Director: Ovidio G. Assonitis
Dark Sky Films/MPI

Ovidio G. Assonitis (aka Oliver Hellman), the producer/director who gave us the likes of BEYOND THE DOOR and TENTACLES, also has a reputation for throwing directors off the set and finishing his productions himself (this is the case with James Cameron and PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING). Assonitis also has a reputation as “King of the Rip-Offs”, and although MADHOUSE doesn’t try to imitate any other particular film’s success, it does pinch ideas from a number of various genre works to get its sorted scares across.

Julia (Trish Everly) is a beautiful young woman living in Georgia, working as a teacher at a school for deaf children. Her dark secret is that she has a twin sister who caused her a traumatic childhood and has since been institutionalized. Days before the twins’ November birthday, Julia’s uncle, Father James (Dennis Robertson) reunites her with sis Mary (Allison Biggers), now suffering from a skin disease in a hospital ward and apparently deranged. Frightened by the threats of her unhinged sibling, Julia learns that Mary has escaped, after which a number of her friends and associates wind up horribly mutilated by the canines of a ferocious Rotwieler. With her protective boyfriend/psychiatrist (Michael MacRae) called out of town on business, Julia is about to endure what is no doubt the worst birthday party ever.

An Italian production shot entirely in Georgia with American TV actors, MADHOUSE is by no means a Euro horror classic, but it’s not a bad shocker, even if it does tend to borrow. The onscreen lettering leading up to Julia’s birthday is patterned after HALLOWEEN (1978), and some of the lighting and camera techniques inside the crumbling mansion (the “Madhouse” of the title, and also the place where much of the chaos ensues) seems patterned after Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA. And much like SUSPIRIA, an angry black dog goes for the throat (on multiple occasions) and the grotesque climatic birthday party was obviously lifted from Mario Bava’s LISA AND THE DEVIL, though HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (also made in ’81) had a very similar ending as well.

Since MADHOUSE was produced in the wake of FRIDAY THE 13TH, there is a significant amount of gore, enough to have assured this title a place on Britain’s “Video Nasties” list. The aforementioned throat attacks by the Rotwieler take up the bulk of it, but there’s a tasteless bit where a puppet-head imitation of the beastly pup gets it with an electric drill – also quite comical in its phoniness. The film boasts one of the most violent “hatchet-to-the-back” splashes of bloodshed, and although Assonitis maintains a decent, stylized level of dark despair and fear of the unseen, the acting is either too bland or over-the-top (much in the case of Dennis Robertson’s Father James). Silly, stereotypical characters such as a daffy southern landlady and a wacky Japanese handyman also stem from the eccentric types of individuals in Dario Argento’s surreal world of cinema.

Presented fully uncut in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, MADHOUSE looks very good, and anyone used to full frame VHS tapes will be pleasantly surprised by the visual presentation here. The print source (from the original negative) is very much blemish free, with stable colors and excellent detail, and any signs of darkness seem to be the way things were originally intended. The transfer also holds the original, more appropriate title “There Was a Little Girl” which would help avoid confusing it with the Vincent Price film of the same name. A mono Dolby Digital English audio track is very clear and free of any noticeable distortion, with the rather eccentric score by famed composer Riz Ortolani (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST) accentuated to good effect.

Extras include a 13-minute video interview with director/producer/writer (one of four) Ovidio G. Assonitis, who we last saw on Code Red’s excellent BEYOND THE DOOR DVD package. Assonitis, who maintains that his “next” film is always his favorite, is in top form here, recalling that the original director was taken off the film after ten days, the downside of making low budget pictures, his mixed feelings about Ortolani’s score, and he tells a funny anecdote about pacifying an otherwise disagreeable trained acting dog with a frankfurter. The only extra is a still gallery which mixes black and white photos with color German lobby cards. (George R. Reis)