Directed by Eric England
While the ingredients needed to create an iconic slasher film are at this point quantifiable (after over thirty years of cinema following John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween) and Madison County writer, producer and director Eric England has assembled the majority of them for his ‘killer in the woods’ feature (which bowed last month at the Screamfest Film Festival to a packed house), sometimes the dish may go slightly awry during the assembly process; and unfortunately for this reviewer such is the case with England’s debut feature. Much works too with the flick, however, and this ultimately proves frustrating, for as a horror fan, I unsurprisingly found myself rooting for the film.
Produced by James Cotton, Daniel F. Dunn and Ace Marrero, Madison County pays homage to 1970’s grindhouse and 1980’s slasher cinema, and filmmaker England shows that he’s knowledgeable of those genres. Revolving around a group of college students (actors Katie Stegeman, Joanna Sotomura, Natalie Scheetz, Matt Mercer and producer Marrero) who travel to the titular rural county to interview the writer of a tell-all book which chronicles a series of grisly murders that took place there, Madison County’s set-up hits one the genre’s tropes right off the bat and, like Dave Parker’s superior The Hills Run Red, nicely posits a rich back story. Sadly, the subsequent narrative goes astray, as the geographical world of Madison County seems unclear, supporting characters come across as entirely one-dimensional and our initially likable protagonists commence to continually make the most exasperatingly illogical of decisions, to the point where their stupidity makes it difficult to elicit much empathy for their plight.
What does work? Madison County is an entirely ambitious independent film and happily steers clear of the currently trending ‘found footage’ shaky cam approach, and England and cinematographer David Starkes deliver an entirely cinematic film. Production-wise Madison County looks simply great, and the crew utilize their Arkansas locations to maximum effect (in particular, a beautifully blocked kill on the river which makes nods to both Jeff Leiberman’s 1981 slasher film Just Before Dawn and The Coen Brother’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? What also works are performances by actors Mercer and Marrero, who do their best to sell their scripted characters and who both fully commit to their at once comedic and dramatic roles.
Another genre trope England succeeds in delivering is his creation of the flick’s central killer, ‘Damien’ (as portrayed by hard-working actor and stunt coordinator Nick Principe, who’s been making a career out of killing nubile young women as of late, as evidenced here and in the Laid to Rest films). Principe’s visage is truly frightening, and the brilliant pig mask he wears (as created by special makeups effects supervisor Rob Hall of Almost Human) simultaneously pays respect to a rather iconic Motel Hell moment yet also creates a screen monster entirely unique, and Principe’s physicality sells this. Oddly, on the FX tip what doesn’t work is the fact that Madison County is rather bloodless. Given Hall’s involvement and the sub-genre in which the film resides, it seems a strange choice as gore (and a lot of it) is historically a hallmark.
As the third act closes, narrative questions remain regarding the world of Madison County, as do the motivations of the town’s populace and the killer himself, although as a sequel is clearly intended, perhaps England will clear these hurdles in the follow-up and inject it with a sturdier narrative and a hell of a lot more blood and thusly deliver a flick as satisfying as the first film aims to be. It took the Friday the 13th franchise a sequel to find its footing, and perhaps this will be the case with Madison County. England obviously has more up his genre-savvy sleeve, and I for one look forward to his next cinematic card trick.