Monday, November 9, 2020

Census Bloodbath: For me to poop on

aka And When She Was Bad aka There Was a Little Girl

Halloween might be cancelled, but it's still October but it's still early November, for which I apologize, though now that the true terror and pain is over, perhaps we can catch up.  Either way, it's still within the general timeframe prescribed for that mix of peanut butter and chocolate we call The Switcheroo, with Brennan Klein of Popcorn Culture and Alternate Ending doing my weird, gross, nostalgic 1950s sci-fi thing for a spell, whilst I do some nice, wholesome slashers from the brightest days of the 1980s.

Directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis
Written by Stephen Blakeley, Peter Sheperd, Roberto Gandus, and Ovidio G. Assonitis

Spoiler alert: moderate

First thing: Madhouse is a movie about an evil twin, described explicitly as an evil, identical twin, and even though she's on camera multiple times, nobody thought it would be a good idea for the same actress who plays the good twin to play her, even for one close-up.  I'm not expecting rigorous, motion-controlled splitscreen (it's 1981, so obviously I'm not).  I'm not even expecting a medium-intensity effort.  Just some effort.  But that's not even really trying, you know?

Madhouse tries in other ways, at least, and while it's still a touch slapdash, it's slapdash in mostly the same respects as any other random American slasher of 1981, which isn't necessarily bad, and, indeed, is in itself an achievement, since you might not quite guess it's actually an Italian one.  It kind of isn't anyway, despite being released in Italy first, despite a largely-Italian crew, and despite being produced, co-written, and directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis, who (for simplicity's sake) we shall likewise deem "an Italian."  Assonitis (sounds like it hurts!sorry, I promise that's the only one) no doubt remains best known as an uncredited co-director, and for doing everything James Cameron will never admit to doing on Piranha II.  But maybe that's unfair to the B-producer, who was more influential as a businessman than he ever was as a creative: his legacy in cinema spans across the decades, from his role in creating a more-integrated Southeast Asian film market in the 60s and 70s to his presidency and attempted resuscitation of Cannon in the 90s.  Nevertheless, the mogul did make a few movies all on his own, and Madhouse was one of them.

You would not be shocked to discover its Italian substrate, of course, and yet the Italianness it retains sneaks up on you: it initially only makes itself apparent in a few scattered shots (particularly the abstract weirdness of a human figure lost inside a pocket dimension created by shimmering plastic hospital curtains), and doesn't become obvious till it reaches a final act that dispenses with dramatic logic, and, more tellingly, goes on for, like, everor, at least, far longer than its now-wrenched-apart story can bear.  Even here, however, the dumbassed twist that wrecks Madhouse is, to a very large degree, an Americanized one.  (The most Italian aspect of it is that it involves Catholicism, which still feels Protestant in the execution.)  Meanwhile, it isn't full of Italians pretending to be Americans, and, moreover, it was shot in Americain Savannah, GA, USAand for all that Assonitis makes Savannah, GA, USA read as "New England" (at least up until somebody named "Beauregard" blunders into the picture), New England's close enough.  And that location shooting?  That's precisely the kind of genuine effort I was talking about, that Assonitis absolutely put into this goofy slasher.

So, in Savannah, Julia Sullivan (Trish Everly, in what appears to be her only film), has made a life for herself as a teacher at a deaf school, where she's become good friends with her colleague Helen (Morgan Hart), and forged a strong bond with her obvious favorite student, a lad with the extremely normal American name of Sasha Robertson Jr. (Richard Baker).  Even before they lay out her backstory, however, we can guess that Julia's crawled her way out of a nightmarish childhood, for the very first thing we see in the film is also its boldest (and arguably most Italian) gambit, a very long push in under the credits on a pair of figures suspended in a black void, while a low-key creepy version of "When the Wind Blows" fills the soundtrack.  Eventually coming close enough to resolve themselves as a pair of twin girls, one mechanically rocking her catatonic-seeming sister in a chair, at pretty much the precise instant we can read this unsettling image, the one doing the rocking picks up an object and smashes the catatonic one's face in.  The implications of this sequence will in no sense truly inform our drama (for it seems like it would have to be our heroine doing the violence, and yet it's not even really mentioned again, not even in a climactic villain speech); but it does set the stage for Julia's visit to the hospital alongside her priest uncle, James (Dennis Robertson), where they keep her poor "identical" sister, Mary (played by Allison Biggers, because I guess it was too much to even hire a second redhead).  Mary has long been an invalid, victim of some flavor of neurofibramatosis, which has, contra most types of NF, tortured her with constant pain, while also marking her in ways that suggest the make-up folks have only a very vague idea what NF tumors look like.

