It all happened on a night like this one – Madman (1983)

One of the early 80’s slashers, Madman is soaked in the myth of the evil that lurks just beyond the treeline. A group of camp counselors are packing up the kids in their charge for the end of the summer and responsible adult Max tells one more ghost story at the campfire. But in true form, the tale they tell is real. Madman Marz killed his family, was lynched by the townspeople and then escaped into the woods around his house. He’s not been seen since but if you say his name above a whisper, he’ll get you. They do. He does.

The cast of the film is your typical grab bag of what will become horror clichés. T.P. (Tony Fish) is the oldest of the camp counselors and he’s in a relationship with Betsey (Alexis Dubin), the only blonde girl in the group. Betsey doesn’t think their relationship will last outside the camp but after getting some encouragement from Stacey (Harriet Bass), the soulful member of the group (who plays a wind instrument for some reason), she and T.P. get it together in a hot tub after he apologises for being a jackass. Along for the ride are fellow counselors, Ellie (Jan Claire) and Bill (Alexander Murphy Jr.), who are deeply in love with each other. No, really, they spend lots of time looking into each other’s eyes. Sometimes without their clothes on. Dave (Seth Jones) might be my favourite of the group because he gets this insane soliloquy in front of the group just before the poop hits the fan. It’s weird and rambling but the gang know he’s messing around and go with it. The fact that the scene starts with them lying next to each others heads and talking about the nature of the universe leads me to suspect that some local flora has been consumed. Of course, Betsey isn’t part of this meeting of minds, oh no. She’s sensible and loves her boyfriend and would never partake in such activities. She also saw the Madman (Paul Ehlers) earlier in the film but couldn’t make out who he was. Yes, you’ve guessed it: she’s the Final Girl. There’s also Richie (Jimmy Steele) one of the camp kids who sees Marz in the woods soon after the ghost story session is over and decides to follow him. You could blame the events of the film on him (T.P. goes looking for him, triggering the rest into the slaughter) but the problem with that is that Marz kills Dippy (Michael Sulliva), a camp chef, early in the film in the camp so Marz probably would have killed everyone in their sleep, one way or the other. Leading the pack is Max (Carl Fredricks), the veteran counselor but he spends most the film out of the camp so all the adults will be out of the picture for the duration of the murder and mayhem.

If anything, we should be grateful to the slasher genre because without it, we would not have the wealth of titles now to go through. Numerous in the 1970’s and 80’s, the slasher, except for brief resurrections in the 90’s, has become extinct. When films now have a killer on the loose, it’s aping the conventions of a slasher but won’t commit to the genre’s central concepts. Slashers by their nature are about a group of unsuspecting people being stalked and murdered by an unknown assailant (films that reveal early who the killer is are not slashers but How Johnny Got His Kill On for me). The important part is that they usually happen in either centres of education (colleges, schools) denoting the destruction of the future of society or in places where the laws of nature have been subverted for our enjoyment and then subverted again by making the place the site of unnecessary bloodshed (camping grounds, hunting areas, nature parks and woods). Every other film that doesn’t have this final conceit can’t in my view by called a slasher. At best, it could be called a murder thriller mystery.

Madman has the first two requirements to be a slasher but more importantly uses an optional extra: the mythological figure made real. Both Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees are creatures that started as human but mutate into unstoppable forces, devoid of anything close to human pity or empathy. The same thing that makes them unkillable also makes them evil. In both cases, they kill and are stopped by young kids and teenagers. Adults, because they don’t believe in legends, then to not get killed precisely because there are more of them so Jason and Freddy would be unenthusiastic to arouse their attention. Madman is a creature born with both human desires and supernatural strength. Killing for ego is almost exclusively a human conceit and in this, Marz is presented as killing his family for no good reason. No explanation is given as to why he does it but the self-correcting societal mechanism here is the lynch mob who stops Marz but can’t kill him. Marz spends the movie one step ahead of his victims, in some cases clearly getting ahead of them despite them running like athletes. He’s always there, lurking around his victims, waiting to strike. This last quality makes it hard to decide if Marz is a real person, albeit extremely old, or if he’s a spirit of revenge wreaking havoc on new victims. The film wisely doesn’t answer that question.

