Madhouse (1981)



AKA: There Was A Little Girl

Julia Sullivan is a beloved teacher at a school for the deaf in Savannah, Georgia. She’s kind, patient, and has a loving boyfriend named Sam, who just so happens to be a doctor. She’s basically got the kind of nice, calm, comfortable life that most people would envy. But as her birthday draws near, her uncle coaxes her into visiting her deformed twin sister, Mary, at the insane asylum, and the resulting resurfaced trauma forces Julia to tell Sam about a dark secret: mainly that her sister is a psychotic nut, who used to mentally and physically torture her when they were still children, and even got their childhood dog to participate in the torment. Sam tries to reassure her that everything is fine, but when Julia learns that Mary has since escaped the mental institution, her concern for her safety only grows. But unfortunately, no one seems interested in taking Julia’s concerns as seriously as she does, meaning when it comes to dealing with her sister, she might be on her own.


The more I watch these movies that were “banned” or ended up on some “video nasties” list, the more I’m convinced that people back in the day were uppity. And not just uppity, but, like, randomly uppity. I mean, sure, I’ve watched a lot of these movies and in a few of them I’ve gotten to a point where even my desensitized self cringed and thought, “Yeah, okay, I can see where someone might have had a problem with that.” But for the most part a lot of what I see feels incredibly tame, or even over exaggerated, especially by today’s standards. Hell, even when it comes to “back in the day” standards, I often can’t figure out the reasoning for one movie landing on some sort of list, and others just sailing by completely unscathed. You’re telling me that some guy killing a very fake looking dog puppet by stabbing a power drill through its head is a no go, but dragging a screaming, bloody, half-dressed teenager up a wall and across the ceiling in Nightmare on Elm Street was just honkey-dorey? Yeah, I don’t get it. Just like I don’t get how Madhouse ended up on the notorious ‘video nasty’ list. Because beyond that one, very cheesy looking scene, there really isn’t too much of note about this banned American/Italian co-production, other than the fact that it was, you know, banned.


For the most part, the movie is actually pretty dull, by both Italian and American slasher standards. For every interesting moment, there are at least three dull, seemingly never ending scenes of boring banal chitchat that do nothing to further the plot and seem to be solely designed to drag on and make the movie (and our miserable lives on this Earth) feel infinitely longer. Thankfully the Italian influence helps give them some color and makes the framing look good, but it doesn’t do anything to make them less boring. It almost feels like they didn’t know how to fill any of the time in between the death scenes, and long dialogue sequences are the best they could come up with.


Like, I don’t protest the scene itself, but why did it have to be so long….WHY!?!

And if you’re hoping that the deaths can salvage the dullness, have I got bad news for you…. The movie might have 7 bodies to its name, but the most interesting thing to happen is the aforementioned drill to the dog’s skull, which, A) Isn’t nearly as gory as you’d expect it to be, and B) As previously mentioned, looks horribly fake, because the dog’s head is clearly just a mannequin. All the other deaths either happen off screen, behind a veil, or involve a dog mauling that consists of a bunch of very rapid edits, so that the filmmakers can try to hide the fact that half of the mauling footage was shot using their doggy hand puppet. Which doesn’t work because the hand puppet looks like crap compared to the real dog, but I’ll give them partial credit for even attempting the trickery with their clearly meager budget. And though they did do great with the dog handling in general, they didn’t get any extra points from me for forcing the dog to unnaturally snarl by pulling its lips back with fishing line. But that’s a possible animal abuse complaint for another day.



Seriously, filmmakers…. WTF?

It also doesn’t help that the film contains absolutely zero tension. Despite aping plot elements from other, better horror films, it’s like everyone involved in making this movie forgot that the movie is supposed to actually be, you know, a horror film. There’s never any question about who the killer is. The film outright shows you from the very start. There’s no mystery surrounding it at all. The movie does go to the trouble of trying to throw out a “twist” towards the end, but by that point it’s too little, too late, and unless you’d been completely ignoring the film up until that point (or you zoned out during the scene of Julia awkwardly making out with her boyfriend in his car), then it’s pretty clearly telegraphed right from the beginning. There are no surprises, and there are no shocks. It’s just a paint-by-numbers plot that just…is.


Gee, I wonder which of these two ladies are going to be dead soon… Hmmm…It’s a mystery.

Madhouse does have a couple highlights to its name, namely some interesting horror takes on children’s nursery rhymes, and an excellent atmosphere thanks to being filmed primarily at the Kehoe House in Savannah, which has a notorious reputation for being haunted. So at least the film has some ambiance. But beyond that, the movie is mostly a pretty tedious affair. It tries to copy better movies…decently enough, I suppose, but ultimately fails to create its own style. The pacing is okay, but the first two thirds feel more like a drama than they do the horror that was advertised. And I don’t think it’s really gory or unique enough to truly impress the die-hard horror fans. But on the plus side, it looks and sounds good, and has some surprisingly decent performances, even if a lot of them often feel a little too cheesy at times. So overall it’s an adequate horror flick that seems to have gotten pumped up with undeserved notoriety. If you’re curious about the “video nasties”, then it’s not a bad watch. But I know that, at least for me, it was a lot different than what I was expecting.

Madhouse is available on a variety of streaming services.

Madhouse is also available on DVD and Bluray.

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