Tuesday, November 6, 2012

There Was A Little Girl (1981)

aka And When She Was Bad

aka Madhouse

aka Flesh and the Beast

aka Scared to Death

When she was a kid, Julia (Trish Everly) was abused by her twin sister Mary (Allison Biggers) so heavily, it comes as a bit of a surprise she actually managed to grow into a sane and caring teacher for deaf and hard of hearing children. One suspects her breaking off all contact with her sister as soon as she was able helped there.

But a few days before their shared twenty-fifth birthday, Julia's uncle, the priest James (Dennis Robertson), convinces her to visit Mary in the hospital where a now disfigured and deathly ill sister will probably spend the rest of her days. The meeting doesn't go well, to say the least. Mary's still crazy as a loon and promises Julia she'll make her birthday as horrible as she and her dog did when they were children.

The very next night, Mary and a security guard disappear from the hospital - actually, the security guard is killed by a dog, but that's a fact only the audience and the killer is privy to - and someone sneaks into the empty apartment above Julia's.

Soon, people around the teacher begin to disappear, and her new secret neighbour threatens her in circumspect ways. Of course, the father figures in her life - Father James and her boyfriend Sam (Michael MacRae) - don't believe Julia when she reasonably assumes that something very bad is up, and this something most probably has something to do with her sister. Otherwise, things couldn't culminate on her birthday.

I'm not sure if Ovidio G. Assonitis' There Was is an attempt to giall-ify the slasher or one to slash-ify the giallo. What I do know is that the result of the director's fiendish experiment in unholy movie genre surgery suggests the crossing of the two sister genres is one of those Things Man Isn't Meant To Do.

The film begins rather promising, with many a well-photographed scene, decent acting, and just the right note of hysteria in the way the plot develops. It's not exactly "believable" in the naturalistic interpretation of that word, but the film's early stages work well as one of these "your worst fears come to life" deals for our poor, beleaguered protagonist. Though the first cracks begin to show early on too: Riz Ortolani's soundtrack starts out like a standard giallo/thriller deal, but whenever the killer stalks his/her victims, the music turns into an unending series of decidedly videogame-y pew-pew noises that suggest the children Julia is teaching aren't the only ones deaf here. Needless to say, it's a highly original way to sabotage a film's suspense scenes.

The longer the movie goes on, the worse its pacing becomes. What begins sprightly enough turns tedious at about the halfway mark. After the killer is unmasked for the audience (as if there ever was any doubt), the stalking scenes become longer and longer but not more inventive. The film's special low point is an endless cat and mouse game between the killer and Julia's landlady that isn't just tedious, but also suggests both the killer and the landlady to be the two stupidest persons alive.

And while I'm talking about the killer, the final nail in the film's coffin is the fact that, once he's unmasked, Assonitis decides to give him endless space to ramble, sing (oh, the singing) and play crazy until a character that should be relentless, menacing and creepy turns into a pure annoyance. It's never a good sign when the first thing a viewer wants from a killer in a movie is to just finally shut up and kill someone. But hey, at least there's a scene concerning a door, a badly faked dog head and Sam wielding an electric drill.

It's a bit of a shame that particular ridiculous set piece is the film's only late act highpoint, for its early stages suggest Assonitis would have well been able to make a suspenseful giallo/slasher hybrid; it's even more of a shame how much of the film's final breakdown is self-inflicted by the inability of its director to realize when a character really needs to shut up.

No comments: