There Was a Little Girl
**½/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras B-
starring Trish Everly, Michael Macrae, Dennis Robertson, Morgan Hart
screenplay by Stephen Blakley, Ovidio G. Assonitis, Peter Shepherd and Robert Gandus
directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis
by Sydney Wegner The final frames of Madhouse are a title card with a George Bernard Shaw quote: "...life differs from the play only in this...it has no plot, all is vague, desultory, unconnected till the curtain drops with the mystery unsolved." In that instant, in one of the most beautifully-executed "middle finger to my haters" moves in cinema, criticism of Ovidio G. Assonitis's 1981 clusterfuck is rendered irrelevant. Sneaking that in at the end rather than putting it at the beginning is doubly hilarious, as you've just spent an hour-and-a-half trying to grasp onto this ungraspable thing, only to have all your hard work flushed away in a second. If your movie doesn't make sense, it's because living doesn't make sense; case closed. Our own plots are never resolved, people flit in and out of our lives without us ever truly knowing them, our familial relationships are tangled and it's sometimes impossible to figure out where any animosity began, we think we understand people but it's rare that we truly do.
Looking for metaphors or grand statements about the human psyche in Madhouse is tempting, though. Trish Everly plays Julia, a bright young teacher at a special-needs school with a dirty secret: her (ostensibly once-identical, now disfigured) sister Mary (Allison Biggers) is in a mental institution--something she'd put behind her when their uncle, Father James (Dennis Robertson), comes to tell her that Mary is sick. Then Mary escapes from the hospital, people start dying, and a menacing dog stalks Julia. The events that led to Mary being committed are never revealed, but Julia tells some harrowing stories about tortures she suffered at the hands of her twin. She mentions that she sometimes feels as if they are the same person, or that they at least share some kind of psychic bond. Her only surviving relative besides Mary is her aforementioned uncle, a smarmy preacher obsessively intent on getting the two sisters to reconcile, so much so that he spends an entire sermon passive-aggressively telling poor, traumatized Julia she'll go to Hell if she neglects the bonds of sisterhood. His real motivations for this are never revealed, and any possible explanations only become more convoluted with each twist and the disturbing final scene. There's so much thematic potential here--the light and dark sides of ourselves, religion, victims who can never really escape their abuse, connections with family, the mysterious psychic link between twins--yet none of it adds up to anything, and it didn't take the cheeky quote at the end for me to figure out that every one of those talking points is worked in purely for shock value. Oddly enough, it's Madhouse's lack of depth that makes it fascinating, possibly more so than had it had anything at all important to say.
The compelling performances and cinematographer Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli (Sonny Boy) carry the whole film. Long stretches of inactivity are beautiful to behold, helped along by the main shooting location (the (in)famous Kehoe House of Savannah, Georgia). The soft lighting, naturalistic colour palette, and tight close-ups of faces make this feel like a drama, but the widescreen frame, POV shots, shadowy interiors, and artistic suggestions of violence (such as a silhouette of a figure holding a dripping knife in place of showing the actual stabbing) are classic horror techniques. Aside from the spooky atmosphere, my favourite thing about Madhouse is that several members of the cast must provide long, emotional monologues, the camera staying on their faces and cutting away rarely, if at all. It shows a tremendous faith in actors who didn't appear in many other things, and they seize these opportunities to be idiosyncratic and ingratiating, enabling the audience to get a sense of their characters in the absence of backstory and motivation. Everly is perfect in her one and only film appearance; her teary speeches to her boyfriend and her cherished deaf students are highlights in a genre that almost never gives its players anything to work with. She is at once fragile and confident, a sensitive woman who spends a lot of time in hysterics but never stops insisting that what she is experiencing is real, even though the men in her life remain doubtful. She's finally the only character who feels like a real person, and her genuine presence makes the insanity of the rest of the movie much easier to swallow.
