Julia (Trish Everly) is a kindhearted schoolteacher who works with deaf children. She is haunted by memories of her institutionalized twin sister Mary (Allison Biggers), who she has not seen in several years. When they were younger, Mary’s hatred for her sister culminated in an annual birthday ritual where she would subject Julia to psychological and physical torture, after using her vicious Rottweiler to scare Julia into submission.
Julia receives a phone call from her Uncle James (Dennis Robertson), a Catholic priest who raised the twins. She is informed that Mary has been stricken by a rare and possibly fatal virus that has caused her face to become horribly deformed. Julia is fearful about seeing her sister, especially so close to their upcoming birthday, but Uncle James urges her to reconcile with Mary during her time of need. Julia visits Mary in her hospital room, but Mary is sent into a jealous rage at the sight of her sister, who isn’t suffering the same disfiguring ailment as she is. Mary threatens to make Julia suffer like she did in the past and reminds her that their birthday is only days away.
Her worst fears are confirmed when she discovers that Mary has escaped from the hospital and that a security guard has been viciously killed by a dog. As the birthday grows closer, Mary and her bloodthirsty Rottweiler hide within the large mansion where Julia lives, murdering those closest to her in preparation for an unforgettable surprise party.
MADHOUSE, also known as AND WHEN SHE WAS BAD and THERE WAS A LITTLE GIRL, is an Italian production filmed in the United States on location in Savannah, Georgia. It is directed and produced by Ovidio G. Assonitis, who also served as one of the film’s co-writers. The film gained a measure of infamy/notoriety for its inclusion on the official DDP “Video Nasties” list in Britain, where it was not released in an uncut version until 2004.
Although sometimes slow and overly dramatic, MADHOUSE is a frightening film which utilizes elements of the standard slasher formula along with a few unique touches. One of the most obvious innovations is the use of a trained Rottweiler as a weapon. The murder scenes involving the dog are among the film’s goriest, as throats are ripped apart in bloody detail, spotlighting the effects of makeup artists Nilo Jacoponi and Gino Zamprioli. In addition to the lethal canine, the killer also employs the use of a large kitchen knife as a weapon, although the effects are not nearly as graphic. There is also an added twist in regards to the killer’s identity, which is best left for viewers to discover spoiler-free.
A constant feeling of unease permeates the film, due to the moody cinematography of Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzolo and the unnerving score by Riz Ortolani, which sounds quite similar to his work on CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980). The main location, the mansion where Julia lives, provides the essential creepy backdrop for the film’s proceedings. The large building, which is being renovated, is unoccupied with the exception of Julia’s unit and the attic where her landlady lives. The dark basement, endless shadows, and numerous empty rooms provide ample hiding places for a murderer.
The film reveals a nasty, mean-spirited quality which is shocking at times. Besides the chilling sisterly abuse which Julia has had to endure in both the past and present, the killer displays a sadistic sort of glee as victims are stalked and dispatched, taunting them with maniacal laughter as though playing a sick game. Neither animals nor children are safe from this cruelty and violence. Julia’s pet cat is strangled to death, a deaf child is killed by the Rottweiler, and even the dog itself meets a gruesome fate in a scene which has been excised from some versions of the film – and quite possibly is one of the main reasons why Madhouse was targeted for censorship.
The finale, involving Julia’s surprise party, is a morbid set piece that is very similar to the birthday party scene in HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, which was made in the same year. It is a disturbing sequence which is only lessened in intensity by a bit of black humor, but it will still unsettle most viewers.
MADHOUSE is a pleasantly terrifying treat for slasher film fans. It contains enough graphic violence to please gorehounds, is highly suspenseful, features an impressive and convincing performance from Everly, and retains a creepy atmosphere throughout which will keep viewers nervous even during its slower moments.
BODYCOUNT 7 female:3 / male:41) Male killed by Rottweiler bite to throat