Goon Review – Madhouse (1981)

(Submited by our Ho-rror Ho-mie, Mr. Andrew W. Peters…Thanks, Madman Magee! 🙂 xoxo)

Ovidio G. Assonitis, like most Italian film directors, had a wide variety of films he’s directed, including the Jaws cash-in Tentacles and the Exorcist cash-in Beyond the Door. Hey, it’s Italy in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s and cash-ins or rip-offs were their thing. He’s also produced a number of films like Piranha II: The Spawning, The Curse, the excellent and often underrated The Visitor, as well as American Ninja 4 and 5. Needless to say the guy knows horror and he also knows movies, so I was psyched when Arrow released Madhouse, an overlooked slasher film from 1981, in a brand new 2K restoration.

However, upon revisiting it, I understood why it’s possibly overlooked. It’s not that I hated, in fact I’m probably one of the few people that rather enjoy it, but I can see why people might find it so underwhelming and that’s because, well, it is. It’s a well made movie and it does have a very interesting premise, but for an Italian made slasher flick, it’s actually kinda tame and falls into cliched trappings and then there’s the reveal of the killer… hoo boy, it’s pretty obvious from the get-go who the killer is and you really hope they don’t “go there,” but, yeah, they do. It’s not only that it’s painfully obvious, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear motivation and honestly it kinda dampers what they were setting up. I gotta say and sorry for sounding like a broken record, but for an Italian made slasher in the early ‘80s, this film feels kinda like it’s playing it safe.

I keep calling it a slasher flick when Italy was more commonly known for suspenseful giallos and while Madhouse toys around with the idea of being a giallo, it doesn’t commit to being one. The same can be said about it being more of a character drama between two twin sisters, one evil and the other good. There’s a fine variety of different ideas here, but the movie can’t seem to decide on which one it would rather be and ends up being a moderate, ho-hum horror flick and for being Italian produced film, a country known for reveling in gore, it’s pretty tame. I don’t know if this was due to budgetary problems or perhaps Ovidio G. Assonitis thought it would make his film more suspenseful and to his credit, it is wonderfully shot and full of dark shadows, so it at least has a very ominous mood.

It opens up interestingly enough; two young girls sit still and silently in blackness as the camera pans in until one starts smashing the other one’s face in with a rock. Alright, movie, you have my attention. I’m interested in finding out what that was about, but unfortunately, we never do. At least, not really. Fast forward years later and the girls are all grown up and you could say they took different paths. One grows up to be a school teacher for the deaf and a stone cold fox, Julia, played by Trish Everly. Who’s Trish Everly and what else has she been in? Exactly. According to IMDB, this is her only credit and she never forayed into the world of acting again which is a shame, because she puts in a terrific performance.

Her sister Mary, on the other hand, has been less fortunate, living her life in a mental institution with a skin disease that has left her disfigured. Talk about drawing the short stick. Mary is under close observation by Father James, a friend of the family who Julia refers to as Uncle. Father James seems a little too pleasant and a little off kilter, so if you know anything about slasher films, I’m sure you’ll be able to see what direction they are taking this character. About halfway through the film, after the reveal of the killer, his character takes quite a silly turn as he’s nonchalantly hauling a body bag into a basement and chasing Julia’s landlady around the her building, skipping and singing children’s nursery rhymes. It’s kind of a whiplash in tone of character and I’m assuming it’s because people are under the impression that just because children’s songs are in a horror movie that makes it’s creepy, but they forget it needs to have context. That’s not the case here. It seemingly comes out of nowhere and I found more puzzled instead of interested and laughed at this reveal. If anything, this dampens the Father character’s motivation for everything happening. In fact when questioned about it, he just giggles and spouts a nursery rhyme that has no bearing or meaning on the situation. It explains nothing or maybe it does. Either way, it doesn’t ever explain why he’s doing what he’s doing.

