It’s no secret that the early 80s saw many fledgling filmmakers scrambling to become the next John Carpenter by capitalizing on the infamous slasher boom, and Madman’s genesis was certainly no different. And while it was one of four ‘campfire slashers’ made in 1981 (Friday the 13th, part 2, The Burning and The Final Terror being the others), it is perhaps the most distinct. From the invocative and unconventional opening credits (scrolling against an eerie, illustrated backdrop) to the expository campfire story told entirely in song (!), there’s enough happening throughout this visit to the ill-fated North Sea Cottages to recognize it as a standout amongst an overcrowded subgenre.
Our campers spin an uncomfortable yarn about a violent farmer called Marz, who butchered his entire family in a gruesome murder before being seized by an angry lynch mob. Disappearing from the makeshift gallows, Marz took to the nearby woods and became the stuff of legend. It’s laid out in the film’s ‘rules’ that you don’t say his name above a whisper, which is exactly what one of our ill-fated characters does at the outset. And it doesn’t take long for Marz to come stalking back to camp with an axe to grind…
Writer/Director Joe Giannone fashions a palpable atmosphere from the very first frame, and the dark recesses of the forest have perhaps never been as imposing as here. It’s impossible to avoid feeling the chills once Madman Marz begins stalking his prey, and our first full glimpse of him – cloaked in silhouette while watching from the trees – is nothing short of startling. Madman makes the viewer feel its presence, creating a wonderfully uneasy movie going experience.
And while atmosphere is an important part of any good slasher film’s success, it doesn’t work without the right villain to get the heart pumping. From his inhuman appearance to his unabashed brutality with an axe (or a truck hood), Madman Marz is easily among the most imposing slashers to ever grace the screen and actor Paul Ehlers plays him without a twinge of sympathy. Ehlers doesn’t get much screen time in order to convey Marz’s personality, but he succeeds in instilling a gleefully sadistic mean streak within the killer. Madman Marz seemingly kills for no reason other than enjoyment, and that’s the sense we get while watching him at work here.
If there’s one area in which Madman may falter, it’s in the occasional slack pacing that blemishes an otherwise stellar slasher experience. The first and third acts are terrific in their eerie build up and suspenseful climax, respectively. But it’s the sluggish second act that somewhat diminishes the proceedings: Characters wander off into the woods aimlessly, over and over again in search of missing people only to succumb to the killer who’s lying in wait. It sounds like an odd criticism to throw onto a slasher movie, but the filmmakers don’t bother trying to separate their cast with any creativity whatsoever. One person dies, another goes out looking for them. Add, rinse and repeat.
The gore FX are quite impressive but, more importantly, several scenes succeed with both scares and intensity despite the occasionally overlong set-up. Composer Stephen Horelick’s pulsing, electronic score makes some of the jump scares doubly effective while some of the most action-oriented moments are enhanced because of it. In the best scenes, the hulking killer chases female counselors through cabins, throughout the woods and even onto a school bus. The film’s main strengths are here and, surprisingly, these bits are quite bloody. This was the era in which the MPAA scarcely let so much as a spurt of blood glimpse the screen, so Madman’s welcome viciousness is both surprising and appreciated.
It’s also host to a number of strange and/or unique touches that help separate Madman from the rest of the flock. One doesn’t mention this without referencing the brilliant ‘Song of Madman Marz’, which haunts the viewer over the end credits. Just try getting it out of your head once the film has finished! Also odd is the film’s setting, which the opening credits identify as being a camp for “gifted” children. Much debate has raged over the years regarding whether or not the North Sea Cottages are a camp for the mentally challenged, but the bizarre behavior of the film’s featured camper, Richie, certainly seems to corroborate this theory. You’ve also get a lead counselor, TP (the late Tony Fish), whose initials are branded onto the biggest damn belt buckle ever. Last but not least, there’s an incredible hot tub love scene which simply has to be seen to be believed.
But one of Madman’s strongest elements is its unpredictable nature. Refreshingly, it’s never obvious who is going to survive the onslaught of murder. Those who appear to be main characters at the outset are dispatched rather quickly while some of the seemingly lesser folks stick around well into the proceedings. Even better is the downer ending that draws things to an absolutely pitch-perfect close. From the outset, Madman wants nothing more than to be a spooky campfire story, and its conclusion solidifies its success in doing so.
It’s also worth noting that Madman boasts a late November setting, making it one of the precious few Thanksgiving season slasher flicks. By the time this was released in January of 1982, the subgenre was already being run to ground, but there’s enough style, skill and innovation throughout Madman to ensure its continued cult following. Scary, goofy and always fun, no slasher collection can ever be complete without it.
And remember, ”He’s real.”
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