Prime in the Dustbin: ‘Madhouse’ (1981)

Madhouse is one of those beautiful Italian horror movies from the 1980s in which the gore is over the top, the story is ludicrous, and none of the characters make good decisions. Settle in for stupid, because Madhouse has it in droves. Pallets of dumb. You’ll be scratching your head like you picked up a particularly fierce case of the mange.

Madhouse is bookended by the worst version of “Rock-a-bye, Baby” I’ve ever heard. The singer sounds like Marianne Faithfull with laryngitis, except it’s a male. Well, I thought Marianne Faithfull was male until I saw her, and imagine my embarrassment then! Hoo, boy! Anyway, it’s bad. What we see during the opening credits are two little girls, one in a rocking chair, the other standing beside her. Suddenly, the standing girl has a rock, and she is bashing the rocking chair girl’s face in with it. This is obviously not a real human child, because we can see bits of plaster falling off of it. It’s a mannequin head. But when the camera pulls back for the medium shot, the kid in the chair is obviously an actual person with fake blood on her face. This is foreshadowing, of course, and it’s also incredibly bad filmmaking. But think of all the awful dummies that were prevalent in scary movies back then, and you’ll understand that Madhouse is only securing its place in the hallowed halls of badly made horror cinema.

Yeah, there’s a plot, probably too much of one, and it can be condensed like this: insane person kills other people to get to one person who might also be crazy. Madhouse hits everything here. Flashbacks, a priest, a practically empty house, a deformed killer, a ravenous dog, and a final girl who drives an AMC Concord. There’s also a special day which, in this case, is the birthday of a pair of identical twins.

Julia (Trish Everly) is a teacher for deaf children in Savannah, Georgia. I’m not sure what’s she’s teaching them. They already know sign language. All the kids in her class wear primitive earbuds while Julia speaks into a what appears to be a surge suppressor that hangs around her neck. Can they hear her? Are they really deaf, or just hearing-impaired?

Julia is a twin. Her sister, Mary (Allison Biggers) has been in a hospital for years, down with all kinds of diseases. She’s got necrosis, sclerosis, a virus of some kind, probably syphilis. She’s not just deformed; she’s superdeformed. At the behest of her uncle, a priest named James (Dennis Robertson), Julia visits Mary on her sickbed. This is difficult for Julia, because Mary did terrible things to her as a child. On their birthday, Mary would torture Julia by burning her with matches, threatening her with bad haircuts, and unleashing her mean dog on Julia. It’s not the best relationship.

Julia lives in a giant apartment building which used to be a funeral home. Lots of empty rooms, and there’s only one other tenant: landlady Amantha (Edith Ivey) who lives alone in the attic. She is high all the time. Surrounded by tapestries and assorted witchy things, Amantha likes to dance around and talk about bad vibes. Amantha’s general dippiness doesn’t explain how she doesn’t notice that her maintenance man is missing and how she doesn’t pick up on the fact that a deranged killer and a goddamn dog have moved into her building. If there was a growling, drooling animal living in your bathroom, would you not figure it out?

Here’s an example of how the characters in Madhouse refuse to do anything intelligent. Julia’s best friend, Helen (Morgan Most), spends the night with her for protection, presumably. Julia tells Helen expressly not to open the door. Helen opens the door. It wasn’t even locked! And then, Julia’s cat runs out into the hallway. Helen goes after the cat. Brett did it on the Nostromo; why shouldn’t she? You can guess the rest from there, because there’s the killer and Bad Doggo and the screaming which wakes absolutely no one up.

Everyone who dies in Madhouse does so in the stupidest way possible. They bring it on themselves. It’s hard to blame the killer, because all of these victims are so stupid, they need to die. Give all of these morons a posthumous Darwin Award, then go do a math problem or something equally as smart.

Why does Julia have such a “special relationship” with one of her deaf students that she takes him to church? How are his parents possibly okay with this? Why does Amantha find herself locked in rooms inside a building she owns? Are there not keys? That’s like getting locked inside an AMC Concord!

So many questions, so many reasons to shake your head until the bones in your neck snap. Insanity abounds in Madhouse because not only do things happen that are crazy, you would have to be a lunatic to watch it. But if you decide to make that investment of time and sanity, you must understand that Madhouse makes its own kind of sense. It believes its own story, and the cast takes the whole thing so seriously, there’s nary a speck of intentional humor in the whole thing. That sense of gravitas is the only saving grace for Madhouse, and it’s not enough.

Look, I’m no fool. I know some of you are going to watch Madhouse because of this article. Here I am, telling you not to, and you’re thinking, “I’m gonna do that right now.” Well, here’s the link. I’ll hold your beer for you, and when you get to that final croaking of “Rock-a-bye, Baby,” there will be a Darwin Award with your name on it. You have brought this upon yourself, and I want no part in it.

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