MADHOUSE, one of the more underappreciated of the Video Nasties, is a neat little film sidetracked by a very obvious personality disorder. Directed by wonderfully named Ovidio Assonitis (which of course sounds like an ailment you would not want to ever have), MADHOUSE starts as a kind of supernaturally flavored slasher film before becoming a much more typical psycho film. Its best plot elements get ditched somewhere around the final third of the film, a most unfortunate omission as up until that point the plot was trucking along just fine and a genuine intrigue as to how the film would play out its endgame had built up. When the final credits rolled, the sharp deviation in tone left a bad taste in my mouth. Instead of something memorably weird (like the first 2/3rds of the film), we get a kind of variation on the ending of HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME.
The plot is simple. Julia makes her living as a teacher at a school for deaf children. She has a nice apartment, is on good terms with her neighbors and has a professor boyfriend who treats her well. But Julia has a troubled history with her twin sister Mary. Mary used to torment her as a child, especially on their shared birthday, with slight physical torture and threatening her with her pet, a nasty black dog. At the request of her uncle, a priest named James, Julia visits her sister in the hospital. Mary is undergoing care for a painful, deforming disease that has left her not only bedridden but bitter. Mary despises her sister for having a good life and a clean bill of health and vows vengeance upon her sister. As Julia's birthday draws nearer, Mary escapes from the hospital and Julia and her friends begin to be attacked by a nasty, vicious, snarling dog.
The films supernatural elements, such as a telepathic link between the two sisters and, even more interestingly, the telepathic link between Mary and her killer dog, are kept fairly low key, but they are present in the screenplay enough to be thought of as being in some way important to the proceedings. For the first 2/3rds of the film, we think we're watching something much more complicated than just another slasher film. Some of the events that take place clearly couldn't be explained otherwise. But Assonitis and his three co-writers (which probably explains the conflicted narrative) can't quite seem to decide what kind of movie they want to make and the whole thing comes crumbling down with whiplash inducing suddenness when the real story behind the murders comes into view.
It's enough of a shock to the system that it completely derails the film, which had been, up until that point, effective and disorientating. The endgame of the film simply doesn't fit with the rest of the narrative and it really did, in a lot of ways, ruin what could have been a memorable bit of horror. The murder sequences in the first chunk of the film are all quite good, with the large (and obviously fake) dog turning virtually everyone it comes across into lumps of bloody meat. The film is by no means gratuitous in its violence, as evident when Assonitis spares us the sight of a young deaf student becoming dog chow, but it is vicious and bloody enough to register a shock. I probably won't be spoiling too much by saying the dog does finally meet its maker in a scene which probably went a long way to getting the film banned in Britain during the Nasty scare.
Unfortunately, as appropriately nasty as that scene is, it occurs during the last act of the film and, again, that's where MADHOUSE runs out of ideas and becomes just another film about a giggling psychopath explaining their motives for a good five minutes as the hero rushes to save the girl. I know I have just spent this entire review harping on about the ending, but it really bothered me. I was genuinely disappointed that this film, which had been such a pleasant surprise, had ended like that. It bothered me that the filmmakers didn't have the strength of their convictions to follow through with their own premise in a way that didn't betray everything that had come before it. A simple change of ending and this film would easily be among my favorite cult oddities of all time. But alas, I am forced to live with the ending I got and for that I'm deeply disappointed.
Overall, recommended. Even with that ending.