Starring Trish Everly, Allison Biggers, Dennis Robertson, Michael Macrae
Directed by Ovidio Assonitis
Distributed by Arrow Video
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Italian filmmakers were so busy churning out giallo and zombie pictures they never properly capitalized on the slasher craze. Granted, slashers were mainly a product of North America but with the Italian market saturating itself with so much of the same product many of the less prestigious titles tend to feel too similar. Fewer than two dozen Italian slashers were produced, and while giallo is a similar subgenre there are clear distinctions that keep them separate. Oddly, all these years later the few Italian films to ape off America’s slasher craze stand out over the homogenized B-pictures made during their own height in Italy. One that recently caught me off guard is director Ovidio Assonitis’ Madhouse (1981, aka There Was a Little Girl), which is conspicuous not only for being a slasher but for where it was shot: Savannah, Georgia. Making the most of the lush Southern surroundings and French architecture, Madhouse also succeeds by delivering a twisted little tale with a few shocking surprises and plenty of nasty, gory moments.
Julia (Trish Everly) has recurring, haunting dreams of her torture at the hands of her sister, Mary (Allison Biggers), from when they were young. Now adults, Julia receives a visit from her uncle and local priest, Father James (Dennis Robertson), informing her Mary is in the hospital with a debilitating diseases and she needs support and love. Julia reluctantly agrees to visit and immediately regrets her decision when Mary, supposedly “very sick”, latches onto her wrist and makes a promise to celebrate their shared birthday with an old ceremony she used to carry out. Julia freaks out and bolts, running straight home to her dusty, creepy old apartment building.
Surprise! Mary has escaped from her hospital room and before Julia has time to react her crazy sister is already at her place, sticking a knife in the kindly old Japanese maintenance man. There is also a wild Rottweiler on the loose, killing people who appear to be targeted – and it isn’t just killing adults, as Julia’s favorite deaf student learns one fateful day. Julia attempts to appeal to Father James for assistance but he can only see the good in everyone, assuaging Julia’s concerns with dismissive talk and telling her everything isn’t as bad as she thinks. And he’s right. It’s worse.
A big part of what made my first viewing of Madhouse so enjoyable was not knowing a damn thing going in, so this review is going to avoid spoilers as best it can. Suffice it to say, Assonitis stocks his Savannah feature with some unexpected moments before launching into an absolutely insane finale. The mustache-twirling villainy is downright gleeful here, too, providing a few chilling monologues to go with imminent death. Can’t forget about the impressive dog attack scenes, where a combination of puppet-with-practical and precision editing add a real sense of urgency. Using a Rottweiler was smart because they have dark coloration, making it easier to cheat with the fake dog head in a nighttime setting. Assonitis cuts between the two only at the most necessary moments, making them appear nearly seamless.
A little bit of style goes a long way, and Assonitis wisely allows the sumptuous Savannah setting to add its own natural air of creepiness. The gothic environment is spooky on its own. While the kills with the dog are swift and brutal, those taking place within Julia’s apartment building are shot using inventive angles, lighting, and blocking. One in particular stands out, late in the film when our killer is behind a sheet and bathed in light, casting an ominous shadow. The violence has impact, too; mostly because of the dog’s savagery but a few deaths do have that visceral quality horror needs.
This is a good one for fans of Italian horror who want to see something done in that style, only differently. I can only watch so many giallo films not made by Argento before they all bleed together and plot pieces get jumbled in my head. Madhouse steps a bit outside the box by making a true slasher film, in America, with a cast of capable, unique characters, and nasty kills.
Like the film itself, I was surprised by the strength of the 2.35:1 1080p image. The use of anamorphic lenses causes the edges of the frame to sometimes be a bit blurry, but the benefit is a razor sharp image with appreciable depth and excellent colors. Black levels are inky and stable. Every frame displays numerous fine details and sharp definition. Film grain responds appropriately and doesn’t appear noisy or minimized.
Those who prefer an English dub get an LPCM 2.0 stereo track, while the international option is an Italian DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track. Truthfully, I found the multi-channel option a bit too spacey and unfocused, whereas the stereo track is more concentrated and terse in its direction. Riz Ortolani’s score makes use of weird keyboard sounds and unusual synth cues, repetitive beats, and high strings to create a distinct sound experience. Subtitles are available in English.
There is an audio commentary track with podcast group The Hysteria Continues.
“Running the Madhouse” is a 2017 interview with actress Edith Ivey.
“Framing Fear” is a recent sit-down with Director of Photography Roberto Dettorre, conducted in Italian with English subtitles.
“Ovidio Nasty” is a brief but informative chat with Producer/Director Ovidio Assonitis.
The disc also presents an alternate opening title sequence (There Was a Little Girl) and the original trailer.
Additionally, the package also features a DVD copy, booklet with writing on the film and technical information, and the cover art is reversible.
- Brand new 2K restoration from the original camera negative
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition presentations
- Original Stereo Audio (Uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Brand new audio commentary with The Hysteria Continues
- Brand new interviews with cast and crew
- Alternate Opening Titles
- Theatrical Trailer, newly transferred in HD
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach
Horror fans that enjoy the insanity of Italian productions but are also looking to satisfy their slasher craving, look no further than Arrow’s stellar release of this little-seen stab-fest. The twisted tale and rock solid a/v quality make this an easy recommendation for those looking to fill out their home video library.
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