Though Mary seems to be no threat to anybody but herself, Julia can barely muster the courage to speak to her, citing some nebulous history of abuse at Mary's hands that involved a frightening hound.  We'll soon see there's a lot more truth to this than Father James is willing to admit, and whatever the case, Mary hates the living hell out of her beautiful, healthy sister, and the instant she recognizes the sibling at her side, begins to rant and rave about her revenge, and Julia runs terrified back into the hall, leading to an astonishingly poor scene transition from Mary's hospital to Julia in a doctor's office, which leaves it up to you to determine if Julia has fled here in fear and is now horny for the stranger in the white coat who just walked in.  It's actually just her boyfriend, a doctor at a completely different hospital, Sam Edwards (Michael Macrae), who would be a more active character in this film, no doubt, if he weren't always so busy with his job.  This shall leave Julia alone, and just hours after her visit triggered Mary's implacable rage, her sister has escaped from the hospital.  Soon all the people between Mary and her revengebesides everyone already mentioned, there's Julia's New Agey landlady, Amantha Beauregard (Edith Ivey), Julia's handyman/handy racist caricature Kimura (Jerry Fujikawa, affecting a broken-English Japanese accent that is belied totally when he drops a flawless voiced retroflex approximant), and Leroy (a cat)will meet Mary's very real evil dog, if, obviously, probably not the same evil dog Julia described to James.  Or maybe it is supposed to be the same dog, for Madhouse is not very thoughtful, despite insisting otherwise all the time, what with its rare genetic disorders that it dares you to look up since if they're twins, they should both have it (not necessarily, actually), and taking its alternate titles from a Longfellow poem, and finally dropping a big ol' Shaw quote right there at the end.

 acquits itself quite well for a good long while; it has that appealing slasher looseness but allies it to some actual style.  The worst thing about it till the climax is that it goes in this proto-#believewomen direction that paints the main male characters as complete fucking idiots, as they chalk up Julia's reports and the stacking bodies as a mere coincidence, which would be a big honking coincidence, considering her archenemy did just escape confinement.  James is the worst offender, and I don't imagine we're not supposed to hate his smarmy self-righteous dismissals (he gives a Sunday sermon about sisterly love, that is transparently aimed directly at Julia, and Julia just kind of limply takes it, which kind of makes us dislike her, too).  But Sam's not that much better, never calling her flat-out crazy, but remaining open to teaching the controversy until presented with undeniable evidence that Julia really is under attack... whereupon he goes on a business trip.

But, you know, you've gotta grease the slasher wheels however you can, and Madhouse isn't really about "human beings" anyway, so whatever.  It's a lota lotmore about generating unease and capturing emotional states, usually just "fright," but not always.  Sometimes it's about borderline inappropriate emotional states, like the out-of-nowhere effectiveness of Sasha's classmates' childish grief when she asks them to share their feelings about the poor little deaf boy who was mauled to death by a dog.  Which in itself had already given Madhouse an extra point, just for being so Goddamn uncompromising, and if they don't show Sasha's death, they build up to it with a cruel playfulness and then leave it all to your imagination, and that imagination needn't be too robust, because the Rottweiler they got for the part genuinely does look like he was bred in hell.  The recourse to an attack dog also gives Madhouse a bit of a unique feel for a slasher (we do see the beast tear two other folks to shreds), though it's a bit of a double-edged sword when the Rottweiler turns into Triumph the Insult Comic Dog in between cuts, particularly in the enormously entertaining (by which I mean "downright laughable") way the hand puppet version of the dog meets his end.

