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Saturday Nightmares: Madman (1982)

Saturday Nightmares: Madman (1982)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.”

MattFini

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Matt Serafini

Author (Under the Blade, Feral), slasher movie enthusiast, N7 Operative. Plays games, watches movies, reads books. Occasionally writes about them.

  • Cinemascribe

    Thanks for the kind words! Glad you folks enjoyed it.
    —————-
    “I’m saying that I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man…and loved it. But now the dream is over..and the insect is awake.” – Seth Brundle

  • Blockbuster

    Scribe –

    That was AWESOME! You had ME spooked reading that! And then laughing my ass off. Bravo!

  • Cinemascribe

    I have an interesting history with this flick as it represents one of the earliest occasions where a horror film was responsible for my experiencing a genuine moment of pure terror.

    I picked “Madman” up for rental at the local video store the year it hit VHS (little hole in the wall joint called Video Etc. that I miss terribly) . This would be around the time I was eleven or twelve years old. Anyway, it’s Friday night, 10pm, there’s a thunder storm (with some serious accompanying lightening) raging over West Palm Beach and I’m by myself in the single story home we inhabited at the time, watching Madman Marz do his thing.

    Somebody onscreen had just gotten one hell of a brutal haircut courtesy of the hood of a truck and that’s when -with a brilliant flash of light and a crack of thunder which literally rattled the windows- the power went out.

    In the immediate aftermath I sat perfectly still, listening as a torrential downpour was unleashed from the heavens, the splatter of the thick,wind-impelled rain drops against panes of glass reverberating through the house. I waited for a moment and then cautiously picked myself up off the living room sofa, moving carefully through the darkness now enveloping my little corner of the universe, toward the hallway. The hallway led to all three bedrooms, the bathroom and the fuse box in the linen closet. I had no idea where the flashlight was, so I was navigating through this sudden shroud of shadow by placing my hand against the wall and keeping it there with each successive step.

    As I traversed the living room, entered the hallway and inched closer to the closet with the fuse box, the rain diminished momentarily and an ominous silence (save for the residual trickling of water from the rain gutters) fell over the house.

    By this time, my eyes were adjusting to the gloom and I was able to discern among the shadows the basic contours of the doors,walls and ceiling. Just as I a reached the closet, I heard a thump and the rattle of glass from the other side of the door directly across from the closet- the door to my mom’s bedroom..the door that , at that moment, I had my back to.

    As I turned to stare at the door (my heart racing in my chest) visions of a huge, deformed, psychotic farmer lunging at me from the darkness wielding one hell of a large axe filled my head. Then there was another thump and the unmistakable sound of footsteps, followed a moment later by a low, blood chilling creak as the door to my mom’s room slowly began to open,revealing even deeper darkness on the other side.

    So naturally,I turned around and got my ass out of there. I’m talking warp speed, man. Phasers on “flee’, engine-room-we-need-more-power, ass on fire FLIGHT. I ran down the block to my friend’s house.

    I discovered (half an hour and one phone call to the police later) that one of my older brothers had come home while it was raining, had tried the front door and found it locked. Since the the power was off for a dozen blocks in each direction , he had figured I was already down at my friends house (no power there either, but company and plenty of candles). I hadn’t heard him at the door due to a combination of my being too far down down the hall and the rain having had been so loud. By the time it had stopped, he had already made his way around to the side of the house. Having accidentally left his house key on the breakfast counter inside earlier that evening, he resorted to jimmying open the window to my mom’s room and entering that way. I told him later on that he was lucky I hadn’t had a baseball bat in my hands, or the last earthly sound he might have heard would have been his little brother screaming “DIE MARZ!!” at the top of my lungs as I swung at his head.

    A few years ago, I finally managed to acquire the DVD of “Madman”. Despite my opinion that the girl-in-the-refrigerator sequence may be the single stupidest action I’ve ever seen a character undertake in an attempt to survive a horror movie, the flick still creeps me out. The first time I settled in at my apartment to watch the DVD, I did so in the late afternoon..just in case.

    ——————
    “I’m saying that I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man…and loved it. But now the dream is over..and the insect is awake.” – Seth Brundle

    • Terminal

      WOW! I could not stop reading that. Kudos.

      ———-
      “We are bad guys. That means we’ve got more to do other than bullying companies. It’s fun to lead a bad man’s life.”

  • James Coker

    Out of all the “camp Fire” Slasher Films out there I have to say that this is my Second Favortie “camp Fire” Slasher film, second only to the fucking amazing film that is “The Burning” but don’t get me wrong Madman is pretty fucking awesome too, the Madman Marz Song, the Atmosphere and offcourse Marz Himself are for me the strongest aspects of the film
    P.S. to All my fellow Horror Bretheren out there i have one question… if there was a giant fight between Jason from Part 2, Cropsy, Madman Marz and Angela at a random abandoned summer camp who would come out Victorious