Bite Size: Madness (1980)

Fernando Di Leo was one of the masters of poliziotteschi, deftly weaving complex plots and copious violence with a cynical eye toward the political corruption and contempt toward the working class that existed in 1970s Italy. A deeper dive into his filmography also reveals a uniquely dark take toward the socioeconomic divides lying beneath a newly permissive and libertine eroticism, most notably in 1978’s brutally bleak To Be Twenty.

Madness (original Italian title: Vacanze per un massacro) incorporates elements of both of these styles, taking Di Leo’s penchant for sex and violence into a tightly confined setting. Gio Brezzi (Warhol superstar Joe D’allesandro) escapes from prison, quickly dispatching a local farmer with his own pitchfork to steal a getaway car. He heads to a rural vacation house where he had stashed a previous heist of 300 million lira.

The house has been purchased by a well to do couple from the capital, Sergio (Gianni Macchia) and Lilliana (Patrizia Behn). The pair dash Gio’s hopes of a quick score when they arrive unexpectedly for a weekend in the country, Lilliana’s comely younger sister Paola (Lorraine De Selle, Cannibal Ferox, Women’s Prison Massacre) in tow. When Sergio heads off on a hunting trip, and Lilliana heads into town, Gio seizes the moment. He knocks Paola unconscious while sunbathing, and breaks in to recover the stolen loot.

Madness was written by Mario Gariazzo, who was also originally slated to direct. Only after schedule conflicts was Fernando Di Leo brought on for a script polish and a stint in the director’s chair. The film feels much more true to Gariazzo’s style than Di Leo’s, a chamber drama that makes some halfhearted attempts at hard-boiled, but never really commits to rising tension. Instead, the film is full of the sexually charged, strangely familiar plot meandering that characterized The Eerie Midnight Horror Show. It’s a full 20 minutes before Gio even gains entry to the house, most of that spent in a voyeuristic interlude that reveals Paola and Sergio’s torrid affair, and serves the larger point of displaying plenty of Lorraine De Selle’s naked body.

Despite the title, there isn’t really much mania and mayhem, just growled threats and a heaping helping of humiliating sleaze, a lot of which is mean spirited trope for Italian cinema of the period. This unfortunately includes a sexual assault that culminates in Paola praising rapist Gio on his sexual prowess. Not much improves when Liliana and Sergio return, as they are quickly subdued without too much of a fight, and are summarily tasked with taking a pickaxe to the mantel under Gio’s watchful eye. When their status as laborers is found lacking, Gio idly humiliates Lilliana by forcing her to watch Paola and Sergio have sex.

This wouldn’t be terribly original fare even in the hands of David Hess, whom was the go to guy for this sort of sadistic heavy post Last House On The Left. Joe D’allesandro is woefully miscast, his physical mannerisms not aligned with the snarl of the actor dubbing his voice, and his diminutive stature working against him in the more violent, physical scenes. His strongest cards were the pretty boy hustler and the cooly indifferent street punk, not the brute force rage of a sociopathic bruiser.

Given Sergio is characterized as a self serving coward from the first frame, and Lilliana isn’t given much to do aside from be dutifully wounded by betrayal, the character of Gio should be the film’s center of gravity. Instead, that task falls to Paola, who quickly turns out to be the most cunning of them all when she realizes there’s an enormous amount of money at stake. Sex, scheming and solicitous duplicity are all fair game.

This was clearly a low budget production, and one has to wonder if some of the more idiosyncratic visual choices were Di Leo trying to break the monotony of a lack of action scenes, and a single sparse set. Gio escapes from jail via climbing a single strand of rope, like Rapunzel letting down her hair. When the trio enters the house, Paola is lugging a case of J+B, a very familiar sight for fans of giallo. A huge poster of a smiling John Travolta hangs in the living room, often sitting in the dead center of frame even during the film’s nastier scenes. Sure, any of these choices could be merely a matter of budgetary necessity, but it also feels like a bored hired gun messing with his audience.

Hamstrung by cheap production values, highly inconsistent characterization and a final 15 minutes that seemed forced into the service of a visually interesting final frame than any actual concerns of the plot, Madness lacks the clarity of purpose to live up the the intensity that either of its titles promise. Die hard completionists for any of the personnel involved may find something of slight interest here, as will those with a crush on Ms. De Selle, given she spends the bulk of the film in various stages of undress.

Viewers looking for a home invasion thriller that lives up to its cruelly sleazy premise would be better served by Ruggero Deodato’s House On The Edge Of The Park, which premiered in Italy eight months later than Madness, in November of 1980. Both movies share undercurrents of sexual menace, socioeconomic status fueled rage, and an oversexed Lorraine De Selle in a bitchily conniving role. However, Deodato’s movie is built on a much stronger script and more carefully curated casting choices, which help give it the visceral, vicious punch that Madness never manages to attain.

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