Monday, November 22, 2010

Something Dan Watched: Madhouse

Just a quick one for you. Over the weekend, I showed my brother Madhouse (a.k.a. There Was a Little Girl, the onscreen title on my DVD copy), a little gem of an early 80's slasher movie that I discovered earlier this year. I talked about it briefly last month, but thought it was time to say just a little bit more about one particular element of the film.

The story, which shares a few plot points with Happy Birthday To Me (coincidentally, I believe, as both films came out the same year), involves Julia, a young teacher at a school for the deaf. Her abusive, crazy, deformed twin sister breaks out of the mental hospital a few days before their birthday. And soon, people close to Julia are vanishing or dying, at the hands of a mysterious killer with a vicious pet dog, who is planning a special birthday surprise.

There's a lot to like in Madhouse, which for a sleazy, early 80's slasher is uncommonly well shot, written, and acted. The clincher, what makes it a minor classic in my esteem, is the way the film (an Italian production that does a good job passing as American) works some giallo-style weirdness into the slasher template. This includes odd touches such as the killer's choice of murder weapon (dog), the killer's fondness for singing nursery rhymes, and the heroine's job working with deaf children (no offense to the kids, who are all sweethearts, but there's something vaguely unnerving about deaf children trying to speak).

One especially weird detail that sticks out for me every time is that, although I'm not 100% sure about this, I swear in one scene the killer is played by a puppet. Tell me what you think:

It's probably hard to see what I'm talking about without seeing the way "she" moves in the shot, which strikes me as looking somewhat weightless. Here are a few stills of the sister in other scenes for comparison:

The thing is, I cannot figure out for the life of me why they couldn't have used the actual actress in the shot. Is it because they didn't think a person could leap into the frame fast enough? Was the actress not available? Is it because (and maybe I'm getting into mild spoilers here) there's some doubt as to whether the evil twin is really the killer, and the filmmakers wanted to make something about the scene feel "off"?

I like that last theory the best, but I doubt it's true. There are a few other (more obvious) puppets in the film, and they seem more like products of budget limitations than intentional surrealism. Take for example these corpses:

And this dog head:

Yet, my point is that no matter the intent of the twin-puppet, the shot of her stabbing the maintenance man adds to the dreamy, creepy quality I admire about the film.

Anyone looking for a good slightly off-the-beaten-path slasher movie should check this one out.

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