 

The big red herring or twist of events happens when Julia receives word that Mary has escaped the asylum just in time for their birthday. The birthday doesn’t really play into the main plot, but give a reason for something to happen (I guess), but it just echoes of desperation for the film to take place during a holiday or event to mirror something like Halloween. To the film’s credit, the slasher does have a very interesting weapon of choice; a rottweiler. Yeah, I bet you’d never see the day a slasher film uses an animal as their knife. I was worried for the dog’s health and safety when remembering this is an Italian production, but luckily Ovidio here takes the dog’s well being into consideration. You figure a dog tearing apart the victims would result in a blood bath and mangled body parts, but if there is one thing really disappointing about the film, it’s that it lacks gore. I know gore doesn’t make a horror film, but spectacularly bloody deaths in a slasher makes a better viewing. At most, it’s blood smeared all over someone’s face and the most shocking death in the movie, the death of Julie’s favorite student, takes place off screen, but there I actually feel it gives it more of a punch, especially when she has to break the news to the other students at school. It’s a scene, however, that involves the dog being put into a headlock by Julie and putting a power drill through it’s head that this film is most likely notorious for. Even with a noticeable puppet in use, it’s still a rough scene to watch listening to the dog squeal.

During the finale of the film, I couldn’t help but think of Happy Birthday to Me (a slasher film I like, but find it a tad overrated) and that may be because Madhouse feels like it’s borrowing from other popular slasher movies of that time rather than try to be something original or experimental. That’s kind of surprising for being an Italian horror film, in a way, because while they were more known for ripping a film off, they still took the idea in a wild direction and made it it’s own beast. This feels more of the American cash-in variety where it takes no risks and spends no money on the gore budget. To the film’s credit, it’s the finale where you see what is most likely the goriest moment in the movie where a character takes an axe to the back, spraying chunks of flesh and squirting blood. You can’t help but wonder why this approach wasn’t taken during the rest of the movie. Maybe Ovidio wanted to make not necessarily a classier horror film, but maybe a more suspenseful one with more dignity. It’s unfortunate that’s not what happened.

Along with this being a new 2K transfer, Arrow also includes a new audio commentary with The Hysteria Continues. That’s sort of confusing as to why they would have the people from a comedy/horror podcast do the commentary for the film rather than the original cast and crew when they were able to get new interviews with them. You can also check out the alternate opening if you’d like and the theatrical trailer. I think the show stealer in this whole package is the newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach. Seriously a talented artist and that’s one hell of a spooky cover.

It’s not boring, but rather predictable and subdued. It is at least pretty to look with some creepy cinematography and it doesn’t hurt that it was filmed in a supposed haunted house in Savannah, Georgia. It’s more upsetting seeing what this movie could have been and what it turned out to be instead of it being an actual bad movie. It showed so much promise with a murderous twin angle and the classic black leathered gloved giallos and the end result is so disappointing. It’s tolerable and worth watching for a typical ‘80s slasher, but don’t expect anything beyond that.

Goon Review: Ben (1972)

(Submitted by our Ho-rror Ho-mie, Mr. Andrew Peters…Thanks, ya Goon-ie!! 😉 xoxo)


Willard had a direct sequel after the film’s fan favorite rodent Ben named, well, Ben. I don’t know how well Willard had done in theaters to warrant a sequel, but apparently it did well enough that Bing Crosby backed its production (seeing as he also financed Willard). Yeah, crazy to think that an old school crooner like himself wanted more killer rat movies, but once again this really isn’t about nature striking back. I mean, it kinda has that element going on, but like its predecessor, Ben is more about someone befriending the rodents. Instead of a socially awkward young man using his newfound friends as a means to get revenge, it’s a socially awkward boy just being friends with them and deaths just kind of happen incidentally.

We pick up right where Willard left off and I mean right where it left off. The police find what remains of Willard and uncovering his journal that mentions Socrates and Ben. To be honest, I missed this little tidbit of information at first and was really confused at how the hell the cops could have known the two rats’ names, but after a quick rewind, I saw what I missed. Not sure why I wasn’t paying attention or maybe the detail was glossed over quickly, but nevertheless it’s there. Detective Sergeant Cliff Kirtland is tasked with heading up this investigation, which seems like it should have come to a close almost immediately. Willard has basically been devoured by the rats, so I don’t know if his plan was to arrest all the rats or what. Ben watches menacingly from the rafters above as a single cop, all by his lonesome, hears something behind the wall and decides he should check it out. Now I have to ask because the movie presented it; what the hell was this guy thinking? It’s clearly rats that just ate a person. Why in the love of Nina Hartley’s sweet tits would he crack open the wall? What was his plan here? I’ve been asking, “what’s the plan” a few times now, so it’s safe to assume we’re getting the movie logic of cops that do stupid things in order for events to unfold. So yeah, he gets killed. Surprised?

