Friday, February 27, 2015

Movies That Suck: Madman (1982)

Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film informed me of a lot of slasher movies that I was either aware of solely by their titles, like Terror Train and The Boogeyman, or had never heard of at all, like Prom Night, The Burning, My Bloody Valentine, Maniac, The ProwlerApril Fool's Day, and even lower-tier movies like Pieces and Don't Answer The Phone, but of the many, many movies that it mentioned and showed clips from, there was not one mention of this obscure backwoods horror flick, save for a shot of a poster that I apparently missed. In fact, I had never even heard of it until I joined a horror website that I was a part of for many years and whose two creators were big fans who often talked about its premise and how the villain of Hatchet, Victor Crowley, was a ripoff of the Madman himself. Their descriptions of what the film consisted of did sound interesting but, with the movie having had only one DVD release at that time that was now out of print and very expensive and its not being in the public domain, it seemed unlikely that I would ever get to see it. And then, Code Red put the movie out on a new DVD in 2010 and, despite complaints I had heard about the film's Halloween-esque blue lighting being removed from the print and the limited number of copies that were put out, I was intrigued enough to decide that I would pick that DVD up one day. That day came sooner than I expected when, one day the following spring, I came across a copy of the Code Red DVD at a Hastings movie and book store, which surprised me because of what I had heard about there being so few copies of it made as well as a rumor that you could only get it through Amazon. But, once I got over the surprise, I picked it up, along with another movie (Piranha II: The Spawning, which was a major waste of time), and watched it the following night... and when it was over, I thought to myself, "Wow, anything can become a cult classic!" As you can probably tell, I was not at all impressed with Madman. I know that this film does have a loyal cult following, as do a lot of horror films, particularly those that fell through the cracks and are now very obscure, but I simply don't get what this movie's fans see in it. All I see is another dime-a-dozen, generic, amateurish, micro-budget horror film with characters I don't care about it, an unimpressive killer, poor direction, and zero atmosphere and suspense. Nothing personal against the fans but I agree with Allmovie's summation of it being an, "unremarkable slasher film," and Scott Weinberg of FEARnet's sentiments that it was, "better left in the annals of your vague memory." (Incidentally, I know that one of the creators of that aforementioned horror website, which I'm no longer part of, will be really angry if he somehow reads this; he, however, can kiss my ass since I now know what a disrepectful, egotistical douchebag he is.)

One cold November night, a group of counselors at a children's camp are gathered around the campfire for a night of ghost stories, ending with the senior counselor, Max, relaying the tale of Madman Marz, a cruel old farmer who, one night, went insane and hacked up his wife and two children with an axe. Although he was hung for his crimes, his body disappeared the next morning and Max warns that, supposedly, if you whisper his name above a whisper, he'll hear you and come for you. Upon hearing that, cocky teenager Richie decides to tempt fate by calling out Madman Marz's name and throwing a rock through the window of his nearby old house, with Max warning Richie of what he's done and crying out for Marz not to attack. With that, everyone wraps up and prepares to head back to the camp. While moving out, Richie spots a shadowy figure in a nearby tree and follows it to the nearby Marz house. Upon doing so, it doesn't take long for Richie discover that Madman Marz is very real and now has his sights set on the nearby camp, whose counselors he picks off one by one.

Madman was the sole film directed by Joe Giannone, who had attended Richmond College in Staten Island and had made a few short films beforehand. He and his producing partner, Gary Sales, wanted to break into the film business and decided to do what Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter had done by making a low-budget horror film. Apparently, most of their inspiration came from Halloween, which had become the most successful independent film of all time at that point, seeing as how they decided to base the story around a boogeyman like Michael Myers. Originally, they were going to have the antagonist be the notorious Cropsy maniac of urban legend but, when they got wind of the movie The Burning (which I like a lot more than Madman, I might add), they rewrote the script and came up with the legend of Madman Marz. From what I can gather, Madman did respectable business on the drive-in circuit due to word-of-mouth and amassed a cult following, particularly when it was released on video, but it did nothing for Giannone's career (although Sales went on to be involved with a lot of films, mostly as an assistant director). According to IMDB, except for acting as assistant director on an episode of American Playhouse, Giannone did absolutely nothing until 2001, when he was a consulting producer on a film called The Wind, which was the same year he recorded an audio commentary for the original Anchor Bay DVD release of Madman. He died of heart failure in 2006 at the age of 60. (I couldn't find an image of him. Believe me, I tried.)

