I can also say I’ll certainly never forget it, either. Watching a deaf kid struggle to pronounce the word “dead” to describe his classmate tends to stick with you, and, if you just chuckled at the thought of that, congratulations—Madhouse is the movie for you!
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