Being a smart little bugger, Ben knows it’s no longer safe and it’s time for them to find a new home. Luckily, an awkward and lonesome kid named Danny happens to be kind of weird. Hopefully you won’t find him as mildly annoying as I did, because he’s the central character of the film and to desperately make him sympathetic, he has a heart condition that’s never really explained nor is it used to the plot’s convenience all that well other than to occasionally make you feel sorry for him or to build some tension. Sorry, movie, you failed on both accounts.

While putting on his one man puppet show that apparently Danny does to no audience, so it’s in no way kind of creepy, he notices Ben watching him from the window to which Danny tortures the poor rat by submitting him to his little play and the two quickly becomes pals. Don’t count on this ending happily, however, as the Police seem to be narrowing down the places to search and even come by asking questions after Ben and his army of badass rats protect Danny from a bully. In a very creepy turn of his character, Danny stares at the kid accusing him and says to the Police and all of the adults in the room that the bully must have fallen into a rose bush. The bully quickly noticing the Damien from The Omen death stare and agrees he must’ve fallen into a rose bush. It’s almost unsettling and for a brief moment you might be thinking that the movie may take a turn into dark territory with Danny losing his grip on reality, much like Willard had, but nope. They toy with the idea for a moment and discard it. The movie’s credit, it’s at least not trying to repeat Willard and wants to do its own thing.

Ben and the other rats terrorize the city in the sense that they are merely searching for food, but turn over a grocery store in the process and the death toll even spikes a wee bit. Kirtland continues his manhunt, or erm, rathunt and draws nearer and nearer until the film’s climax when it’s an all out war of man versus rats. I may have overhyped it in that last sentence, but I have to admit that it’s a little heartbreaking, especially with Danny desperately trying to save Ben. I can relate to that, because I would do anything for my guinea pigs and the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever experienced is when I lost my first piggie to heart disease. I don’t think the film did very well, so there’s not another sequel, although I have to say I think it would have been great to see the further adventures of Ben. I can say that at least film’s started being kinder to animals around this time, so some poorly composited shots of rats being set on fire is used in place of actually setting rats on fire. Thank goodness this wasn’t an Italian production.

It was nice to finally see rats get some love, at least to some extent, but therein lies the problem… who was this movie made for? The kid becoming friends with the rats and all the whimsy that follows suggest it was made for kids, but the carnage ensues tells me that maybe it’s a horror film. Like with most of these mixed bag films, it can’t seem to decide which it’s trying to be and ultimately doesn’t do well with blending either genres. Although the younger audience might be enticed by the relationship between the humans and animals, they would probably find all the talking and plot development parts boring since it’s trying to speak to an older audience who in turn will find the parts involving Danny and Ben childish and the horror parts rather dull and not scary. While watching it, I couldn’t help but think of Pod People which had the same problem. JP Simon, the director of that film, wanted a horror film and the producers wanted a kiddie film, so both were mixed to poor results (although Pod People is fun as hell to watch, especially the MST3K version).

Ben is somewhat of a lost film in that the original negatives apparently couldn’t be found, but that didn’t stop good ol’ Scream Factory from fine tuning it from whatever source they could find. Seeing as a master source wasn’t used in restoring the movie, so while it doesn’t look as sharp or clean as Willard, I’m genuinely shocked at how good it looks giving what they had to work with. Like Willard, there isn’t much in the way of special features. Aside from a small interview with Lee Montgomery who played Danny in the film who also provides an audio commentary, you get your usual Scream Factory extras, like a theatrical trailer, TV spots, radio spots and a still gallery. Unless you’re a fan of the film or a Scream Factory completist, you’ll probably want to pass on it.