The most recognizable face in the cast of Madman is Gaylen Ross from Dawn of the Dead as Betsy, the counselor who ultimately defeats Madman Marz after just about everyone else has been slaughtered, albeit at the cost of her own life. There isn't much to Betsy overall, although I do think she has more to her than most of the other characters. She comes across as a nice and brave enough person whose main concern is for the children, be it their being scared by the ghost stories told around the campfire to when she realizes what's going on and makes sure that they get away from the camp before they become Madman's victims as well. She also has something of a tumultuous relationship with another counselor, T.P., who desperately wants to get with her while they're at the camp, saying that she won't want anything to do with him when they get back to the city, but Betsy, not exactly being the most aggressive girl in the world, tends to rebuff him, wanting some space. I think it's suggested that they'd had a previous fling but I'm not exactly sure (I wasn't that interested). However, her playing hard to get doesn't last long because T.P. later makes a public apology for the scene the two of them had at the campfire and his sincerity is enough to win Betsy over, with the two of them having sex in a hot tub directly afterward. The only other thing I can say about Betsy is that she's the first one to suspect that something's going on when she sees Madman's shadow at one point and she's certainly got guts with how she follows him back to his house in order to kill him. Plus, it's not often in one of these films when your last "survivor" (I put survivor in quotation marks because she's not exactly the last person in the main cast left alive) also dies along with the killer, so I give them props for that. As for Ross herself, she's a bone of contention with many Madman fans since she absolutely refuses to talk about the film, having gone as far as to use the psuedonym of Alexis Dubin when she made it, making many wonder exactly what her problem with the movie is. I could give my own personal reason as to why she won't talk about the movie but I don't want to make any fans angry; I will say, though, that Ross does seem to be a little odd so her reasons are anybody's guess.

The only other character in the film who has something akin to character development to him is T.P. (Tony Fish), the counselor who has the hots for Betsy and tries a little too aggressively to get her. They make it clear that he's not a bad guy; he's just a little too eager to get Betsy, or anything he wants, for that matter, and has to be told by a couple of people to lay off. While he does seem initially irritated at Betsy's attitude and what everyone says to him about him, he does seem to learn his lesson and he makes a public apology and a toast, which wins over Betsy. You could say that he probably only did that to get on Betsy's good side but he did seem really sincere with everything he said and so, I'd like to think he meant it and Betsy's lightening up on him was just a bonus (he seemed to genuinely care about her afterward, too). Plus, although, as Betsy noted, he seemed to take a little too much joy in scaring the kids at the campfire with his ghost stories, he takes his job seriously enough to where he goes out looking for Richie when he goes missing after the campfire, which leads to him getting killed. I must admit that, like Betsy, I was surprised that T.P. got killed, let alone fairly early into the film, because I was expecting both of them to be the ones left alive at the end of it all.

From left to right: Stacy, Bill, Ellie, and Dave
Interesting shot, I will admit.
The rest of the counselors are pretty standard slasher-movie cannon fodder for the most part. Stacy (Harriet Bass) is much more sexually aggressive than Betsy, saying that she's not content with going with just one guy (and yet, she's the one who doesn't get any), and is also kind of the smartass amongst the women. I must confess that I did kind of smirk at some of the stuff that she said to another couple when she interrupted them having sex, although the part where she blows a raspberry at a hill she was having difficulty climbing up at first made me roll my eyes, and I do like that, despite her nature, she kind of looks out for Betsy and advises T.P. on giving her some space. Dave (Seth Jones) is one character I kind of like since he's sort of the jokester of the group, acting at one point like he's completely crazy and giving them a bit of a scare when he takes out a knife, as well as what he says when Betsy is telling them about the shadow she saw earlier and he tells her that he's going to look for T.P., putting his coat on backwards as a joke. He's good enough to stop making fun of Betsy when she asks him to, though. My least favorite character in the entire film is Ellie (Jan Claire) just because her voice really annoyed me. She seemed nice enough and all but her voice grated on me in a way I don't know how to explain. Normally I would find the soft, kind of high voice she has cute but it just aggravated me here for some reason. The only thing I can say about her boyfriend Bill (Alexander Murphy, Jr.) is, "Buddy, the 70's are over. Get rid of that porn 'stache!" And Richie (Jimmy Steele) is the little punk who started the whole thing by mocking the legend of Madman Marz and calling out his name. He never makes it back to the camp because, after he sees Madman up in a nearby tree, he follows him back to his house and discovers that he's very real, gets lost in the woods when he tries to head back, eventually winds up back at Madman's house somehow, and isn't seen again until the very end when Max comes across him and he tells him that Madman is real.

