My birthday is next week, and since I'm long past the time where I ask for gifts, I usually just settle for whatever free coupons I get in my email (so far I got a froyo and a pizza coming to me; keep 'em coming!). But the good folks at Shudder saw fit to give me the greatest gift of all: adding Madhouse to their already considerable lineup, which will hopefully get more eyeballs on this memorable but sadly obscure slasher. If you're unfamiliar (there are others with the same title) it's directed by the infamous Ovidio G. Assonitis, who you might know from Tentacles or Beyond the Door (or perhaps Piranha II - he was the producer that fired Cameron, finishing the film himself). I hadn't seen it in nearly a decade; all I really remembered was that it centered around a birthday and coincidentally had the same "corpse party" finale as Happy Birthday to Me, which was also from 1981.
And yes, this is a coincidence - the films were in production around the same time (in different countries to boot), so I'd find it hard to believe one was copying the other. Then I realized I hadn't seen Happy Birthday to Me in forever either, so figured I'd double feature and see if there were any other similarities that never crossed my mind. Turns out there's another big one that I'll get to later, but it's interesting how the two movies couldn't be less alike considering how similar their climaxes are. Madhouse centers around a woman named Julia (Patricia Mickey, billed as Trish Everly) who is a few days away from her birthday and is starting to suspect someone is stalking her, as horror movie heroines often are. The movie wastes little time proving that she's right - her crazed sister has seemingly escaped from the mental institution (or, say it with me, "madhouse") and is wiping out people around her for reasons unknown. But a vicious rottweiler is *also* killing people in her social circle, and it can't be coincidental, right?
Well there's another twist to come in the form of a third (!) killer, whose identity I won't spoil here but I will say that in all my years of watching slasher movies I've never seen a murderer reveal himself so casually in my life. It's literally in the middle of a conversational scene - presented in an unedited wide shot - that the third killer/mastermind just kind of lets the cat out of the bag, with no fanfare whatsoever for this big switcheroo. Not even the score by the legendary Riz Ortolani offers anything that might tell a viewer with one eye on their phone that something big just happened; it's kind of hilarious how unceremonious it is. Also, this happens with like another 30 minutes to go, so it'd be like if Stu just kind of muttered "I'm the killer" to people as they were filing out of the big party in Scream before the rest of the movie unfolded as we know it.
But then again Assonitis doesn't really treat the movie as a slasher, at least certainly not like so many others were doing around that time. The victims are known to our "Final Girl" but they're not a group of friends (I'd wager none of the victims even knew any of the others; Julia was their only link), and they're all adults. Well, mostly adults - in one surprisingly dark sequence, Julia's favorite student (she's a teacher for hearing impaired children) is playing with his dog in the park when his frisbee gets stuck in some bushes. He goes over to retrieve it and comes face to face with the evil rottweiler we've already seen in action. Assonitis spares us the actual kill scene, cutting from the kid's worried expression to the ambulance putting his body in the back, but still - yeesh.
The following scene is one of many that makes the film stand out, because it's nothing like you'd expect to see in a 1981 slasher: Julia telling the kid's classmates that he died, followed by them processing the idea. It's... well, it's a little weird, to say the least (if you've been around the internet for a while, "Werewolf Poetry Slam" might come to mind). There's also a Japanese stereotype character who lambasts his wife's driving (some of these movies are dated in different ways, folks) and mutters to himself in his native tongue for a couple minutes before the killer interrupts his train of thought, which I keep meaning to have translated to see what he's saying. I'm also a big fan of the laid-back climax, where Julia's boyfriend comes to the rescue and the killer is not only unconcerned, but walks out of the room to tend to another matter! Also, minor spoiler, the scene where the evil dog is dispatched involves a power drill and a very, very bad puppet head for the dog. It's bliss.
Happy Birthday To Me, on the other hand, is very much in line with its "pick an event and have a killer come after the people celebrating it" brethren of the day. Our characters are a group of teens known as the "Top Ten", the most popular kids at some fancy school in "Massachusetts" (read: Montreal) who have recently welcomed Melissa Sue Anderson to their ranks. Her birthday is coming up, but alas the party will be pretty sparse if her fellow Top Ten-ers keep disappearing, but no bodies showing up to arouse suspicion. Given their history of pranks (the leader of the group, a guy named Rudi, is a borderline sociopath and I spent most of the runtime wondering how he wasn't in jail or at least expelled) the higherups just assume it's more of their hijinks, but Anderson is sure something more sinister is going on - at least until she suddenly takes out one of them herself, presumably shocking the audience in turn.
More spoilers here - a series of convoluted flashbacks reveals that she was in a car accident a while back, before being part of the famed Top Ten, and as a result she had some brain injuries that could be causing her to develop a split personality. But then at the aforementioned party, where she has gathered all of the corpses around the table, she walks around all the bodies and comes to - Anderson again! So it's an evil twin! But then - no, it's not a twin, she's actually one of the other Top Ten girls, wearing a mask that predates Ethan Hunt's tech by twenty years! Turns out the other girl's dad had an affair with Anderson's mom and that they're actually half-sisters, giving it another surprise connection to Madhouse - both movies have an insane woman trying to drive her sister crazy in turn. But while Madhouse didn't bother with anything deeper than that, this gives an "our parents' affair ruined my life" explanation - basically the same motive Billy offered in Scream, except he didn't bother with all the mask/double nonsense. Stopping to explain all of this is part of the reason that the movie is too damn long; while some slashers (including Scream itself) hover near two hours and don't suffer from it, this one drags in spots, and since our characters are mostly rich jerks it's hard to get particularly attached to any of them.
Plus, the film's real draw was its tagline promise of "Six of the most bizarre deaths you'll ever see". Alas, only a few of them rank as "bizarre", and only by the standards of its day where most of the killers settled for knives and axes. Dumbbells, motorcycles, and shish-kabob skewers were certainly offbeat choices for back then, but the rest of the time the killer settles for the usual items, so it's hard not to feel let down when you're expecting three more and then the movie ends without delivering. Though those three are at least top notch, and have a bit of gore that would elude some of the other films that year (including/especially My Bloody Valentine, which shared a few producers with this one), so if you're patient enough to deal with the film's dips into melodrama you'll be rewarded for sure.
In fact despite their flaws both films are better than they're given credit for; Happy Birthday to Me offers a solid whodunit, a number of good kill scenes, and above average acting for the genre at that time, while Madhouse proves that the "Class of '81" was not all cut from the same cloth. Both spend a little more time on characters, are well directed (especially HBTM; J. Lee Thompson also directed Cape Fear and Guns of Navarone and is thus by far the most overqualified filmmaker to do one of these) and actually use their central "holiday" for the plot, which is more than I can say about a number of them that were just grabbing days on the calendar at random. Long story short, you can't go wrong with watching either one of them to commemorate your own special day, and while Happy Birthday To Me hasn't been treated well on disc (the best edition is from Mill Creek, how depressing is that?), Arrow put out a pretty nice set for Madhouse a while back if you're so inclined to add to your collection. Overall I prefer that one for its nuttiness (and relative brevity), but if you got the time I say watch them both, if only to see how two extremely different films can wind up with the same ending.