Madhouse (1981) is an unusual thriller that is a hybrid of an American slasher and an Italian giallo and which features an unconventional murder weapon – a Rotweiller. A young teacher is frightened for her life when her deformed twin sister, who tormented her as a child, escapes from the local mental institution. Their twenty-fifth birthday is approaching, and many people close to the main character are either disappearing or being found dead. Though it is shot in Savanna, Georgia with an American cast, giallo fans will quickly recognize it as belonging to that genre. The killer uses both a knife and the less conventional choice of “death by Rottweiler” as the means to dispatch their victims. The film does have its issues, such as some over-the-top acting and unusual tonal shifts, though whether or not those are assets or liabilities depends upon the viewer.
In Madhouse, Julia Sullivan (Trish Everly) is a teacher at a school for deaf children. Her twenty-fifth birthday is only a few days away, so she decides that it is about time that she should visit with her twin sister Mary (Allison Biggers), who is a patient at the local mental hospital. Julia has not visited Mary in several years due to the unusual hold Mary has on her. Also, when they were children, Mary used to torment Julia, hunting her down through the house and threatening Julia with her pet dog. When Julia gets to the hospital, she is greeted by her Uncle James (Dennis Robertson), a Catholic priest. He informs Julia that Mary has contracted a strange and disfiguring disease. When Mary grabs and threatens her, Julia leaves in a hurry. Shortly thereafter, Mary escapes from the hospital. Julia is upset, to say the least. Her boyfriend, Sam Edwards (Michael MacRae) tries to comfort her, but Julia is worried. Soon, people close to and around Julia start going missing or are found dead. Some of the victims are found stabbed, while others have been mauled to death by a dog. The dog attacks are particularly disturbing to Julia, as they remind her of Mary’s threats to sic her dog on Julia when they were children. Is Mary behind these attacks and disappearance? Who is in danger from whom?
At first, Madhouse seems like an American slasher/thriller, with its shooting locations around Savannah, Georgia and North American cast. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that it is actually at least partially a giallo, a particularly Italian style of thriller. While its director, Ovidio G. Assonitis (as Oliver Hellman), and its cinematographer, Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli, are indeed Italian, this is not the reason to give it the “giallo” label. Instead, the style and substance of the film place it squarely in that genre. Piazzoli’s cinematography is quite fetching. His use of light and shadows is excellent, adding a slightly creepy and dreamlike quality to many scenes. Writer/director Assonitis and his co-writers; Stephen Blakely, Roberto Gandus, and Peter Shepherd; include a number of giallo tropes in the script, such as a mad, gloved killer and a “big twist” moment. They also manage to subvert these tropes somewhat. For instance, it is a small detail, but the killer eschews the traditional leather gloves of the genre for a knitted pair. The “big twist,” which usually comes during the final scene of many gialli, is here revealed only two-thirds of the way into the story. These subversions, combined with a more American style of acting, give Madhouse an unusual hybrid feeling.
Madhouse is one of the original 72 films placed the infamous UK “video nasty” list of the 1980’s. This is not for naught. The on-screen murders are numerous and pretty bloody. The opening credit sequence is particularly gruesome. In a scene that is meant to be symbolic of the toxic relationship between Mary and Julia, a young girl is shown literally smashing her sister’s face to a pulp. As the film progresses, a number of characters are stabbed or slashed with a knife. These attacks are well done, but they are rather mundane compared to the other killings in the film. Madhouse is most notable for its number instances of “death by Rottweiler.” These use a combination of a trained dog as well as a Rottweiler puppet for close-ups of characters getting their throats ripped out. The puppetry works pretty well the first time it is used. Unfortunately, it is one of those techniques that becomes less effective the more it is shown. The final encounter with the Rottweiler is particularly gruesome, though some viewers may be pulled out of the moment by the overuse of the puppet dog. Likewise, the final confrontation with the human killer is appropriately brutal and bloody.
While Madhouse is an effective and entertaining thriller, it is not without its issues. The scenes early in the film between Julia and her deaf students are quite touching and set up a strong emotional connection. There is indeed a payoff for this, it comes about halfway into the movie, and then the students and the school are all but forgotten. When the identity of the main killer is finally revealed – which is omitted here so as to avoid spoilers – their acting veers into the realm of hamminess. Some viewers may find the killer’s manic and near-giddy performance to be way over-the-top for the film. That said, the sheer joy that the actor puts into their portrayal may endear them to other viewers. The method of the big reveal may not work for some audience members. Instead of taking place near the end of the movie in front of the main characters, the killer is identified in an almost off-hand and nonchalant manner with only one other side character present. The scene even takes on a comic tone. This is followed by a rather tense sequence where the killer stalks their victim throughout the building. Again, this juxtaposition of tones may not work for many viewers, while others may find it actually enhances the tension and terror of the scenes.
Madhouse, though not without its flaws, is an entertaining and usual thriller. It feels like a cross between an American thriller/slasher with an Italian giallo, simultaneously embracing and subverting the tropes of those genres. The murders are sufficiently gory and gruesome, and the use of a Rottweiler as murder weapon adds a bit of interest. The filmmakers make some unusual choices, both in terms of direction and story structure, which some viewers may see as flaws, while others may see them as assets. Fans of 1980s thrillers as well as giallo fans should be sure to check out Madhouse. While it is not always the strongest film, its usual combination of American and Italian styles is always interesting.
Madhouse (1981) (4 / 5)