Madhouse (or, as the on screen title refers to it, There Was A Little Girl) has enjoyed some notoriety over the years thanks in no small part to the film being labeled as a 'Video Nasty' in the United Kingdom. The 1981 Italian production (which was shot on location in Georgia) directed and co-written by Ovidio G. Assonitis (the same man who gave us Behind The Door) might have seemed intense at the time, but by modern standards, it's goofier more than it is anything else.
The film follows Julia Sullivan (Trish Everly), a young woman who works as a teacher at a school for deaf children. Julia has a twin sister who suffers from some strange medical problems and as such lives her life locked away in a mental hospital where she's being treated for dementia. Julia was mistreated by her sister Mary (Allison Biggers) quite severely as a child when she would torment her with her mean spirited pet dog. As such (and quite understandably!), Julia carries a fair bit of emotional baggage around with her. When Julia learns through a kindly priest named Father James (Dennis Robertson) that her sister's condition has worsened and that she now suffers from some horrible deformities, she begrudgingly agrees to go and visit her wayward sibling for the first time in years.
Around the time of Julia's visit, strange murders start occurring in the area. While this might seem purely circumstantial, when Julia learns that the killings have been carried out by a giant dog matching the description of the one that her sister used to terrorize her in her younger days, she starts to wonder if maybe her sister is back to her old tricks again. The fact that all of this has coincided with Julia's birthday and is occurring while her boyfriend, Sam (Michael MacRae) is out of town, certainly doesn't help matters much and when it turns out that Mary has escaped from the hospital, Julia just knows that her sister is going to be gunning for her...
The influence of Dario Argento's films is easy to spot in this candy colored slasher film - from the primary lighting gels used to add atmosphere to the dog attack scenes there are scenes here that really remind one of Suspiria even if the plot goes in a completely different direction. On the flip side of that coin, like some of Argento's films, Madhouse also has its share of plot holes and head scratching moments of confusion. Character development is pretty much nil and the motivations for the murders more than a little vague. That said, the film is entertaining enough as long as you don't demand too much from it.
The murder set pieces in the film are done with plenty of style and no shortage of bloodshed while the music, courtesy of Riz Ortolani, keeps things bouncing along at a good clip even if there are spots where it seems like the composer is cribbing from his Cannibal Holocaust score. Those upset by violence towards animals might be put off by a scene in which a devilish dog gets his due but there's no denying that this is nothing more than a special effect and not a particularly convincing one at that. The acting isn't particularly inspired or impressive in any way, shape or form but the film looks good enough and contains all the requisite scenes or carnage that fans could want out of a picture of this kind. The end result? Madhouse is a violent and slick looking picture that entertains even if it never really fires on all cylinders.
Dark Sky Films presents Madhouse in a very nice 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves the films original aspect ratio. The image quality is quite strong here with nice, natural looking color reproduction and deep black levels. Skin tones look lifelike and there's a fair amount of detail in both the foreground and the background of the image. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or heavy edge enhancement and while there's a little bit of print damage in the form of the odd speck here and there and while there is some noticeable grain, none of this proves to be particularly distracting and generally the picture is stable and clean throughout the duration of the film.
The sole audio option on this disc is an English language Dolby Digital Mono track that comes with subtitles in English only. Dialogue is easy enough to understand and there aren't any problems with hiss or distortion to complain about even if sometimes the audio is just a little bit flat. Riz Ortolani's quirky score has some nice bounce to it, however, and the levels are all properly balanced. For an older mono mix, things sound just fine on this DVD.
The only really substantial supplement on this disc is a thirteen-minute interview with Ovidio G. Assonitis, who helped to produce, write and direct the picture. The amiable filmmaker talks about how he came on board with this project and took over from the film's original director, what it was like working with some of the animals in the film, about Ortolani's score and about how he feels about the picture in hindsight. It's an enjoyable interview and one that is well worth watching. Aside from that, look for a decent sized still gallery of promotional photographs, some animated menus, and a chapter selection option to round out the extra features.
Despite the ridiculousness of the script and the mediocrity of the acting, Madhouse has enough gore and ludicrous set pieces to make it worth a look for slasher fans. It isn't particularly 'good' in the traditional sense but it's entertaining enough in its own odd way and Dark Sky has done a nice job on the DVD. Recommended for slasher fans, a fun rental on a dark and rainy night for everyone else.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.