Sunday, June 11, 2017

All is Vague

On June 13, Arrow Video is releasing Ovidio Assonitis's 1981 slasher film called Madhouse (also known as There Was a Little Girl and And When She Was Bad, both of which fit the story better than Madhouse) on home video. Possibly not as well-known as Assonitis’s Tentacles and certainly less famous than Piranha II: The Spawning, which Assonitis, one of the film’s producers, took over from James Cameron, Madhouse is a genuine oddity, both in that it goes places you likely won’t expect, and is considerably better than I, at least, assumed it would be.

It’s about a woman named Julia (Trish Everly, in her only screen credit), a teacher at a school for the deaf, who is informed by her uncle James (Dennis Robertson), a priest, that her twin sister Mary (Allison Biggers), who has been locked up in a mental hospital since she was a child, would like to see her. Julia’d rather not, given the abuse she suffered at Mary’s hands when they were young, but she agrees. Oh by the way, her uncle says, your sister doesn’t look like you anymore due to a very weird and disfiguring disease. Convenient. Honestly, you do have to hand it Assonitis for concocting a reason for him to not have to cast twins, or mess around with camera tricks so that Everly could exist as two people on one screen. And that’s the only reason he did it, too, because this disease Mary’s suffering from makes no further impact. At any rate, the meeting between the sisters goes poorly, and not long after people start getting murdered. One of the weapons used is a vicious attack dog, not unlike the one Mary used to have as a pet. Also, Mary escapes.

There’s actually a good deal more to it, a lot of it coming in a rush in the last half hour. There’s one major twist that I predicted about a minute before it was revealed. I’m not sure if that counts. What I definitely failed to predict was that the pool of potential victims would be so inclusive, or that Assonitis would attempt to get by at least as much on mood as on gore (this being, in essence, a slasher film). Assonitis seems at least somewhat interested in embracing the chaos inherent in this particular subgenre, not merely to inspire the bloody mayhem he’s bound by law to get across on screen, but as something almost thematic. I’m not sure he quite gets there, but I appreciate him taking a swing at it, and at least we get some striking and unnerving imagery as a result. One bit is alarmingly similar to a climactic moment in another slasher film that also came out in 1981. I’m certain it’s not possible the makers of either film could have seen the other before going into production on their own. I also can’t tell you which other 1981 slasher film I’m referring to without spoiling Madhouse somewhat. Perhaps it’s not going too far to say that both scenes were doubtlessly inspired by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Who among us can say.

You might infer from the above that when the chips are down Assonitis delivers on the viscera, as audiences for this sort of movie would both expect and demand. I think he does, but I can imagine a certain type of filmgoer disagreeing with me. One major death is off-screen completely – so off-screen, in fact, that I was forced to put two and two together. Which I didn’t mind. The last death in the film is pretty much a whole-hog kind of affair, violence-wise. I don’t know that I’ve seen the kind of damage done to a human body by the particular weapon used depicted in quite this way before. Assonitis made it seem like the kind of thing you’d want to avoid suffering from yourself, which, if that’s not the whole idea, I don’t know what is.

The cast is also intriguing. Largely made up, as these sorts of films often are, of veteran TV and movie character actors, stand-outs include Robertson and Michael MacRae as Julia’s boyfriend. I really liked MacRae’s work here – there’s a real ease and presence to him, which helps to make the more every-day scenes he’s in seem alive enough so that Madhouse seems whole, rather than a clumsily separated series of murders. Dennis Robertson as the priest has that same effect on the film, if not quite the same approach to his role. He’s a bit more dramatic about things, but then, so are most of his scenes.

Trish Everly’s the one I can’t figure out. Where’d she go? Her performance ain’t bad. She comes off a little bit untrained here and there, but I liked how she handled some of her big moments at the end. These moments involve her being almost consumed by terror. I can’t imagine this is easy to do, but she does it. So where’d she go? John Martin, who wrote the booklet essay that accompanies the Arrow Video release doesn’t know either. So I guess as far as screen acting goes, she’s the terrorized Julia, and that’s it. What a life.

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