Madhouse: Mary, Mary, quite contrary

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Madhouse directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis horror movie reviewsMadhouse directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis horror movie reviewsMadhouse directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis

Not to be confused with the 1974 Vincent Price/Peter Cushing movie entitled Madhouse (a fun, underrated film, by the way) and certainly not with the 1990 John Larroquette/Kirstie Alley comedy sporting that same name, the 1981 Italian horror outing called Madhouse is another story entirely. I say that the film IS Italian, although the average viewer might never realize it. Despite being an Italian production, with an Italian crew and composer, the picture was shot in English, features an American cast, and was filmed in Savannah, Georgia, although the filmmakers could certainly have included more of that city’s picturesque charm, had they chosen to do so.

In this film (perhaps inspired by Brian De Palma’s 1973 classic Sisters), the viewer makes the acquaintance of a very pretty redhead named Julia Sullivan (very well played by Trish Everly). A teacher at a school for the deaf, Julia is thrown into something of a tizzy when she learns, a few days before her 25th birthday, that her twin sister Mary has just escaped from the hospital/sanitarium where she had been ensconced for the past seven years. “It’s not the dead that scare me … it’s the living,” Julia remarks early on, and with good reason, as it turns out! Although her hunky doctor boyfriend, Sam (played by Michael MacRae), and her uncle, a priest named Father James (memorably portrayed by Dennis Robertson), don’t believe her, she is convinced that Mary, and a killer dog who she has long been the master of, are responsible for some of the horrible things that begin to transpire around her. And as future events prove, Julia is only partially correct in this surmise…

Suspenseful and at times shocking, Madhouse is well named (the title is much more appropriate than the two other names this film has sported: And When She Was Bad and There Was a Little Girl), featuring as it does some truly sick and twisted characters. OK, I’m going to spoil things a tad for those who haven’t seen the film by revealing that Mary DOES have an accomplice (besides that killer dog!) in her wrongdoing, and the revelation of this character truly is startling. The film dishes out any number of violent set pieces, including three throat-ripping canine attacks (the one in which a cute little deaf kid is murdered is, mercifully, not shown on screen) and three truly surprising homicides via knife. But surely, the scene that most gorehounds will appreciate the most is the one in which Sam goes up against that killer dog armed “only” with an electric power drill!

The house where Julia resides is a beautiful old mansion that is in the process of being renovated, its only other occupant being Julia’s ditzy landlady, and this darkened, unfinished abode is a suitable backdrop for some truly maniacal goings-on, culminating in one of the grisliest birthday parties ever shown on film. Director Ovidio G. Assonitis, whose work on the 1974 Devil possession flick Beyond the Door had recently impressed me, and who others might appreciate as the director of the 1977 Jaws rip-off Tentacles, does a good job here of ratcheting up the suspense, while composer Riz Ortolani, whose work on such gialli as Don’t Torture a Duckling and Seven Deaths in a Cat’s Eye was so integral, provides still another memorable score. Here, the lullaby “Rock A Bye Baby,” backed by gorgeous strings, is used to good effect, while electronic bleeps and echoes in other spots add greatly to the eeriness on screen. But best of all, perhaps, is Trish Everly herself, a truly photogenic actress with a winning screen presence. How odd that Madhouse seems to be Ms. Everly’s only film appearance. With her super good looks and fine acting chops, a career would have seemed assured … at least, as a so-called “scream queen.” Wonder what ever happened to her…

The further good news regarding Madhouse is that it now can be had on DVD from the always reliable folks at Dark Sky, with an excellent-looking print and some fine extras. In one, director Assonitis is interviewed in 2008; if only I could understand more than half of what he is saying! If I’m reading the man correctly, he seems to feel that his best film will always be his next one, and that he is not content with the way ANY of his pictures has turned out. He might be a little too harsh in his dismissal of Madhouse, however. Despite its low budget, the film is a fairly gripping and memorable affair. I learned on my last birthday that my credit card had been hacked for $1,000, but I cannot imagine a birthday worse than the one poor Julia goes through in Madhouse


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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