The opening campfire tale scene of ‘Madman’ a criminally under seen slasher film that has built quite the cult following over the past thirty years works effectively well for two reasons in setting up the horror that is in store for the remainder of the runtime. The movie still has yet to receive the appreciation it really deserves outside its genre fandom for being one of the absolute better early 80’s slashers to emerge in the wake of the success of Sean S. Cunningham’s ‘Friday the 13th’ (1980). This was when the sub-genre would get really bloody and enjoy its golden age in which this film is a bright shining example of with displays of actual quality filmmaking. The word “slasher” used in the same sentence as the words “quality filmmaking” is very rare to find for an entry into this style of horror’s period but this movie can be described as such - quality slasher filmmaking.
First in the aforementioned opening, it establishes the exquisite moody atmosphere as we are introduced to the innovative lighting techniques ranging from the dark here in the present around the campfire to the graduation of blue in the flashback sequence of the horrifying backstory of the film’s antagonist Madman Marz (Paul Ehlers). This latter colour scheme of the rather attractive cinematography returns many times throughout during the stalk n’ slash set-pieces. To heighten the constant feeling of dread that remains constant in the air over the course of the movie is the creepy atmospherically powerful Carpenteresque synthesiser score composed by Stephen Horelick. All this encapsulates with great eerie effectiveness the completely night setting of this backwoods slasher.
Secondly, in testament to some very neat narrative writing the entire premise and the characters are set-up in the space of a mere 10-minutes. With the sound of Horelick’s main theme during the title card that appears against an orange background surrounded by the black graphics of a forest, we see against that same background the words - “It all started during a campfire at North Sea Cottages, a special retreat for gifted children...” Not only does this tell us the setting but also it immediately sets up the first scene giving reason for it while everything about the title card evokes the spirit of a fairy tale that also bookends the film as the same coloured background and black forest graphics return for the end credits.
In an establishing long shot as we see a group of camp councillors and children gathered around the campfire we hear one of the councillors T.P (the late Tony Fish) has just started singing the song ‘Song of the Fifth Wind’ that Fish also recorded for the movie’s soundtrack. As T.P sings against just that, the sound of the ghostly wind of the autumn air the song details the story of a “madman” hiding and sneaking around amongst the forest methodically killing people and dragging their bodies away. As he sings the lyrics of how the killer is lurking in the woods and hiding behind the trees, we see the first of shots used from later in the film showing Marz doing just that. As T.P moves around the group as he sings about how one by one people are murdered and their bodies are taken away, we see the footage from later of the very same camp councillors here running away in fright and bodies being dragged away. This song supplemented by these shots is used as a prelude to the forthcoming terrifying events.
When T.P has finished singing his song camp councillor leader Max (Carl Fredericks), starts to tell his scary story of the murderous farmer Madman Marz who lived in the old dilapidated house that is situated right opposite the campfire. I will not go into details about the villain’s bloody past as so to avoid spoilers for anyone who has yet to see this little seen gem but what I will say is that it lays down the mythology and the rules of the movie. As with most slashers, this one sticks to the sub-genre’s common convention that the mass murders in present day occur due to a traumatic past event. The murder spree here starts up exactly to the full moon night of the day this tragedy happened. One such rule is that if you say the psycho slayer’s name above a whisper he will appear. As soon as Max is about to finish his story just as he is telling not what to do, of course obviously some idiot and that idiot being Ritchie (Jimmy Steele) tauntingly shouts out “Madman Marz!” and then throws a rock threw one of the windows of Marz’ old house.
When everybody is getting ready to walk back to the camp grounds we find out that T.P is in a relationship with Betsy played by Gaylen Ross who you will remember as Francine in George A. Romero’s original 1978 zombie masterpiece ‘Dawn of the Dead’ performing here under the pseudonym of Alexis Dubin. Betsy turns out to be the final girl. Part of the group start making their way back and as the rest of them including T.P and Richie are to leave after putting out the campfire Richie notices a dark figure hanging in a tree looking down at them (obviously Madman Marz). As T.P and the rest leave, Richie breaks away from them unnoticed to go searching and remains alone for the rest of the film discovering that the Marz legend is true in the maniac’s old house. Only he is too late to warn everyone leading to the final scene.
There you have it. Everything is set-up and from here and it is simplistically straight forward getting right down to it. All the characters mean something to what there is of a story and never once do things trail off into unnecessary sub-plots. Everything is focused on the goal of the slaughter of these poor unfortunates and there are ten death sequences here (five men and five women). There is gore aplenty and the special make-up effects are very convincing but even the bloodless kills are very effective with their mean spirited nature and the set-pieces are expertly crated really building up the suspenseful tension until the payoff comes. All the characters are very likable; more mature acting and not annoyingly obnoxious like most of the teenage stereotypes you are used to seeing in the slasher sub-genre (well except of course Richie) and the performances from the cast all round are just above average doing capably what is asked of them. Like in ‘Dawn of the Dead’ ’78, Ross also gets her boobs out in a steamy bathtub scene with Fish.
Madman Marz has all the makings of a horror icon with a truly ghastly unique memorable look – an overalls wearing bare footed hulking brute with long nails like claws, long hair and beard, a part of his nose bitten off and a big long scar going right down the right side of his ugly visage through his eye. The hideous lunatic nastily grunts and growls as he brutally slices n’ dices and Paul Ehlers plays the character with such menace. This truly frightening cinematic “madman” never had the chance to rub shoulders with the other movie monsters of the 80s in terms of popularity. The film’s climax does not even give you the satisfaction that everything is going to be all right. It is a downbeat open ending that could be interpreted as a coda for a sequel but its real job is to unsettle us telling us that the fairy tale legend of Madman Marz is true - he exists and he is still out there.
‘Madman’ was shot in just over a long weekend with rushed script rewrites during production. The movie was originally based on the urban legend of the Cropsy killer but another fine slasher 1981’s ‘The Burning’ also based on the same source material was already filming. When word of this got to writer and director Joe Giannone, he rewrote his screenplay. It is amazing when considering the limited shooting schedule and the rewrites that the film turned out this well. ‘The Burning’ went on to be the bigger success and this efficiently well made little movie went on to be an obscure little piece of gold for genre enthusiasts to cherish and champion. While Giannone’s obvious intension was to cash-in on the success of Cunningham’s ‘Friday the 13th’ with its similar premise and setting this terrific little slasher overall is leaps and bounds the better film.
*** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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