Arrow Video: Madhouse (1981) - Reviewed

I shouldn’t be too surprised this was produced and directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis.  Released only two years after dropping the strangest film in existence, The Visitor, the Egyptian-born Italian B horror film producer, future Cannon Films CEO and occasional film writer-director was known for firing directors mid-production before taking over the project himself.  Such was the case with Pirahna II: The Spawning, the film which jumpstarted James Cameron’s career, and this former Italian-American Video Nasty from the early 80s known as There Was a Little Girl…or is it And When She Was Bad?  Oh what the Hell, let’s just settle on the third title for this new Arrow Video blu-ray release: Madhouse

A kind of smorgasbord of Italian slasher stylized giallo, evil twin sister revenge thriller, and a whole lot of Riz Ortolani power, Madhouse echoes the sensibilities of Argento and Fulci’s brand of artfully rendered exploitation horror which unfortunately like The Visitor throws just enough extraneous threads in to tip it over into silliness.  It’s fun but all over the map and I doubt Assonitis intended it to be tongue in cheek.  Anyway, a rare Italian production to be filmed in America in Savannah, Georgia in the supposedly haunted Kehoe house, Madhouse concerns schoolteacher for deaf children Julia Sullivan (Trish Everly in her only film role) whose violent past with her evil sister Mary comes back to haunt her as friends and family start turning up dead. 

Like the title suggests, Madhouse gives you a bit of everything from the giallo genre, the American slasher genre, bits of The Omen mixed with Sisters and just enough Video Nasty-worthy gore to keep you hooked.  Performances generally are good with Everly holding her own though Morgan Hart is just there for her looks and Dennis Robertson’s villain is more than a little cheesy.  Visually the Technovision cinematography by Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli with curved wide-angled lenses looks splendid with sharp framing and handsome lighting but the hokey visual effects, gratuitously over the top gore and tap dancing from genre to genre make it kind of a beautiful looking mess.  It goes without saying the great Italian composer Riz Ortolani’s involvement already boosts Madhouse’s credibility, though there were times when it sounded too much like Cannibal Holocaust for my liking. 

Overall, I enjoyed Madhouse as a standard slasher/giallo horror flick but won’t deny you can tell this is from the man who would become the head of Cannon Films.  Like Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus before him, these European film producers share a kindred passion for cinema in the abstract while displaying a curious disconnect in the art of making it a reality.  As a director, Assonitis understands how to direct a film production from a technical sense as well as directing actors but as a storyteller he knows know restraint and loads the proceedings with too many disparate elements before it grows crazy if not laughable.  While nowhere near as bizarre as The Visitor or even The Manitou, Madhouse is just outlandish enough with some juicy chance sequence slashings to satisfy most horror fans but average in the grand scheme of the genre.


- Andrew Kotwicki