Assonitis draws inspiration from probably fifty different movies--most notably the stylish camera tricks (and mysterious gloves) of Argento, the gore of Fulci, the exploration of madness of Kubrick, the helpless innocents dying frivolous deaths of American slashers--but blends these homages together into something entirely his own vision. His is a picture meant to shock and awe, and for better and worse he does some things that most directors quite frankly wouldn't have the guts to do. The outrageous racist stereotype of the Japanese handyman character will rightfully put many people off, and the horrific death of a dog will probably make even the more hardened horror fans squirmy. Instead of distancing viewers, the sub-par special effects (dog attacks are clearly performed with a handler standing by or a dog puppet, stunt doubles are easily spotted, bloody victims are obviously mannequins, etc.) contribute a Bizarro World vibe that is more like a sleazy nightmare than any realistic effects could have conjured. To add another element to the ridiculous pile, the simultaneously over-the-top and straight-faced turns of the supporting actors are almost a parody of themselves. Edith Ivey's genteel southern landlord says "oh, I must be going" and tries to casually scramble away when she sees a corpse; Dennis Robertson's priest is at first so polite it's sickening to watch; and Mary's evil laugh could easily be in a cartoon.
On the surface, it's easy to underestimate how weird Madhouse is, how many "rules" it breaks while still being wholly dependent on the inspirations of the movies that came before it. Compared to most other slashers, the pacing is practically languid, with long stretches of dialogue and wandering around dark rooms broken up by the occasional energetic burst of murder. When the twist happens it is with absolutely no fanfare (a character presumed innocent shows up in a car that had been repeatedly seen stalking the heroine; no dramatic music or editorial flourishes acknowledge this development, as if the director took for granted that we'd all figured it out already so why bother making a fuss?), and then the climax goes on for almost a third of the movie. The opening credits feature a little girl beating another's face in with a rock, providing a jarring jumping-off point for the tone of the film. But we don't know what, if anything, it's supposed to mean. Which girl is which? Is this what put Mary in the hospital? It invites the viewer to expect a switch--maybe the insane one is the woman who walks free--that never materializes. A couple of scenes are genuinely affecting, while others (namely every appearance of loopy landlord Amantha) are beyond goofy. Altogether, it becomes something like a satire of horror, or at least a comment on the typical slasher viewer. I assume it's unintentional, but it poses an interesting quandary: How closely do we want slashers to follow protocol? Though we ask for exciting and strange and off-kilter, do we also have an inherent desire to end with a completed puzzle?
Ultimately, your enjoyment of Madhouse will depend on what it is you seek from the genre. A lot of people are drawn to horror for something approaching comfort--maybe you saw Friday the 13th as a preteen, it blew your mind, and now you're constantly chasing that neatly-outlined experience. Maybe we all at heart want an Agatha Christie story, a mystery with a shocking finish that still makes perfect sense once the preceding clues are put into place. In the case of Madhouse, those looking for a simple chiller with a minimal, tidy plot will be frustrated, and those who visit slashers for hardcore explicit and realistic blood and guts should also look elsewhere. It's a film very much rooted in being emotionally disturbing as opposed to visually. For instance, the death of a child isn't shown on screen--we only intuit the cause and see the painfully sad aftermath, leaving us to fill in the blanks ourselves. The lovely, open-faced heroine is continually depicted as a gentle and innocent person, and aside from a security guard near the beginning, each death happens to someone we've briefly known and come to like. The victims aren't just annoying teenagers who have two lines and a shower scene, and the killer isn't a lumbering brute in a mask. They're people--sometimes wildly overacted, ridiculous, deeply weird people, but people nonetheless. For all its missteps and unevenness, for all the silly deaths and unanswered questions, the film elicits genuine fear, born out of seeing innocent beings die violently and lives wasted in madness. In many ways Madhouse is a misfire, but it is a unique sort of mess; whether you adore or abhor Assonitis's madcap effort, as George Bernard Shaw once said, "A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing."
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Another beautiful transfer from Arrow, sourced from the camera negative. Barring the usual spikes in grain during dark scenes, the picture is remarkably clear compared to previous editions, with vivid colours and easily visible fine details. The 2.35:1, 1080p image contains a lot of soft focus, but this is due to both the diffusion the filmmakers favour and the anamorphic lenses that were available to them at the time. Some scenes are quite dark and muddy, again mostly intentionally, although I think Arrow pushes the black level a bit too far into crush territory, which has a negative effect on shadow detail. The soundtrack, restored from the original English 4-track master, sounds about the same in its LPCM 2.0 stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD MA incarnations, with no immediately noticeable increase in surround usage on the latter. Each delivers consistently audible dialogue and a clean presentation of Riz Ortolani's score, a terrific combination of orchestral music and sci-fi inspired synth. Similar to the typical music for '80s American slashers and gialli alike, it provokes the same feelings as the crude special effects: It's so silly you want to laugh, but sometimes you want to cry, and you never quite know which you're supposed to be doing.
