Review: Madhouse (1981)

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In the curious 1980s world of the Video Nasty, we can split the films – at least the 39 that finally made up the official, government designated list of 39 titles ultimately deemed so obscene that they could never be seen again – into two categories. There are those that you can fully understand shocking and outraging journalists, police officers, magistrates, MPs, juries and petty civil servants in 1983 – Cannibal Holocaust, SS Experiment Camp, I Spit on Your Grave, Island of Death and the front cover of The Driller Killer were of an excessive bent never before seen in the UK, and regardless of their merits as films, theye were bound to seem like the most depraved things imaginable by people whose idea of a gory horror movie was a Hammer film and who were less than cine-literate. Then, there were the films that ended up on the banned list apparently by osmosis – without any record of an actual obscenity conviction, with no actual content that seemed especially difficult and not even sporting outrageously outre cover art, a handful of films slipped quietly onto the banned list and stayed there forever. Why anyone would even seize a film called The Werewolf and the Yeti is hard to fathom, and evidence that the film was ever branded as obscene by a jury is non-existent. A cynic could think that the powers that be were simply making all this up as they went along, especially as much more explicitly gory and rapey films were dropped from the banned list.

Another great example of ‘how did this film end up banned?’ is Madhouse. Admittedly, the original release of the film was the uncut version, containing a couple of brief gory moments that the BBFC chose to trim – notably the power-drilling of a dog’s head that was probably a trigger image for British viewers (the dog was represented by a remarkably unconvincing puppet, in case you were worried) – but the cover was so remarkably staid and the title so unremarkable that you have to wonder just how it came to the attention of any eager police officer even at a time when the plod were so clueless that they thought The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and The Big Red One were porn movies. And the film itself is a slickly produced, almost TV movie-like psycho thriller; one reason many of the ‘nasties’ so shocked people who had not seen many low budget films is that the production values and visual style of these films – be they scuzzy low budget schlock like Mardi Gras Massacre, gritty indie films like The Driller Killer or outsider works like Andy Milligan’s The Ghastly Ones – were so far removed from what people knew as cinema that they automatically seemed dubious, not the work of ‘real’ filmmakers and therefore not ‘real’ films. You can’t say that of Madhouse. It looks like a mainstream American horror movie, sitting comfortably alongside contemporaries like He Knows You’re Alone or Prom Night rather than more ham-fisted and slightly ‘off’ titles like Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. Then again, the uncut version of The Burning – an even more mainstream horror film – was also banned on the basis of a whole five seconds of gore that the BBFC snipped – so perhaps at this point, anything where someone could definitively point to the film being different than the contemporarily-approved BBFC edition was fair game.

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In any case, this new release of Madhouse is the uncut version, allowing the patient viewer to enjoy not only the afore-mentioned dog puppet drilling but also a hilariously excessive axe attack, which makes up for with enthusiasm what it lacks in gory realism. You have to wait a fair amount of time for these scenes to appear though.

Interestingly, Madhouse – original / actual / onscreen title There Was A Little Girl – is not an American film at all. It’s an Italian production, directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis, who was remarkably good at making his movies look like genuine US productions, avoiding the usual pitfalls like international casts, post-production dubbing and so on. This might have helped his films sell to the US market, but it also risks stripping them of any individuality. His earlier film The Visitor is a remarkably mad affair, but Madhouse looks and feels like everything else of that era. It’s well made and it’s efficient, but it’s entirely forgettable, even as you watch it.

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Julia (Trish Everly) is a schoolteacher for deaf children who, rather unfortunately, has a mentally unbalanced and physically mutilated twin sister Mary residing in an institution. She also has a supposedly kindly Uncle James (Dennis Robertson) who is a Catholic priest, and if you’ve seen any horror films – or, for that matter, read any news stories – then you know that kindly Catholic priests are not necessarily to be trusted. Soon, people are dying, mostly via Rottweiler attack. Eventually – and this takes a fair time – Julia’s birthday arrives (a big deal is made of this, even though she has presumably had several during Mary’s time institutionalised) and things come to a head, as the whole family get together in a finale that is suitably frenetic, even if it all ultimately makes little sense.

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Quite how the film’s psycho killer manages to use a Rottweiler as a murder weapon is somewhat fudged as an issue as the film slips into a mix of The Shining and Deranged for the rushed final act, but seen in retrospect, it’s at least satisfying to see the film trying to be something a little different from the standard stalk and slash films that undoubtedly inspired it. But Madhouse is also a frustrating affair, a film that is too damn polite for its own good – it would probably benefit from more of the outrageousness of its Video Nasty compatriots. As it is, the film is too restrained for what it wants to be, and falls between two stools – not quite good enough to stand out as an impressive psychological drama, not demented enough to work as excessive splatter movie madness. If it hadn’t been banned, the film would have been long-forgotten, frankly. It is certainly not terrible, but might prove to be a disappointing experience if you come to it aware of its past reputation and with expectations accordingly.

DAVID FLINT

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