A forgotten video nasty, Madhouse (originally titled There Was a Little Girl; also known as And When She Was Bad) is a 1981 Italian-American slasher film. Directed and co-written by Ovidio G. Assonitis, and starring Trish Everly, Dennis Robertson, Allison Biggers, and Michael Macrae.
Opening in a very stylish way, the camera slowly zooms in on a dark and wide expanse to reveal two young girls, clearly twins. One is seated and being rocked by the other as a soft nursery song plays over the scene. Then suddenly and without warning, the standing girl reveals a large rock in her hand and begins to smash her sister repeatedly in the face.
Just one of a handful of scenes that would get the attention of the BBFC during the video nasty panic.
We than cut to Julia (Trish Everly), a young school teacher for deaf children who has been estranged from her twin sister for years. Their relationship fell apart at a young age as Julia suffered violence and torture at the hands of her sibling.
Julia’s sister, Mary (Allison Biggers) is very ill though and in a mental institution having suffered a breakdown caused by a rare skin disease. Urged on by her Uncle James, a local Catholic priest, Julia visits Mary.
The attempt to reconcile is fruitless though as Mary has gone insane and threatens to make Julia “suffer as she had suffered”.
As the sisters’ mutual birthday approaches, Mary escapes from the hospital and makes her way to Julia’s home. All while several people in Julia’s life end up dead at the hands of a mysterious Rottweiler dog.
All the signs point to Mary as he had a similar dog as a child and would use it to attack Julia. However, as their birthday arrives some shocking truths will be revealed. Which we will not be spoiling here as said reveal and payoff is easily the best thing about Madhouse. Even if motivations are sketchy and back-stories half-backed.
For the longest time, Madhouse really doesn’t try too hard and comes across as your average slasher horror where we already know who the killer is. Then, with around 20 minutes left it goes crazy resulting in a finale that is pure gleeful entertainment.
That section alone makes it a worthwhile watch but it’s not a bad film elsewhere. A strong cast, some believable relationships and excellent use of logic makes it all feel solid and reliable. For once you won’t be screaming at characters for doing stupid things (aside from one in particular).
Aside from characters, actors and story, Madhouse is certainly not a film that has excessive gore. Instead, it goes for the occasional but effective approach. Several drawn-out and violent deaths making it clear why it might have upset the censors. Looking to build up tension with a repeated cat & mouse (or dog) set of events, while these rarely work, the bloody end result is often memorable.
It’s no classic and certainly doesn’t hold up well by today’s standards but there is enjoyment to be had with Madhouse. Especially the latter part of the film.
The Final Score - 6/10