I like the way the movie plays out, even if it doesn’t bring anywhere near the skill or pacing of Halloween or Friday the 13th. It taps into the latent fear we all have that about being in the woods or some unknown place. We’re sure that nothing bad’s going to happen but at the same time, we avoid looking too deep into that noise we heard or the thing we saw out of the corner of our eyes. As I mentioned earlier, the great outdoors is supposed to be a safe place to be in terms of deliberate injury but add people and 70’s and 80’s cinema subconscious connections between sex and death and Madman earns its crust. The cast seem to enjoy the fact they’re not going to make it out of the picture, screaming and running for their lives but at the same time, there’s nothing really scary about the kills. Yes, they can verge on being super gory (decapitation via car hood, anyone?) but for the most part, you can see it coming. So the film’s greatest strength is in rooting for the psycho. You find yourself looking forward to seeing who Marz goes for next. Remember, this is before the idea of the rooting for the serial killer hadn’t become a thing yet. Once you get into the film, the more flowery elements within it are interesting angles to view while the Madman stalks his prey. The whole thing with T.P. and Betsey making up and T.P. redeeming himself by going to look for Richie. The way in which Betsey emerges as the final girl over Stacey, who arguably was a more suitable candidate to be the last to face Marz. The fact the cast, for the most part, don’t just take being murdered lying down (other than Dave). Finally, I must mention Paul Ehlers as the Madman Marz was really good at his role. He is an impassive shape, devoid of any words or facial expressions. Armed with an axe, rope or knife, he stands out from the usual killer because he really looks like someone you’d have to run over to kill. From his scared face and talon-like fingernails to his wild silver hair, the Madman is the folk tale killer given form. If the film gets nothing else right, the killer was amazing. Plus, at its most boiled down to essence, there’s nothing scarier than a crazy person with an axe and a compulsion to kill you.

Vinegar Syndrome already released Madman in the US and Arrow have teamed up with them to use the same elements (albeit processed through Arrow’s equipment as well) and the film has a decent transfer with standard stereo audio. English subtitles to go with it. Two commentary tracks accompany the film; one from Gary Sales, the producer of the movie plus some of the cast members and the other is the British/American podcast crew along from The Hysteria Continues! joined by Johnny Krueger of the Krueger Nation Horror Podcast. Of the two, I liked the Hysteria track as they were more lively than the cast and the crew. Thanks to them, I now see Bill as Daryl Hall from Hall & Oates. Thanks for that guys. There’s interviews with Ehlers and Sales from Dead Pit convention, a talk with Gary Sales discussing his career up to and after Madman, an In Memoriam section and a brief fan music section which goes on way too long for my liking. The star of the bonus features has to be the hour and a half long documentary charting the creation and afterlife of the film, taking in the film’s surviving cast and crew, the film’s supporters and its films as they discuss what the film means to them. Again, for me, the talks with Paul Ehlers were the best simply because Ehlers is such a larger than life type of person, talking about the film, its impact on him, the stories behind the film and what he gets up to now. He’s the type of person you’d love to talk about that one role that made him famous because he’s got all kinds of stories to tell. But it’s clear from the interviews that all the cast and crew really have the best kind of memories of their time freezing themselves solid, running around Long Island for our amusement. Arrow round it out with a light, but excellent set of liner notes.

Compact and workmanlike in its delivery, with none of the legacy of its peers, Madman can impress at times and at the very least can pass the time on a late night movie marathon.

Review disc supplied by video label. Please consider supporting Capricorn Theater by purchasing the US blu ray from Vinegar Syndrome or the UK release from Arrow Video.