Accompanying the film is a full-length yakker from "The Hysteria Continues," a UK-based horror podcast here consisting of host Justin Kerswell (UK) and guests Eric (Ireland), Joseph (Tennessee), and Nathan (Tennessee). The latter three chime in remotely via Skype, so the audio for them isn't great. Beyond a select few I am generally not a fan of podcasts, and this is a pretty good example as to why. Within the first minute there's a lame cat/pussy joke, while around 20 minutes in, during a potentially interesting discussion of Jerry Fujikawa's awful racial stereotype of a character, someone says Fujikawa was "definitely from somewhere in the Orient." (A 10-second IMDb search reveals he was born in California.) The guys from Tennessee and Ireland say they sympathize because of stereotypical depictions of Irish and Southern people, but they choose to "laugh it off" instead of taking offense. Kerswell replies, "If you are easily offended, watching '70's and '80s horror movies probably isn't your thing anyway."
Despite my indifference to podcasting, I tried to keep an open mind, but this kind of banter put me off. Even if the rest of the discussion hadn't been painfully boring, this reinforcement of the "boys' club" mentality (which creates an immediate feeling of exclusion that any horror fan who isn't white/cis/male can most likely relate to), coupled with their approach to film criticism (which I heartily disagree with), made it hard for me to take them seriously. Most of the talk is trivia I could have researched for myself. They aren't very funny, either. Apologies to fans of the podcast and the hosts themselves, but I was incredibly disappointed. I understand that with old, forgotten films--particularly ones where the crew speaks little to no English--it must be difficult to assemble anyone who worked on them to sit down and record for 90 minutes. Commentary is an expected feature, at least on genre titles, and if you can't track down anyone affiliated with the production, why not fill the void with a horror podcast? Yet for me personally, the appeal of the commentary track is insight from somebody, anybody involved with the film in some way, not simply fellow fans or horror enthusiasts. If I wanted to know their thoughts, I'd read a review or listen to a podcast. Not all viewers will have this experience, of course, but I found this feature an absolute chore to sit through.
The remaining supplements break down as follows:
"Running the Madhouse", interview with Edith Ivey (13 mins., HD)
A new interview with the actor behind eccentric landlord Amantha Beauregard. The sweet, pleasant woman has fond memories of working on the movie, and the piece touches on not only her experiences on set but also her acting background and what she's up to now. She's pleasantly shocked the film still has an audience; that's always nice to hear.
"Framing Fear", interview with cinematographer Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli (Italian with English subtitles) (20 mins., HD)
Another brand-new interview, shot in the cinematographer's beautiful home in Rome. He details his early career and how he came to collaborate with Assonitis, which is interesting (the folks at Arrow overlay some stills of the posters for movies he worked on--a neat touch). His memories of this particular film aren't quite as fond as Ivey's, and he talks more about his career in general than about Madhouse specifically. What he does have to say about Madhouse isn't entirely flattering. Normally that would bug me, but Piazzoli says he's just very hard on himself, so I understand. To his credit, he's pleased that people still watch and enjoy the movie.
"Ovidio Nasty", interview with director/producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (HD)
Assonitis is a card. In his popped-collar polo, pinstripe suit-jacket, and clear-plastic-framed sunglasses, he speaks intensely about his influences and experiences. It sounds like he's giving a very dramatic speech, and it's unfortunate the interview lasts a mere 8 minutes, as watching him is almost as entertaining as the actual film.
Lastly, find alternate opening titles--the same sequence with "There Was a Little Girl" subbed for "Madhouse"--and the theatrical trailer, remastered in HD and running a surprisingly lengthy 3 minutes. (An insert booklet was not included with our review copy.) While this is a pretty sparse line-up of extras, the three interviews, though short, are a lot of fun. Worth noting that even with no special features at all, the disc would still be a huge improvement over the 2008 DVD release.