MADHOUSE (1981) Blu-ray/DVD combo
Director: Ovidio G. Assonitis
Arrow Video USA

"Many people visit… few ever leave" the MADHOUSE, Ovidio G. Assonitis' slasher departure from his usually more transparent Hollywood hit rip-offs, on Blu-ray/DVD combo from Arrow Video USA.

Ever since childhood, Julia (Trish Everley) has lived in fear of her twin sister Mary who used to terrorize her with the help of her pet dog, reserving special torture for their shared birthday. Now a teacher at a school for the deaf, Julia has not seen her sister in seven years, until her uncle Father James (Dennis Robertson, DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW) informs her that Mary is now an invalid and a virus has hideously deformed her face. Julia reluctantly agrees to see Mary at the hospital only for her sister to attack her and vow to get her. When Julia learns that her sister has escaped the hospital, she fears for her own safety despite the assurances of Father James and her psychiatrist boyfriend Sam (Michael MacRae, COMA) that the savage death of one her pupils by a dog attack was an unfortunate coincidence. As her birthday nears, Julia feels uneasy being alone in the half-derelict boarding house she lives in with only her kooky landlord Amantha (Edith Ivey, NORMA RAE), co-worker Helen (Morgan Most, THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE), and maintenance man Mr. Kimura (Jerry Fujikawa, CHINATOWN) for company. What she does not realize is that someone else is lurking within the building and killing off her acquaintances for a very special twenty-fifth birthday party.

Having ripped off THE EXORCIST as BEYOND THE DOOR and JAWS as TENTACLES (along with a "sequel" to PIRANHA), Egyptian-born producer/producer Ovidio G. Assonitis next tackled the slasher genre in a very odd manner with a Italian horror feel possibly due to the use of an Italian crew shooting in Savannah, Georgia around the same time that Lucio Fulci and Antonio Margheriti were exploiting some of the same locations for CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE respectively. The storyline (which bears some superficial similarities to HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME) is relatively compelling and atmospheric with some distorted scope photography by Assonitis' BEYOND THE DOOR co-director Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli (STARCRASH) and the scoring of Riz Ortolani that carries over the throbbing synths of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and the jarring strings of ZEDER. The tone shifts towards the hysterical towards the climax with some over-the-top acting by the villain and a very meaty axe murder. Gore effects vary from some grisly throat-rippings to some laughable puppet dog heads (although just as well for animal lovers during the climax).

A very early Overseas FilmGroup production – the company's later efforts included Dario Argento's TRAUMA – MADHOUSE was given scant theatrical release before turning up on cropped video first by Media Home Entertainment sublabel VCL Communications and then later by Virgin Vision. The first widescreen DVD release came from the UK (where it had been a Video Nasty when released on cassette by Medusa) in 2004 from Film 2000 in a non-anamorphic letterboxed transfer with virtually unlistenable audio. That edition was followed up in 2008 by an anamorphic transfer stateside from Dark Sky films with improved audio and an Assonitis interview. Arrow's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray was derived from a new 2K scan of the original camera negative that does sport slightly more vibrant color and better delineation of detail in the darker scenes, looking quite good when one takes into account that the film was shot with Kodak's fastest speed film at the time (ISO 300), often with the Zeiss lenses opened up to the maximum aperture which explains the constant flaring of light sources in the dark confines of Julia's boarding house (the film was photographed in anamorphic Technovision rather than the more budget-friendly 2-perf Techniscope). Audio options include an uncompressed LPCM 2.0 rendering of the Dolby Stereo track and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix. The surround track gives a bit more breadth the score but the original stereo mix itself was fairly unadventurous apart from the scoring and some of the dog growls. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided.

Extras start off with a new commentary by slasher podcasters The Hysteria Continues who draw comparisons to other slasher films of the period including the aforementioned HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME – as well as SUSPIRIA which provokes an argument between the four – while also noting that it is not only an atypical Assonitis film but also not very straightforward if he were merely aiming to ape the slasher film. They provide background on the locations, including the funeral home used for Julia's boarding house (now a bed and breakfast reputed to be haunted by the most considerate ghosts), and comment on the Italian horror/giallo aspects of the story and filmic style. It is not the most informative track but relatively entertaining (unlike some of the more obscure slashers they have covered in the podcast, they were not able to dig up any of the participants for interviews which is surprising considering that they have for the likes of THE SLAYER, HOUSE OF DEATH, and ISLAND OF BLOOD).

"Running the Madhouse" (12:40) is an interview with actress Ivey who has had a long career in radio, television, and film but especially recalls MADHOUSE because she had never done a slasher before. She discusses the shoot, the Italian crew, Assonitis' direction to chew the scenery (she and the actor playing the killer decided to play her stalking and killing scene straight), and her friendship with Robertson who she feels was embarrassed to be in the film. In "Framing Fear" (19:32), cinematographer D'Ettore Piazzoli discusses his beginnings in Italian cinema, working with Assonitis, and the stylistic and technical decisions for MADHOUSE (which he admits is not one of his favorite films since he let much of his regular crew go after it because of set conflicts). In "Ovidio Nasty" (7:44), producer/director Assonitis reveals his preference for the THERE WAS A LITTLE GIRL title (he also mentions AND WHEN SHE WAS BAD as another alternate title), and bizarre cites as his inspirations for the film: THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and THE SHINING. Also included is the alternate "There Was a Little Girl" title sequence (3:01) which appeared on the Dark Sky DVD, as well as the film's theatrical trailer (3:04) which features a lot of Italian-style solarizing colored opticals. Not included for review are the reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach and the booklet featuring new writing on the film that is included with the first pressing only. (Eric Cotenas)