The Video Nasties #124 – Madhouse (1981, Ovidio G Assonitis)

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‘You afraid of ghosts, Miss Julie?’

Not to be confused with the fun Vincent Price/Peter Cushing Madhouse from 1974, this one comes to you from the Ovidio G Assonitis, director of such Eurotrash as Tentacles and Beyond The Door. He’s perhaps best known these days now for firing James Cameron from Piranha 2 and finishing the film himself. Can you guess which one of them went on to have the biggest hit in cinema history?

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This Madhouse is about Julia, who has a deformed and possibly insane twin sister, Mary. When Mary escapes from hospital four days before Julia’s birthday, the stage is set for a surprise party no one will ever forget, not least because most of the guests are dead.

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Madhouse is an odd movie. At times it follows the slasher formula to a tee, but often it deviates in a way few American slashers would dare. The tension between the Italian and US styles is definitely apparent onscreen. One of the most glaring instances is the killer’s weapon of choice. What do you think? Knife? Axe? Bow and Arrow? Nope, it’s a big ol’ doggy dog.

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Also of note is the choice of victims. Okay sure, we get one attractive blonde chased around with no trousers on, but the others are a security guard, an older lady and the most unexpected, a deaf child! It’s kinda refreshing, but I do miss the usual bubble-headed co-eds, particularly as the film grinds on in such a po-faced manner. It could use a good dose of sleaze! The final half hour in particular just seems to go on and on, and features my all time least favourite movie trope – the normal person who reveals themselves to be the killer, and then suddenly turns into a mad, cackling lunatic, singing and screaming and talking in that patronising way that all movie killers do.

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If I’m making it sound bad though, then I don’t mean to. There’s a lot to like here in fact, presuming you don’t go in expecting an exploitation movie. It’s actually surprisingly well made, with very attractive cinematography and striking wide angle compositions, and a good use of colour like some kind of cut-price Argento.

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Some of the early scenes have a creepy atmosphere about them, like Julia’s initial visit to the hospital or even the haunting opening credits, which end with a little girl smashing someone’s face in with a rock. And there’s one jolt during the murder of the pantless blonde that will have you jumping out of your seat, partially thanks to another stunning score from Riz Ortolani, who seems to be using outtakes from his Cannibal Holocaust soundtrack.

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So why was Madhouse successfully prosecuted if it’s such a low-key psychological thriller? Well, there’s the aforementioned face smashing scene, and the axe-wielding climax leaves one character in quite a mess. There’s also a horrible scene where the dog gets its comeuppance, though thankfully for once the animal violence is faked. I dunno, maybe the DPP were worried a dog might watch the movie and go out and try to imitate it.

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So it’s a mild recommend for Madhouse from me. I just wish it embraced its trashy origins a bit more. What would a Joe D’Amato or a Jess Franco have done with the same material? I’m not sure, but there’s one thing I do know – there’d be more boobs.

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