The one character in this film that I can say I genuinely liked all-around is Max (Carl Fredericks), the oldest of the counselors who opens the movie by telling the legend of Madman Marz. This guy is just awesome. For one thing, his telling of the legend is done very well and it makes the scene rank up there with one of the best campfire-tale scenes in horror films. I could listen to this guy talk about anything, he's so great (I'd say he's better than John Furey in Friday the 13th Part 2, although John Houseman at the beginning of John Carpenter's The Fog has them all beat). What I also like, though, is that he's not being all doom and gloom about his telling of the story, though; he has a sense of humor about it, seen when Richie yells out at Madman Marz's name and Max tells him that he's done it now and tries stop Madman from attacking by yelling out that they mean him no harm. You can tell that he's just kidding around and he doesn't take the thing seriously. Later on back at the camp, he makes some other nice jokes, like when he tells the counselors, "I'll make it brief," and when one says, "Oh, good," he responds, "Alright, then I'll never stop." And as he's leaving, he mentions the beer he knows they're storing even though it's against the rules and when you think he's going to reprimand them, he says, "Leave some for me." Just awesome, and it doesn't hurt that he's clearly somebody who enjoys his job as a counselor, sincerely takes into consideration that maybe he shouldn't tell scary stories around the smaller kids, and tries to give T.P. some advice that has to do with more than just what originally started the conversation (i.e. about how he's pursuing Betsy). Unfortunately, what sucks is that Max isn't in but a quarter of the movie since he leaves for town early on. While that's good in that he doesn't get killed, I wish he could have stuck around and been the hero of the movie instead of Betsy who, despite what I said earlier, isn't the most compelling lead to me.

I know that there are people who love the character of Madman Marz (Paul Ehlers) himself but I don't find a fat, ugly hillbilly with a big grizzly beard and overalls to be that interesting or scary. His look, which is wisely kept off-camera and obscured for most of the movie, does not impress me, and neither do the low, gutteral growls and roars that he makes that sound like a cross between a cow with sinus congestion and an angry cat. As for the way he kills people, it's mostly just him tearing their throats or hacking them to death, although I do like the way he finished T.P. off after hoisting up off the ground in an attempt to hang him and the novel method he employed for taking Stacy's head off. And also, I do find it somewhat interesting that it's never fully explained whether or not he's just a crazy guy living in the woods or if there's something supernatural about him. I'm more inclined to lean a little towards the latter since, according to the story, he can hear you if you say his name above a whisper and with how he seems to be able to pop up and appear in places unexpectedly, even if he still does drag his victims' bodies back to his house and go back there a couple of times to get some stuff he needs to use for his killing spree. I felt I had to say something nice because I do kind of hate crapping on this character since Paul Ehlers, although I've never personally met him, seems like a really nice, cool, fun guy judging from convention stories I've heard about him as well as interviews. At the same time, though, I've got to be honest; I really don't think Madman is a very impressive slasher movie villain.

For that matter, I also feel a bit bad for crapping on this entire movie since it does feel as if there was some ambition behind it. Joe Giannone and Gary Sales were just two guys attempting to break into the film business and they tried, with what limited funds they had, to make the best possible movie they could. The cast and crew have said that Giannone was an intensely focused perfectionist who tried very hard to make sure that this film was as great as it could possibly be, and I can say that there are some aspects of the film that I do think are well-executed. The most notable one is the first shot of Madman in the film, where you see him silhouetted against the night sky in a tree. That is well shot and actually kind of creepy, and the same goes for the shots of his house. Abandoned, creepy houses in the middle of the woods have always been endearing images to me because of how they invoke the popular, old-timey notion of places that are haunted, so any shots of them in movies are always cool with me. And finally, judging from the many images of it that I've come across, the original print's blue hues and lighting did help to lend something of a stylish atmosphere and look to the film. I think that Code Red, which is known for being run by some less than honest and sympathetic people, really hurt this film's effectiveness for me by removing the blue with more traditional lighting because that's the only version of it I've ever seen. I'm not going to say that I would have absolutely loved the movie had the blues been left alone but it would have at least helped make it look better than most other obscure, low-budget slasher films made around that time.

