Working on the fringe of Italian horror cinema for over 40 years, prolific movie producer Ovidio G. Assonitis also managed to log a few hours as director, helming staples of 70s cheese like BEYOND THE DOOR, TENTACLES, and PIRAHNA PART TWO: THE SPAWNING. In MADHOUSE—a little-known snooze getting a DVD re-release from Dark Sky—he regurgitates themes previously explored in other, better psychological horror films from the 1970s, but there’s no denying the guy knows how to frame a shot.
Julia is an attractive young teacher of deaf kids, living a carefree, early-80s life, when she is contacted by Mary, her long ignored twin sister. Mary is sequestered in a hospital, suffering from “deformed features” and “skin erosions”, and Julia hasn’t seen her in years. Back when they were little girls, the two siblings didn’t really get along, with the sadistic Mary occasionally poking her twin sister with needles. On Julia’s birthday, Mary tormented her with a vicious attack dog, Abu Ghraib-style, and Julia has spent the past 30-odd years refusing to come to terms with their jacked-up twinner relationship.
The deformed Mary escapes from the hospital, Julia begins getting hang-up phone calls, and a rash of poorly-staged death scenes ensue, all of which are telegraphed FAR in advance with the use of synthesized laser blast sound effects that could only have been considered suspenseful in 1981. Mary makes the occasional scary appearance, but for the most part, she’s one of those lazy deformed evil twins who sends her attack dog to do the dirty work. And once you’ve seen one guy get his throat gnawed off by a fake, rubbery-looking dog head, you’ve seen them all.
MADHOUSE has some genuinely eerie scenes, but they’re shotgunned throughout a lame and poorly-paced narrative, resulting in a film that’s truly hard to defend, even by B-movie standards. There’s no denying the occasional effectiveness of Assonitis’ framing and shot selection, and Dark Sky has released a crisp print with rich color saturation. Too bad the actual narrative can’t match the director’s obvious talent behind the camera.