Director: Joe Giannone
After the unexpected box office success of Sean Cunningham's legendary horror movie Friday the 13th in the summer of 1980, every Tom, Dick, and Harry with access to a camera and a little money to spend decided that they were going to make their own slasher movie too. Consequently, we ended up with hundreds of Friday the 13th clones and rip-offs being released over the course of the '80s. And the fact of the matter is that the majority of them are pretty darn bad. In fact, there are only a handful that are still remembered fondly. Movies like Terror Train, the Sleepaway Camp franchise, and The Burning are among them, as well as the movie we're here to discuss right now, Madman. Despite its rarity on the home video market at the time of its writing (so rare, that it took me a month to track down so much as a downloadable version of the movie online), Madman has developed a cult following among fans of '80s horror. And after watching it, I can see why.
Let's go ahead and get to the plot, which is astoundingly simple. (Then again, most '80s slasher movies have practically no plot at all.) Our film opens with a group of young campers gathering around a campfire, where Max (Carl Fredericks), the camp's proprietor, tells a little story. It's the heartwarming tale of "Madman Marz" (Paul Ehlers), a psychotic farmer that butchered his family for no reason. A few townspeople strung him from a tree in a fit of vigilante justice, but the angry mob returned the next morning to find the noose empty. Ever since, the legend goes that the name of Madman Marz should never be spoken above a whisper, lest he appear and claim his next victim.
And wouldn't you know it, some punkass idiot decides he's going to tempt fate by incurring the wrath of Madman Marz. One of the campers stands up and shouts, "Marz! Madman Marz! Come on, come and get me!" I guess you can tell where this heading. It turns out that the old legend is true, and thanks to one moron's impetuousness, Madman Marz is about to violently punch a few one-way tickets to the morgue.
I'll come right out and say it: Madman isn't all that great. I don't know if I'd even call it good. But is it entertaining? It depends on your personal definition of entertainment, but me, I had a ball watching it. It's one of those "so bad, it's good" kind of movies. It's nothing you haven't seen before, but it does have a few things that set it apart from the sea of mindless clones released during that era. You know a movie has a gigantic pair of brass balls when it actually shows a sleeping child getting an axe to the head. And how many horror movies have you seen begin with some dork singing a song around a campfire? No fooling, they opened the movie with a damn musical number. Seriously. I think this is the only one of these Friday the 13th clones to take inspiration from the little-remembered moment where Camp Crystal Lake's counselors sing folk songs. You know what they should do? Friday the 13th: The Musical. That'd be spectacular.
To tell you the truth, it's almost hard for me to critique Madman like I would any other movie, because it's so much more than the sum of its parts. But I guess I've got to be at least a little bit professional. We'll go with Joe Giannone's direction first. A quick search of the ever-helpful IMDB reveals that Madman is the only movie Giannone has ever directed, which is a bummer because he does a pretty decent job. He handles the ultra-clichéd "killer's point-of-view" shots well, and there are quite a few scenes that are pretty tense, such as the scene near the beginning where one character sees Madman Marz's silhouette amongst the trees out in the forest. He also manages to get some decent cinematography from James Momel, as well as a fine score composed by Stephen Horelick. Horelick's synth-oriented music during the stalking scenes is excellently done, evoking the music composed by John Carpenter around the same time. However, not all of the music is good. Case in point: the song during that awful hot tub scene. The whole thing is just hilariously bad. Watching that scene and listening to that song (I hesitate to even call it a song), I had to ask myself whether I was watching an '80s horror movie or crappy '70s pornography. I half-expected Dirk Diggler to show up and make himself comfortable. It's definitely one of the most awkward scenes in any movie I've ever seen.
Next is the script, written by our fearless director. I swear, I think Giannone was smoking some major doobage during the writing process, because quite a bit of the dialogue and some of the scenes are so outrageous that they just had to have been written by someone whose clock was perpetually set at 4:20. And I've already said it once, but the plot is thinner than Karen Carpenter. Here's a summary of the movie: Character A goes out into the woods alone, Character B goes out to find Character A, Character C goes out to find Character B, and then Character D goes out to find them all. Most of them end up dead. Meanwhile, one character ventures off into the forest and finds Madman Marz's house, then leaves... then returns... then leaves again after making a gruesome discovery. Just what is the deal? Just how many times does this character have to aimlessly loiter in the psychopath's residence?
But there are some scenes that Giannone does well. One is a blatant, unabashed rip-off of a notorious scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But Giannone adds a little twist to it that rally shakes things up. And I'd be remiss if I failed to mention two moments that are beyond awesome. I don't want to spoil them, but I will say one of them involves the hood of a truck, while the other involves a refrigerator. The fact that somebody actually dreamed up these scenes and had them committed to film makes me the happiest Who in all of Whoville. I want to do the happy dance just thinking about them. But the really funny thing is that the movie supposedly takes place at a summer camp for so-called "gifted children," but there's only five or six campers compared to the seven counselors. Doesn't that ratio strike you as being a bit odd? What kind of camp are they running here? Had all the campers gone home prior to the events of the movie? It's one of those weird things that makes Madman even more absurd. And really, isn't it the absurdity that makes these movies so much fun?
Lastly is the cast, who were and have remained a bunch of nobodies. That's not to say there aren't a few likable performances, however. Carl Fredericks is hammy yet amiable in his role, while Jimmy Steele and the humorously named Tony Fish aren't bad. I should also note that the cast features Dawn of the Dead star Gaylen Ross. Credited as "Alexis Dubin," she isn't bad, but I wouldn't exactly call this an important benchmark in her career. And how about Alex Murphy? Who the hell thought it was a good idea to cast the winner of the local John Oates lookalike contest in the movie? Murphy looks like he should be off singing cheesy '80s pop songs with Daryl Hall instead. And the less said about Jan Claire's grating, whiny performance, the better. Rounding out the cast is Paul Ehlers as the one and only Madman Marz. He's quite intimidating, but with all the goofy grunting, I was anticipating Ehlers going the Hot Fuzz route and letting out a "yarp" or two. Then Simon Pegg comes in and distracts him with the cuddly monkey. (Okay, so maybe it wouldn't happen like that. But it'd be awesome if it did.) And the thing is, Ehlers and by proxy, Madman Marz is a pretty big dude. He couldn't sneak up on Helen Keller, but he manages to get the jump on everybody. It's crazy!
If Madman had been made twenty-five years later, it more than likely would have been half of the Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse experiment. It's a movie that I believe only connoisseurs of '80s horror and cheesy B-movies can appreciate, one that none other than Joe Bob Briggs called one of the all-time classic drive-in movies. That's some pretty high praise. I don't know if I'd call that 100% accurate, but the movie is entertaining enough for me to recommend it to those who would enjoy it. So I'm going to give Madman three and a half stars and a thumbs up. If you can track it down, give it a shot.
Final Rating: ***½