Ben is kind of a forgettable, especially in the horror or nature strikes back or child befriending animal or whatever the hell genre it is, but if there is anything anyone will remember from this movie it’s the theme song sung by Michael Jackson. I know, at first I thought it was a joke too, but an early ‘70s, young Michael Jackson sings the song and even has a giant credit during the opening text. Well, there’s that and Danny’s puppet play with a puppet of Ben which performs in front of Ben. It’s kind of weird. Even Ben looks creeped out. Maybe the movie should have been a puppet play.

Goon Review: Crimson (1973)

(Submitted by Andrew Peters…Thanks, Mr. Goon-y Goon! 🙂 xo)

Spanish actor Paul Naschy, real name Jacinto Alvarez, needs no introduction to those that are fans of sleazy ‘70s and ‘80s b-horror movies. The man has played basically played some variation a majority of classic monsters made popular by Universal, like the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Mummy and the Hunchback. He had a recognizable face you loved to see behind the monster, but he also starred in a number of crime thrillers and dramas, like 1973’s Crimson, or known in Europe as The Man With the Severed Head, directed by Juan Fortuny, which unfortunately Naschy doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time, despite being credited in the top billing. Kino Lorber will be releasing the film on Blu-ray June 14th with both versions of the film.

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It’s a heist gone wrong kind of movie. Naschy plays a gangster named Jack who leads a small group of thieves and killers who are attempting to break into the safe of a jewelry store, but unbeknownst to him is intentionally floundered by one of his crew and Jack is shot in the head during their escape. Still alive, the crew takes him to their doctor, you know, a washed up alcoholic who suggests the only way of saving him is to take him to a smart brain surgeon (I guess, as opposed to a dumb one), who is reluctant until the crew kidnaps his daughter and assures her safe return only if he were to perform the operation. But first, a donor is needed.

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As chance would have it, the only compatible donor is Jack’s arch nemesis, The Sadist. Why do they call him that? Well, it’s pretty self explanatory, but my favorite part about him is his inclination to constantly tell other characters why he’s called The Sadist. He kinda feels like a Quentin Tarantino character in that respect. Even his scenes that play out feel very QT-esque, in that he’s shot and killed while he’s about to get some booty in a double crossing moment and two of Jack’s henchmen have a few scenes discussing or attempting to remove his head, but finally get the job done by laying his neck on a railroad track and letting a passing train decapitate him. It’s probably the most glorious scene in the film, in that it’s hilarious and the effect of the head is done pretty decently. Unfortunately, it’s the only memorable scene I can think of.

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So the operation goes well and it seems like a success, until Jack starts displaying symptoms of a split personality and goes on a small murderous rampage that is pretty underwhelming. The movie sort of shifts tone here into silly, b-movie territory and Jack acts like a monster in a crappy ‘50s sci-fi flick, which sounds fun, but at this point I was kind of wishing the movie would hurry along. The other gang gets wind of what happened and attacks Jack’s gang and the movie sort of pitters out from here.

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I normally like stuff like this for its campiness, but Crimson really drags and a lot of it is uninteresting. The heist goes wrong right at the beginning and it drew me in, but then then next 45 minutes or so play out so slowly and then Jack comes back with his duality issue during the last 20 minutes and doesn’t leave any room for suspense or horror. There’s another issue I had with the movie; I keep seeing it classified as a horror, even on its IMDB page. Although I see touches of horror, I don’t think it would be. I would classify it more as a crime thriller, but more exploitation than anything since it does have some sleazy moments. Most of those moments were cut from the Crimson version of the film, but those scenes can be seen in the The Man With the Severed Head version which is included on Blu-ray, but I don’t see myself rewatching it for several minutes of deleted footage when I didn’t really enjoy the 90+ I just sat through.

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Crimson plays like a goofy, low budget ‘50s or ‘60s sci-fi film with all the cheese, but not a lot of the fun. It’s just a film I couldn’t get into and found that it often feels like it’s dragging and I would wonder to myself a number of times when it was going to end. It’s not completely without its merits, but the film takes too long to get to the point, filling the waiting time with seemingly pointless mysteries and double crossing, that by the time it gets there, you don’t really care.