“Madman” (1982)

by A.J. Hakari

"Madman" poster


Sometimes, I don’t think I have the bank account it takes to be a horror fan. There doesn’t seem to be a price high enough that some genre aficionado won’t pay for a misprinted, VHS variant of the shoddiest shot-on-video shinola known to man. That so few of these titles are actually entertaining enough to justify the pursuit is another important factor, as the case appears to be with the 1982 slasher outing Madman. As I write this, used copies of the cult favorite (a label that gets affixed to anything that five people in the world still remember lately) start at $20 on Amazon, and the film continues to thrive in revival screenings to this day. Seeing as how it doesn’t get nearly as much press as your Halloweens and Friday the 13ths, one might assume Madman to be an unjustly passed-over gem. But stay with it for a few, insufferably-boring minutes, and you’ll see why obscurity should have locked this dud up and thrown away the key.

Countless legends of bloodthirsty killers have been told over the years, and Madman Marz (Paul Ehlers) is one of them. He was a rotten S.O.B. who snapped and massacred his whole family out of the blue one day, before a local posse strung him up. But the story goes that Marz’s body was never found, and he’s still said to roam the woods, waiting for some poor soul to say his name above a whisper and provoke his homicidal wrath. To the savvy counselors at a camp for gifted children, he’s nothing more than a campfire tale, but this is one myth that turns out to be the truth. Madman Marz still stalks the forest, and this time, he’s set his sights on the loudmouthed teenagers who dared to make a joke out of him. One by one, the counselors are picked off in increasingly grotesque ways, leaving Betsy (Alexis Dubin), T.P. (Tony Fish), and anyone lucky to be alive to band together and try to survive the night.

If you had to pick one movie to summarize the cynical, post-Halloween glut of slashers that existed only to cash in on a trend, Madman wouldn’t be a bad choice. Even some of the most obscure pictures of its kind have something that makes them a draw (a distinctive killer costume, memorable death scenes, etc.), but anything of the sort is conspicuously absent here. Madman is simply devoid of any personality or pizazz, presenting the bare slasher basics with zero enthusiasm and almost no style. It plays like a laundry list of stuff every other ’80s horror movie felt obligated to include: sexed-up teenagers, a few gory centerpieces, a camp setting (although this bucks tradition by taking place in the fall, rather than the summer), and that’s really it. The flick isn’t even sleazy enough to work anyone up into a heated, Roger Ebert-esque fit; it’s just that boring, failing to make the slightest impression with its set-up, its antagonist, or the ensuing body count.

I should say that Madman does exhibit some promise on the outset, but writer/director Joe Giannone fritters it away in a matter of scenes. With its foreboding opening credits, an effective campfire prologue, and an unsettling synth score, it looks as if the movie is well on its way to being a spooky little jaunt. But after the countdown for the victim pool’s whittling-down officially begins, things get uninteresting in a hurry, with Giannone drumming up neither concern for the charisma-free characters or fear of the boilerplate baddie over the course of 88 dull minutes. Once in a while, we’ll see an instance of creepy mood lighting (the film features a very blue-tinted color scheme) or a well-executed kill scene (the car hood decapitation is a highlight). But for the most part, it rehashes the same cycle of emotionally-vacant counselors being hunted by a shambling, oafish bad guy whose growling inspires more snickers than shrieks.

Not every slasher movie has to aspire to Halloween‘s heights, but for Madman to amount to so little throughout its running time is a feat of astounding laziness. As obviously as the likes of April Fool’s Day, My Bloody Valentine, and others hitched rides on the coattails of their predecessors, at least one can see what attracted viewers to them and earned them their reputations. As for Madman, it’s hard to imagine many viewers staying awake to the end, let alone gathering en masse and forming a fanbase to celebrate it.