Anyone familiar with Video Nasty lore will know of stories of over zealous police officers raiding video stores looking for anything vaguely contentious. At one point Sam Fuller's acclaimed WWII film The Big Red One and the Dolly Parton vehicle The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas were swept up in the DPP's Terror. I suspect Madhouse, an American-shot Italian-made slasher from 1981 was a victim of the same kind of fervor. A few minor trims by the BBFC would have rendered this one completely benign.
In the film, Julia a teacher of deaf children is requested by her uncle, Father James to visit her estranged sister Mary at a psychiatric hospital. The meeting doesn't go well, and soon after the bitter and twisted Mary, suffering some soft facial disfiguring disease, breaks out of the hospital and Julia's friends and neighbours begin to die... Back in the 70's and early 80's Ovidio G. Assonitis was one of the better knock-off directors in the business - his 1974 film, Beyond the Door was a rather feverish and memorable Exorcist copy while his sequel to Piranha - the underrated Piranha II The Spawning, featured chest bursting killer fish. Madhouse made around the same time as The Spawning, is a huge disappointment, lifting elements from Halloween, Sisters and Suspiria, with little flair of either of those films. Besides some fleeting gore, and a somewhat inventive twist at the half-way mark, the film could easily pass for a routine TV thriller.
As stalk and slash films go Madhouse simply doesn’t cut it - there's far too much stalk and little slash. There are one or two instances of grisly violence in the film, like when Mary's marauding Rottweiler dog tears into the throat of one of Julia's friends, and a climatic axe murder, but it's all rather unconvincing. Even the film's most famous moment, when Julia's boyfriend drills through the dog's head, is ruined by a very fake looking pantomime dog. At least the film looks good, Assonitis gets some good mileage out of the rambling apartment building where most of the action takes place, but shooting in CinemaScope and using colored gels does not make Madhouse a Suspiria. Of the cast lead actress Trish Everly has little to do and looks like she might have walked off the set of Dallas, bearing something of a resemblance to Victoria Principle. Far better is Dennis Robertson playing Julie's priest uncle, hamming it all up magnificently, his character coming with an impressive repertoire of nursery rhymes (which accounts for the film's bizarre alternative title There Was A Little Girl). He's easily the most memorable aspect of what is a very forgettable film.
Dark Sky's 2008 DVD of Madhouse is another fine effort from this label, featuring a very nice 2.35 anamorphic widescreen transfer, sporting strong colors and a sharp detailed picture. No problems with the audio, unlike the UK edition of the film on the Film 2000 which features a disastrous sound mix. For extras Dark Sky have included a brief 13-min Assonitis interview plus a substantial gallery of promo materials. The trailer is strangely absent here but can be found on the Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide DVD.