NetFlix Review #23: Madhouse (a.k.a. There Was a Little Girl)

NetFlix Review #23: Madhouse (a.k.a. There was a Little Girl)

Aaah, the glories of the giallo movies. For those not in the know, "giallo" as a film term refers to a very specific kind of thriller/horror film made in Italy that really came into its own in the 60s and 70s. They are characterized by nonsense plotting, beautiful scenery, even more beautiful women, heaps of gore, extreme stylization, unusual rock-infused soundtracks and a completely bizarre understanding of "psychology." They, along with some super-sexy 60s and 70s erotic films like Radley Metzger used to make, seem to me like the pinnacle of trashy class. Madhouse was recommended to me by the trashy, classy Paul Busetti as a giallo set in Savannah, GA. Having lived in Georgia for a while and being a huge fan of Southern Gothic, I thought this sounded like a potentially sweet little number.

The film is more of a mixed bag. It certainly has a lot of beautiful photography, and the lead actress, in apparently the only movie she ever made, ain't too bad to look at. The plot is pretty typical giallo. A woman, Julia, has an evil twin sister named Mary who is locked away in an insane asylum. Their birthday is approaching, and the girls' uncle, a priest named Father James, wants to reconcile the two girls. This doesn't look likely, however, as the insane sister has also recently suffered a horribly disfiguring accident that has ruined her face, which, as you can imagine, doesn't help her psyche all that much. Mary escapes and Julia's friends and associates start turning up dead. Isn't. That. STRANGE?

The director of this film, Ovidio G. Assonitis, is a well-known and, in an odd way, respected hack. He did a famous rip-off of The Exorcist that was one of the highest-grossing horror films ever in Italy, as well as rip-offs of Jaws and other big horror films of the time. In a way Madhouse feels like a giallo rip-off, even though the guy has serious Italian film-industry cred. It gets a lot of the beats down, but lacks the gothic excesses of Bava or the completely off the wall visual playfulness of my personal favorite, Dario Argento. Most disappointing to me, it doesn't make much use of its southern setting. Savannah has a great atmosphere to it, and should have greatly underlined the mood of the piece. I'm a fan of both The Gift and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which were both filmed in and around Savannah and used the city to great effect. Madhouse sets most of its action in Julia's house, which, although it is certainly a very Savannah-style home, may not be taking full advantage of the tools at your disposal.

The movie also has a reputation for being one of the "video nasties," films that were banned in Britain for being vulgar, violent and obscene. It's funny watching it today, where the film could practically get a PG rating if you took out a couple moments of violence. My how the times have changed. As for those moments of violence, the bread and butter of any good giallo flick, the film is pretty tame until the very end, where you get a moment involving a dog which is both abhorrently grotesque and kind of hilarious, and the final birthday party, which I do have to give the film some credit for. One of the issues with giallos is that sometimes they're simply too art-directed, too pretty, to actually be scary. Of course, that's really only a problem if you want to be scared. The party is very well-designed. Austere and creepy, owing a little bit to the dinner scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it looks a lot better. There's also a well-constructed moment where there is a rise in the tension and madness of the scene, and then someone is murdered and both the insane frivolity and the murdered party fall dead into Julia's lap. It's a solid bit, and one that someone should steal and put into a better film.

There are all sorts of "spoilers" I could go into to further discuss the movie, but there's not that much point. You'll probably guess most of them from the very get-go, or more to the point most of you will probably never even consider watching this in the first place, but why not keep them hidden? It's a moderately successful giallo, so if you're a fan of the genre you could certainly give it a go.

There is one thing the film made me want to ask all of you out there in readerland: Has there ever been an instance in all of cinema where a villian singing a song, especially as a sign of them being craaaazy, that has actually been scary? The baddie in this movie does it, and it's a trope I always find much more annoying than horrifying. Especially if it's sung by a little child. It always feels like something is trying far far too hard to be scary instead of actually scaring me. I think one of the only times I've ever found this effective is the "1, 2, Freddy's Coming for You" song from Nightmare on Elm Street, and I think it works because it's set up within the world of the movie. Like "Ring Around the Rosie" it's a rhyme based off actual horrific events that becomes diluted into a children's song. There's something that feels much more organic about that. Oh, and Dan Aykroyd's rendition of "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain" in Grosse Pointe Blank, because that actually seems very in character as something he'd do to unnerve someone, and it's pretty insane. Any others? Or perhaps, what are your WORST examples of people using this trope terribly? This movie's pretty bad, especially as it goes on for SO LONG, but one of my favorite examples of this going tits up is in Enduring Love, when Rhys Ifans sings "God Only Knows What I'd Be Without You" to Daniel Craig as a signifier that he be craaaazy, y'all! It made me embarrassed for everyone involved.

Jake Thomas

Story Writer. Marvel Comics Editor. Wrangler of Squids.