Madhouse is also about some rather great cinematography, courtesy Roberto D'Ettore Piazolli, which leans into the strengths of anamorphic lensing and the filmstock available in 1981 with an almost impossible-seeming combination of bright lights and huge swathes of black, every light, however bright, being immediately swallowed up into the engulfing darkness of Julia's grotty duplex, leaving little pools of luminosity that can't compete with the shadows around them, so that even something completely "safe" (like Fujikawa standing under a lamp beatifically smiling) seems off and vaguely threatening.  Even the "normal" scenes are often unearthlyoranges bleeding across the frame, that kind of thingand Piazolli will sometimes just knock the thing out of focus, I think on purpose, in recognition of Julia's dawning sense of panic over her sister's promise.  It's just a generally well-made movie, up to a point, with a fine Carpenter-Howarth-style score from Riz Ortolani, and even a decent performance in Everly, who was at least cast well, her big eyes capable of doing virtually all the work of a slasher heroine.  For the first hour, the only thing that actively, aggressively does not work (besides the Kimura Komedy Round-Up, I suppose) is the odd framing device of intertitles that keep counting down the days to Julia's and Mary's birthday, which is more distancing than suspenseful, and not very helpful considering they tend to get spliced in between scenes of Julia going to sleep and waking up.

And then Madhouse just slams right into that brick wall of a third act, and the faint supernatural tinge of Mary's vendetta is lost to something both more prosaic and much more overtly wacky, with the final third of the film becoming what I imagine the first act of a Batman movie with the Mad Hatter would be.  (In the same ballpark, anyway, as our actual villain gets about a full half hour to deliver a metric fuckton of nursery rhymes as recited by a giddy psychopath.)  At this point the Italian influence is hard to ignore, as it presents stalking scenes that drag out amidst weird multi-colored production design, are evidently intended to be more strange than scary, and weren't very good in the first place.  Imagine a Hitchcock devotee operating in failure mode; Amantha's drawn-out death feels significantly more like a stagey gesture at the abstract idea of "slasher stalking" than an actual slasher, actually stalking a victim.  It all ends in a vibrant tableau of death, that (outside of the Christmas lights) is almost exactly the same as the set-up in the same year's Happy Birthday To Me, only this one's much harder to take seriously, given the bargain-basement level of special effects magic put into it.  It at least gives us the most enjoyable gore of the picture (neither of the film's climactic kill scenes are "realistic," either; the last proper kill is like watching a butcher make mincemeat, and it's possibly exactly that, in substance).  Yet by this point it's lost its groove.  By the time it grinds its way into a lousy not-dead-yet denouement, one is really ready for Madhouse to just wrap itself up already.

Killer: [Mary Sullivan and also Father James, who I guess also likes dogs]
Final Girl: Julia Sullivan
Best Kill: When the Rottweiler smashes its head through a door like Jack Torrance and becomes a syrup-filled puppet that Sam can stick a power drill into.
Sign of the Times: Funded mental health institutions with proper facilities for physically disabled patients
Scariest Moment: When Sasha finds an Evil Rottweiler where he thought a Morally-Neutral Golden Retriever would be
Weirdest Moment: Ending this film with a Shaw quote
Champion Dialogue: "The cards reveal, the stars impel, and I get this sinister, sinister presenceit's the essence of male!"
Body Count: 9, including animals
1. A guard at Mary's hospital is delimbed and eviscerated by Mary's dog
2. Kimura is stabbed
3. Sasha is mauled to death by Mary's dog offscreen
4. Leroy the Cat is hanged from the neck until dead (also offscreen, and it's just a pretty bad puppet when we see the body)
5. Helen has her throat ripped out, very much on camera, by Mary's dog
6. Amantha spends two hours of this hour and a half movie feebly attempting to escape her demure stabbing death, obscured behind a yellow banner
7. Mary is stabbed in the back
8. The Rottweiler puppet has its brains drilled out, the actual Rottweiler no doubt got a treat
9. [What is Father James?  Chopper liver?]
TL;DR: Standard slasher fun with a stylish bent, Madhouse is sadly let down by its padded endgame and its perceived need for an obnoxious twist.
Score: 5/10

2020: Night School (1981) The Fan (1981) Madhouse (1981)

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