A Movie A Day: MADHOUSE (1981) Most people’s nightmares end when they wake up. Mine begin.
Published at: Oct. 18, 2009, 7:21 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the newest October special horror run of A Movie A Day!
[For the entirety of October I will be showcasing one horror film each day. Every film is pulled from my DVD shelf, recorded on the home DVR or streamed via Instant Netflix and will be one I haven’t seen. Unlike my usual A Movie A Day or A Movie A Week columns there won’t necessarily be connectors between each film, but you’ll more than likely see patterns emerge day to day. At the end of each standard AMAD I’m going to include a recommendation of a genre film that is either one of my personal favorites or too good of a double feature with the AMAD title to pass up a mention.]
The opening credits of MADHOUSE (aka THERE WAS A LITTLE GIRL) play over a long shot of two identical girls standing in blackness. The one standing is rocking the other back and forth in a rocking chair as an eerie version of Rock A Bye Baby plays on the soundtrack.
As the credits play the camera moves closer and closer to these two girls until everything reaches a crescendo and the one standing raises what looks like a sharp rock and bashes the other girl’s face in.
“This movie’s right up my alley,” I thought. And at first it was. Great opening credits sequence and then meet our lead played by Trish Everly who is a teacher at a school for deaf kids. “This just keeps getting better and better,” I thought. What a great place to set a slasher movie, at a school for deaf kids. There are so many possibilities.
Then the rest of the movie happens and my excitement level fell.
First of all, Trish Everly isn’t a very good actress, so building the movie on her performance wasn’t exactly a solid foundation. She plays a woman tormented by the memory of her tormenting little sister, who now resides in an insane asylum. Apparently Everly’s character, Julia, has childhood memories of her cruel sister displaying the uncanny ability to control animals. Not exactly a common attribute amongst little girls, even if they’re evil. I don’t remember Patty McCormack wielding neighborhood dogs in THE BAD SEED.
All these years later the committed sister’s evil starts showing on her face as disease contorts her features and causes lesions on her skin.
Of course sis breaks out of the nuthatch and after talking about how afraid Everly is of her sister she’s surprisingly unaffected by this news. When she first hears it there’s fear, but then the next scene it’s like she forgets her crazy, fucked-up looking beastmaster twin sister who wants to do nothing but hurt the sane sis is out on the loose.
Director and co-writer Ovidio G. Assonitis (TENTACLES, BEYOND THE DOOR) gives us a few fun characters, like a kind of creepy father-figure priest (Dennis Robertson), a completely over the top southern belle landlord (Edith Ivey) and a cantankerous borderline stereotype Asian handyman (Jerry Fujikawa) all are fun to watch, but with one major exception they’re all there for one scene before it’s time to die.
Julia’s birthday is coming up and her crazy sister just wants to prepare her a nice party full of dead people, so she has her psychicly-linked rottweiler kill all of Julia’s friends.
When the crazy sister, Mary, first shows up killing people I thought the movie was picking back up again, but unfortunately after poor Mr. Fujikawa’s stabbing the movie just gets muddled. Plot threads don’t ever go anywhere, hints are dropped that I guess are supposed to be red herrings, but the way they’re executed feels more like half-thoughts littering an ill-conceived feature film.
Then the final act really had me itching to hand over my full interest once more, but the chaotic plotting was still in full swing. Mary apparently wasn’t working alone, but she could definitely control animals… However her accomplice is clearly the one in charge, but has no real power other than liking “the game” of stalking someone with a knife. I’m still confused.
Much like yesterday’s WOLFEN the early ‘80s photography scratches a deep nostalgia for me. I love the purple animorphic lens flares and the look of the film stock of this era. I guess because I grew up watching movies of this era this is what real films look like to me. If this exact same movie was made at a comparable budget today I’d probably be less “meh” and more “this sucks” just because it’d be done with actors just as shitty, but more underwear-model pretty and shot on some minor HD camera, overlit and plain as can be.
Final Thoughts: I suppose the bottom line is that I thought the movie was okay when weighing in what worked and what didn’t. I’m getting a little tired of movies that kill off all their interesting characters straight away, leaving us only to stick with the dull and/or bad actors. The gore is fine, the creepy rotty is good and I liked the photography, but lord is there a messy script and some horrid acting going on here.
Considering the end of this movie takes place at a corpse-filled birthday party I figured I’d go to another ‘80s slasher with a very, very similar finale for the double feature recommendation.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME just felt right, even though I could probably pull a dozen horror movies that feature the “corpse party” scene, most of them rip-offs of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE.
Now, while I really dig HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME I have to say that it isn’t my favorite fun slasher of this era. For pure fun I’d go with SLEEPAWAY CAMP or SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, but HBTM works on a lot of levels.
For starters, the movie almost has an Italian horror feel to it, like it was ghost-directed by Dario Argento. The kills are all super inventive… bloody and fun. I love the weightlifting kill the best probably, although the poster image shish kabob kill and the scarf-in-the-motorcycle-wheel kill (later ripped off in PET SEMATARY 2) are close runner-ups.
I find the main character, a tortured student suffering with amnesia after a car accident that killed her mother, a bit on the annoying side. I don’t completely blame actress Melissa Sue Anderson completely for feeling that way, but her screaming (which happens a lot) wasn’t the fun horror screaming, but grating on the ears-ish after a while if you know what I mean.
Much like MADHOUSE there are a lot of interesting side characters, mostly the main group of students comprised of rebelling richie richers. My favorite is Jack Blum as the creepy tall and skinny guy that always carries a mouse in his pocket and makes horror sculptures in his spare time.
The plot of the flick centers on Anderson trying to remember what happened the night of her mother’s death. She’s coached by Glenn Ford playing a psychiatrist. It’s kind of a shock to see someone as prestigious as Glenn Ford in a movie as dirty and exploitative as this, but he does class things up a bit.
Speaking of classy, this film is directed by J. Lee Thompson who was kind of a badass in the ‘60s, directing such great films as CAPE FEAR and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. It’s more than a little weird to see his career path, working with such high class actors on big studio projects to doing a minor studio slasher and a run of on-the-cheap Charles Bronson actioneers (10 to Midnight, Murphy’s Law, Death Wish 4).
I’ve never seen this film big, but I’ve read that the soundtrack on the DVD was changed by the studio, the original score removed and replaced with the odd dance music. I did notice that in the movie, but I’ve never been able to compare the two.
A little research shows that the Amazon VOD version has the original score ($2.99) and so does the iTunes VOD (search the iTunes store… $2.99 to rent and $9.99 to own).
I haven’t shelled out the bucks myself (I mean, I already bought the DVD), so I can’t 100% vouch for the original score being on the VOD versions, but that’s what I read in the horror forums.
At any rate Happy Birthday To Me isn’t exactly the most famous slasher of the early ‘80s, but it’s definitely a good one that goes to some crazy places. The birthday finale is shockingly similar to MADHOUSE, but goes even crazier.
Here are the next week’s worth of AMAD titles:
Sunday, October 18th: THE HOUSE WITH THE LAUGHING WINDOWS (1976)
Monday, October 19th: THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945)
Tuesday, October 20th: DEMON SEED (1977)
Wednesday, October 21th: STAGEFRIGHT (1987)
Thursday, October 22th: DEAD OF NIGHT (1977)
Friday, October 23th: THE SERPENT’S EGG (1978)
Saturday, October 24th: THE SWARM (1978)
Moving to a real deal giallo tomorrow in the awesomely titled Italian thriller THE HOUSE WITH THE LAUGHING WINDOWS. See you folks then for that one!
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