Review: Madhouse (1981)

Written and directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis, co-written with Stephen Blakely, Roberto Gandus and Peter Shepherd, a woman is pursued by her murderous, psychopathic twin sister in the days leading up to their birthday. Starring: Patricia Mickey, Michael MacRae, Dennis Robertson, Morgan Most, Allison Biggers, Edith Ivey, Richard Baker, Don Devendorf and Jerry Fujikawa.

The first hurdle to jump is excusing the inappropriate title, it’s saddening to see the complete ignorance to mental health issues in the past, we might not be all the way to a persistent open understanding but there’s been huge progress within the last fifty years. Also, as many horrors of its time were wont to do, they try a little too hard to instil fear or unease in its initial moments with a heavy-handed score and brief, mysteriously deranged attack. It then moves on to the mundane, everyday existence of its lead Julia (Mickey) as a teacher who works in a school for deaf children. When you’re trying to set up your innocent lead in a horror, having her in a position of working with children with disabilities, sets her up perfectly as a final girl.

It may not have a penchant for subtlety but it does set up its story well after its fairly strange opening, introducing her twin sister Mary (Biggers) who suffers from an affliction that changes her looks to the more grotesque, while certainly having a whole host of mental health issues. It’s never mentioned what is actually wrong with Mary but realistically in the bigger picture it’s not information that’s necessary for the story. There’s a nicely slow build-up, with injections of violence and fear balanced with exploring Julia’s life and her tumultuous relationship with her sister. There’s the tendency with actors in 80s horror movies to go completely over the top, contorting their bodies while screaming at the top of their lungs at any shadow but Mickey does well to show that heightened state of fear without making you want to roll your eyes. She gets the majority of the story so there isn’t too much for a lot of the supporting actors to do but MacRae as her boyfriend and Robertson as Father James, a loco parentis figure in her life, do get a chunk of screen time. Robertson in particular gives a good performance, it’s extremely convincing but explaining it further would unfortunately require spoilers.

As mentioned, for the majority of its story its timing and pace build a good amount of suspense but sadly as it nears its final moments, all bets are off and it disappointingly sprints off into unknown territory and really undercuts the story its built. There are other more practical issues, the physical effects are somewhat problematic, for instance the aggressively trained Rottweiler that belongs to Mary can be seen quite clearly being summoned to attack by its victim with a waving arm. That’s obviously also an editing issue, a smoother cut would have allowed for that to be completely fixed, it is rather rough around the edges with that aspect throughout. Then there’s the slightly racist treatment of the Japanese handyman, it’s not surprising given the time the film was made but it’s altogether an unnecessary inclusion. The direction however is basically what you’d expect from an 80s slasher flick, there’s nothing to shout about but there’s also no major complaints. It’s almost reminiscent of De Palma’s Sisters but following a much more simplistic story of family conflict, rage and twisted revenge.

Madhouse raises your hopes with its slow build and spontaneous infusions of fear and violence but slashes them to pieces when it goes off the rails in its finale. It has a number of typical issues that you’d expect from a film of its time and it isn’t something that’s going to knock your socks off but surprisingly, it’s still worth watching, you might find its eccentricity hilarious or enjoy its simple style of entertainment. When it comes down to it, there’s a huge saturation of horror films that came out of the 70s and 80s, they generally fall into a few categories: great, good, enjoyably bad or just down right terrible and this one falls somewhere between good and enjoyably bad so if you’re a horror fan, it’s worth throwing 90-minutes at it.

Verdict: ✯✯

Available on Prime Video now!

(Be careful not to read the full synopsis on Prime as it’s spoiler filled)

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