Madman is not so much a good film as it is a good bad film. It's got all sorts of things wrong with it and it's as derivative as they come. But it's also technically proficient, sometimes suspenseful and generally entertaining. All these qualities mark it out as being well above the general standard of early eighties slasher movies, even if they don't make me inclined to rave about it too much.
Beginning with one of the most amatuerish synthesiser scores in film history, the narrative treads a familiar path. The setting is a summer camp and, around a campfire, some of the teenage camp staff and their charges are listening to horror stories. The owner of the camp, Max, tells the story of a local psychopath, Madman Marz, who hacked his family to pieces and was then lynched by his perturbed neighbours. But beware, the hanging may not have been entirely successful; for it is rumoured that Madman Marz will reappear whenever anyone is foolish enough to shout out his name. When he comes back, as is the way with this sort of anti-social character, he will not be satisfied until he has killed every last person at the camp. Max warns us, shaking his other double chin and intoning "Anywhere...anytime...if he hears you call his name, he will come..." It's hard not to think of an unholy cross between the Martini ads and Field Of Dreams at this point, but Max is deadly serious. You know he's deadly serious because he talks very slowly and his eyes glint with what I can only imagine to be suppressed dread. Anyway, you won't be surprised to hear that one of the teenagers decides to try out the theory and shouts out the name as loudly as he can. As you might expect, Madman Marz makes an appearance bang on schedule and begins working his way through the teenage staff at the camp. In time honoured fashion, most of the kids are so annoying that it's had not to be on the side of the psycho as he comes up with various inventive methods of summary execution. The most annoying of the men - traditionally pretty tedious in this sub-genre - are T.P. (the splendidly named Tony Fish) and Richie, a dorky adolescent who was top of my list for culling the moment he appeared. The women aren't much better, with the sole exception of Betsy (Dubin) who is the true heroine of the film. Although she loses valuable sympathy points for being willing to shag T.P. in a jacuzzi - one of the hilarious low points of the movie - she is at least allowed to be a tad more intelligent than the heroines in similar films. She can scream with the best of them but she's also got a good head on her shoulders. She is the only one of the kids who manages to refrain from that irresistable urge to go wandering around alone in the woods - this following an explicit instruction not to do so - and, slightly exopthalmic from the start, she becomes positively bug-eyed at each new development in the plot but still behaves like a credible human being. This is a refreshing change and one of the things which makes this considerably more tolerable than most of its ilk.
The other thing which pushes Madman a notch above Friday The 13th Part XXII is the general competence with which it is made. The director Joe Giannone isn't likely to be confused with Stanley Kubrick but he does push the story along, hitting most of the right buttons and keeping the pace sharp. It looks as good as the budget would allow, with the night location shooting a particular advantage. The first appearance of Marz, silhouetted between two trees, is very striking and Giannone does have an eye for memorable images. The staging of the killings is good too, with a pleasing balance between the killer's point of view and the terror of the victim. Excellent prosthetic work helps a lot - there is an axe in the throat which even Tom Savini might have been proud of. It's also interesting to note that the film does veer away from some of the more sexist aspects of the slasher film. The "fuck and die" cliche is thankfully avoided, as many men are killed as women and Betsy is allowed a reasonable degree of dignity (she is only obliged to go topless briefly, which may not be feminism but is a change).
Admittedly, there are serious weaknesses. One of these is the dialogue which is almost as monstrous as Madman Marz. The worst offender here is the egregious Max - his gems include words of wisdom like "Win...lose... what's the difference ? Play the game with a fair heart and you'll always be able to look yourself in the mirror" and "Play too hard to win and you might not like what you become...". The kids sit and nod appreciatively at this instead of doing the sensible thing and ritually disembowelling Max with the butter knife. There are also some errors of judgement, notably the score and the hysterical sex scene, presumably included to give fourteen year old drive-in geeks an erection. Nor is the acting particularly good, although Alexis Dubin does manage to give Betsy a certain sophistication. The low budget sometimes shows - there is a brave attempt to hide Marz's pretty abysmal make-up job for the first hour but there's not room in the slasher genre for all foreplay and no penetration, so to speak, and we eventually have to see the monster revealed as a dead ringer for John Prescott. There are also the cliched scenes which are laughably overdone. The worst culprit is the car which fails to start at exactly the right time. Madman borrows liberally from various other horror films; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday The 13th most obviously but also The Shining and Halloween. The lengthy stalking scenes have more than a slight hint of De Palma about them too.
But it's good natured and moderately diverting, with the good sense to quit after 85 minutes or so. It's unfortunate that the sub-genre is so played out now (and was in 1981 to be honest) and that it can never hope to reach the heights of John Carpenter's seminal Halloween. Nor is it as good as Jeff Lieberman's all-time great backwoods horror movie, Just Before Dawn - a film which really does take risks, confronting the genre stereotypes straight on and producing a genuinely brilliant twist. However, horror fans seem to have a soft spot for Giannone's film and I can understand why. The death by car bonnet scene alone is worth sitting through the film to see - if you can see where I'm coming from with that statement then you'll enjoy Madman.
God bless Anchor Bay ! Which other company (apart from the equally sainted Something Weird) would dig up a relic from 1981 like this and then give it a really good presentation on DVD ? It's an odd experience to watch such a little bit of pulp horror given such treatment but Anchor Bay deserve all the credit they get.
The film is presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1. While this is a slight black mark, the transfer is otherwise as good as you could hope for from this material. Colours are full and rich, the contrast is generally excellent and there is plenty of detail. Amazingly, despite the predominance of night footage, there is no serious artifacting on view.
There are two English soundtracks. The first is in plain Dolby Stereo and is poor, being incredibly muddy with the dialogue too low in the mix to be heard clearly. The second is a new Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack which is a considerable improvement. There is a fair amount of activity across the front soundstage with the sub-woofer making the most of the synthesiser score and some sound effects. Dialogue is sometimes spatially placed. There is limited rear activity however.
The extras include the expected trailer along with 5 TV spots. But the nicest feature is the audio commentary, featuring the director, writer/producer, Tony Fish and Paul Ehlers (who plays the Madman himself). This is a delightful commentary track; witty, self-deprecating, informative and enthusiastic. There's a lot of fascinating detail about filming a low budget horror film - such as having to paint October leaves green - and plenty of amusing comments about the film itself. The sense of fun is infectious, but the track is never allowed to turn into an undisciplined love-in. This track made me like the film a lot more than I did on first viewing and is almost worth the price of the disc on its own.
There are animated menus - one of which gives Marz's carefully concealed appearance away - and 18 chapter stops. The DVD appears to be Region 0.
If you like slasher movies then you will almost certainly like Madman. It's efficient, unpretentious and even when it's bad it manages to be amusing. The DVD is surprisingly good and another feather in the cap of Anchor Bay, fast becoming one of the best distributors out there.