However, those examples of effectiveness doesn't change the fact that I find this film to be a very amateurish and unimpressive movie overall. I can respect Giannone and everyone for what they were trying to do but still, I don't think they were the most talented group of people. I don't know if it was because Halloween was their inspiration or because they didn't have much more money than John Carpenter did but, for the most part, the film is not an out and out gore-fest. Some of the deaths are pretty grisly, with torn throats and a couple of nasty decapitations, but a lot of the film consists of the build-up to them. While I respect Giannone for that approach, I still don't think he and Gary Sales were talented enough to pull it off. The characters, while not quite as flat and one-dimensional as those in something like The Prowler, are not the most interesting bunch of people to spend 88 minutes with and so, when they're wandering around in the woods and are going to get butchered at some point, I don't really care. Going back to The Prowler again, those sequences are not as painfully long, drawn out, and boring as they were there but, at the same time, I'm hardly on the edge of my seat, biting my nails. The same goes for the moment when Stacy is having trouble getting up a steep embankment and is almost grabbed by Madman or when Ellie is chased into one of the cabins and has to hide in the refrigerator; I don't care. The amateurish nature of this film rears its ugly head a few times in the film and while it's probably not fair for me to mention this because I know how low the budget was, seeing scratches on the print or someone's face being subtly distorted by the camera lens makes me cringe. And the part at the beginning where Richie, after calling out for Madman, throws a rock that smashes through the window of the house that's hardly right next to them makes me go, "Oh, come on!" But, I think what ultimately baffles me about this film's cult classic status is that, in the grand scheme of things, there's nothing about this movie that makes me stand out amongst all of the slasher movies made around that time. Maybe I'm just biased because I didn't grow up with the film or I didn't discover it when it was even more obscure than it is now but, I don't see any reason why this film should be considered something special: the scenario is the same as most other slasher movies, the characters are the same sort of cannon fodder for the most part, the kills are nothing special, and the abrupt ending is nothing new. Ultimately, I find the film to be nothing more than a less well-made, gorier version of Halloween and that does not do it for me.

One scene in particular that just kills me is the hot-tub scene with Betsy and T.P. after the latter apologizes for the scene he caused at the campfire. It's a slasher movie, so I was expecting some sex scenes, but this has to be one of the gayest things ever. You've got Betsy and T.P. wading around in circles in the hot-tub, while this really corny original song plays, for quite a while before they finally start making out (I was thinking, "Are you guys gonna have sex or do water ballet all night?!") and after a cut, you see them both come up from under the water with Betsy telling that he didn't let her finish, and if there's one thing I don't want to think about ever again, it's her giving him a blowjob underwater. (Is it me or does that water look downright nasty when the jets aren't on?) In case you're wondering, no, you don't get that good of a look at Gaylen Ross' nice body, although you do get a big shot of T.P.'s butt. And this going to sound very weird but I have to say it: Ross' hair doesn't look good to me wet, especially with the way it's styled her. I don't know what it is but the way her blonde hair with that little braid looks when it gets wet, especially when she first gets in the tub and it's half-wet and half-dry, made me go, "Eugh." I guess I'm just weird but I don't want to see her hair wet ever again.

