Sometimes the best ideas are right in front of you. In the case of Madman writer-director Joe Giannone, the theme tune for his killer, Madman Marz (Paul Ehlers), is so inescapably catchy that it elevates everything else in his thoroughly unsatisfying slasher flick — it’s not even by the numbers, because that would involve more ingenuity. The electronic music, by Stephen Horelick, is 80s to the extent that it sounds as though it was played exclusively on a keytar. Wisely, Giannone both begins and ends Madman with Horelick’s theme, to ensure that audiences who feel a bit short-changed by how abruptly the film ends will at least have the song stuck in their heads for days to come.
The classic slasher setting of a summer camp is given a strange, unnecessary twist with the inclusion of gifted children who sit gathered around a roaring fire as Madman opens. Counsellors tell creepy stories, with one mullet-sporting fellow (man, the Midnight Society got old) regaling the assembled crowd with the story of Madman Marz, a man who has heavy footsteps and yet somehow managed to sneak up on his entire family and murder them. The killer is only ever referred to as “Madman Marz,” seemingly because Giannone and co-writer Gary Sales thought the name sounded much scarier than it actually does. In reality, it’s kind of goofy. They may as well have called him “Madman Jim” for all the good it does.
Anyway, Madman Marz brandishes a big ol’ axe as his weapon of choice, but he’s also fond of a good hanging. That’s how he, in fact, was dealt with via the kind of frontier justice that’s never a good idea in horror movies — take Freddy Krueger, for example; it’s also reportedly a story-line in the upcoming Halloween Kills as the town of Haddonfield argues over how best to handle their Michael Myers problem. Marz is so powerful that you only have to say his name once to summon him, meaning he could even give the legendary Candyman a run for his money –or should that be honey? You’ll also smell him before you see him, because Marz carries the stench of death. By then, however, it’ll be too late.
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Thankfully, after Marz’s name is said approximately 50 times around the campfire, he does indeed start lurking around the site. However, the strong mythology that’s been built up doesn’t really come to pass as he makes a hell of a racket roaming through the trees and is frequently spotted by counsellors (not that it makes much of a difference since one of them mistakes this big, hulking dude for one of the children). Also, the fabled stench only factors into the equation on one occasion, which seems like a waste. There’s plenty of intriguing details to Marz’s back-story, but Giannone doesn’t really do much with them. Likewise, the villain’s M.O. isn’t entirely clear — is he just insane and loves to kill people? Is he hurting over the loss of his family?
Setting Madman at a summer camp for gifted kids is a wasted opportunity when there are zero child deaths. This is equally infuriating considering co-lead Richie (Tom Candela, whose IMDb pic, sadly, is from this movie) is dumb enough to venture into Marz’s house on more than one occasion. The creepiest property this side of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, its worst-kept secrets aren’t even discovered on the first visit. But Richie isn’t punished for his stupidity, which robs the audience of one of the most entertaining elements of watching any slasher movie — seeing dumb characters torn to pieces for behaving badly. Thankfully, other characters die because of their ineptitude, but it’s more irritating than satisfying to watch them flail around and then perish. Remember Sidney’s monologue from Scream? Yeah, that.
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The inclusion of the house makes a certain amount of sense considering how self-contained Madman is, which feels more limiting than it perhaps should. The geography of the camp is never clear; Marz can make it from his house to the main area in two seconds flat, but it takes Richie hours to find his way back, while the distance from the cabins to the woods seems to change throughout the movie. There also only appear to be about four kids total attending the camp, a point that’s made embarrassingly explicit when everybody is loaded onto a school-bus in a bid to escape, and the damn thing isn’t even half full.
Using two leads (Richie and Gaylen Ross’s Betsy) divides Madman’s focus, particularly when one of them goes missing for most of it. The female characters all have big, curly hairdos, making it difficult to differentiate between any of them aside from Betsy. The deaths aren’t especially gory or clever, meaning Madman loses something essential in its execution because slasher movies live or die based on either memorable characters or memorable deaths, sometimes both in the finest examples. There’s a hanging that’s pretty gruesome and another murder-by-car-hood that’s reasonably clever, but otherwise Giannone relies too much on having characters dragged out of frame to die off screen — a cardinal sin in a slasher.
Madman Marz himself, aside from the wacky name, cuts a confusing figure. He’s not stealthy, and he’s loud, which may be for the audience’s benefit but still makes little sense after everything detailed in the opening sequence. Any glimpses of the killer paint a picture of Meat Loaf in the “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” video, if maybe he was dehydrated. He runs kind of funny, too, almost like he’s frolicking. Madman Marz actually resembles Victor Crowley, suggesting he may have been something of an inspiration for the killer in Adam Green’s cult favorite Hatchet series (only Crowley was considerably better drawn). Madman Marz’s hands are, weirdly, borderline reptilian, but there are some great shots of them edging out through the darkness.
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The scares are mostly well-executed in Madman, and it’s a tense movie overall. One particular jump scare boasts a brilliant use of darkness and negative space that formed the basis for one of the greatest jump scares in history, just a few years later, in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Tobe Hooper’s original movie is referenced in the use of a hook to hold a still-breathing Betsy, who seems like she might be the Final Girl until an initially convention-breaking sex session seals her fate. The love scene in question is one of the weirdest in horror, beginning with a slow undressing sequence (both boobs and buns are given equal prominence, because this is the 80s) after which both parties circle each other for what feels like hours, in a hot tub, before finally an eruption of odd noises, all while a strange song plays over it, almost like The Room. The worst part is Madman Marz watches from outside but doesn’t attack.
Madman frequently flirts with boundary-pushing concepts but ultimately settles for clichés or, worse, just weasels out completely and falls flat on its face. A fake moon features prominently, similar to Evil Dead, which is charmingly low-rent, and the histrionics that kick the movie off thankfully calm down once the characters move away from the campfire. The mythology surrounding Madman Marz is richly detailed, but Giannone doesn’t do enough with it to justify spending so much time laying it all out right off the bat. Madman’s timing is great overall, and it’s surprisingly scary, but the kills are virtually bloodless. The film also ends somewhat abruptly, just as it seems the story is ramping up. Perhaps more time went into creating the ear-worm of a theme tune — “Beware the Madman Marz” — than anything else. As classic slashers go, Madman isn’t particularly worthy of a revisit.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.