Again, Madman is not the goriest film ever and some of the kills are pretty standard but, at the same time, there are some that are pulled off in interesting ways so it's only fair that we take at them. The first one to get it is Dippy (Michael Sullivan), the camp's cook, who doesn't get to say a single word before he meets his demise. Madman appears in this storeroom when Dippy turns the light on and tears his throat out, making for a nice makeup effect. T.P. gets it when he goes out into the woods to look for Richie. Madman puts a noose around his neck and drags him along the ground before attempting to hang him. I say, "attempting," because T.P. manages to keep from strangling by grabbing onto the tree branch the rope is being pulled over and hoist himself, prompting Madman to come back and finish the job by grabbing the rim of his pants and jerking him down, which causes his neck to snap. That was kind of inventive and I thought that Tony Fish did a good job of acting dead afterward, especially with his eyes. Dave then goes out to look for both Richie and T.P. and ends up coming across the latter's hanging body, causing him to panic and fall over a log. That's when Madman attacks and while we don't see the actual murder, we do see the grisly aftermath when Stacy later finds Dave's severed head right next to his body. Speaking of Stacy, she suffers a similar fate when Madman jumps on her truck's hood while she's trying to fix the engine. Bill and Ellie later find the truck while looking for everyone and when they decide to drive back to camp in it, we hear a sickening gooey sound when Bill starts the engine. He gets out to check the engine and after finally noticing some blood on the hood's edge, he finds Stacy's head on the engine. After getting rid of the head, Bill and Ellie attempt to leave again and although Bill manages to start the truck this time, he gets pulled through the window by Madman while Ellie is forced to jump out of the truck as it rolls down the road and crashes into a tree. Ellie sees Madman lift Bill above his head and break his back, prompting her to run back to the camp. She does manage to make it back but, after apparently losing Madman by hiding in a refrigerator when he breaks into the main cabin, she gets an axe to the chest. Surprisingly, that's not what kills her; she actually dies when Betsy, after realizing what's going on, wanders around the campground with a shotgun and ends up shooting her out of surprise when she pops up behind one of the windows of the main cabin. I don't know if that was meant to be funny in a macabre way or not but I did actually laugh when that happened. Finally, Betsy herself gets killed when Madman drags her down into the basement of his house and impales her on an old-fashioned coat hanger, although she manages to stab him in the shoulder with a small knife and cause him to knock over a candle and set his cabin on fire.

Most slasher movies, if nothing else, typically have a really good climax consisting of the last survivor(s) confronting the killer and ultimately defeating him in a satisfying way; not so with Madman. I found the last quarter of the film to be pretty freaking weak. After an okay sequence of Madman trying to get on the school bus that Betsy is trying to use to get the kids away from the camp, she decides to follow him back to his house and kill him while the oldest kid at the camp drives everyone to safety. Instead of a thrilling confrontation, what this consists of is just another instance of someone creeping around while Madman stalks them for a while before finally attacking, and when he does, Betsy barely puts up a fight. She manages to get one shot on him before he gets rid of the gun, slices her face open with his sharp fingernails, drags her down into the basement, and impales her on the wall. Yes, like I said, she does manage to stab him in the shoulder, causing him to set his house on fire, but come to think of it, I don't know if Madman was even killed in the ensuing fire. I know that Betsy went up in smoke with the house and her friends' bodies in the basement but with the way it was filmed, I don't know if Madman died as well or if he escaped. Whatever the case, it doesn't matter since the movie ends abruptly with Max coming across Richie on the road to the camp, with the kid now shaken after having seen everyone's bodies in the house's basement beforehand and babbling that Madman Marz is real. I know they had a low budget but the ending could have had more to it than that, which I found very unsatisfying.

I don't have a lot to say about the movie's soundtrack. The actual music score by Stephen Horelick did nothing for me whatsoever. In fact, the only cue that I can actually remember is the sudden loud sting when the title comes up and the synthesizer version of the campfire song about the legend of Madman Marz. I know that the synthesizer was used throughout the score but nothing stood out for me past the opening theme; everything else was just generic. As for the actual songs, the one you hear at the end of the movie about the legend does have a catchy sound to it, like something you'd hear sung around a campfire, and it's definitely one of the film's most interesting aspects but it's hardly something I would listen to all the time (there was a modern remix of the song heard during the making of on the Code Red DVD that I thought sounded better than the version in the actual movie). There are plenty of other songs in horror movies I'd much rather listen to (that Prom Night song being a prime example). And do I need to say anything else about the song you hear during that ridiculous hot-tub scene? I still say that's gayer than a three-dollar bill.

Madman may have a cult following, which I do sincerely respect, and the reason I myself don't care for the film could simply be because I saw it after seeing a lot of other slasher movies made around that time but, regardless, I don't understand what makes this film special in so many people's eyes. It has some nice photography (the original print, anyway), some fairly gory kills, some of which are a bit creative, and a great story-teller type of character but, other than that, I see nothing more than a typical amateurish backwoods slasher movie with characters that, while not completely one-dimensional, I don't really care about, suspense scenes that do nothing for me, a killer that I don't think is all that unique or has much to offer, a mostly forgettable music score, and a lackluster climax and ending. I just don't get what's so great about this movie and why it has so many devoted fans. But, hey, you know what? If you love this movie, it's yours. I will never take that away from you. Just don't expect Madman Marz to pop up on any list I do of my favorite movie monsters or for the movie itself to be on a list of my favorite cult classics and such.

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