Review 57: Madman (.5/5)

Madman

Directed by Joe Giannone

Starring Gaylen Ross, Jimmy Steele, Jan Claire, Alexander Murphy, Jr., Harriet Bass, Carl Fredericks, Tony Fish, Seth Jones, Paul Ehlers

Released on January 1, 1982

Running time: 1h 28m

Rated R (Suggested rating: PG-13 for some violence, sexual content, momentary nudity, brief mild language, and drinking – all involving twentysomething playing teens. Note how I intentionally left out “frightening moments”.)

Genre: Horror

I really don’t know a thing about the Cropsey legends of some escaped mental patient killing people. I spent six hours searching for any shred of what the Cropsey legends even are, and all I can find are bits and pieces of contradictory information, or some actual story of some boarding school whose staff physically and sexually abused its kids (which has nothing to do with Cropsey), The Burning, which is a 1981 slasher movie that focused on the Cropsey legends, some killer named Andre Rand who killed children in 1983 (this Rand guy is obviously not the basis for the legend, because The Burning came out two years prior), and the inspiration for the The Burning version of Cropsey. As you can imagine, I was annoyed by the lack of info, as, well, this is the effing Internet.

I was going to read up on the Cropsey legends, as this was the basis for Madman. At least, it would have been, had The Burning not already gotten to that idea seven months earlier, and, thankfully, eliminated my need for ridiculously thorough research. Madman resorted to changing its backstory and antagonist last-minute.

1982 was the peak of popularity of the low-budget slasher flick, popularized by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Black Christmas, Halloween, and Friday the 13th, and the craze was just starting to die when Madman was released.

Madman was conceived in the minds of two filmmakers known as Joe Giannone and Gary Sales back in 1979. They had witnessed the overnight success of Halloween, and they knew that low-budget slasher films were all the rage those days thanks to Halloween, and so decided to capitalize on its popularity, as well as the popularity of Friday the 13th, by essentially making a cash-grab.

This is not like the conception of A Nightmare on Elm Street. That movie was made out of inspiration and the simple desire to make a movie out of an original idea, and required hard work to finish. Madman was made out of at best obligation, at worst greed and envy, and the overall backstory was unoriginal, despite Madman requiring about half as hard of work as NoES.

But Madman, unlike NoES, was much less lucky in finding any sort of funding. It took eight months and over one hundred attempts to find someone who would back and fund the movie. And guess what – even the person who backed and funded Madman intended the movie to be a cash-grab. But then, in 1980, Giannone and Sales came across the creators of the significantly better The Burning, and noticed that The Burning had picked up on the idea of the Cropsey legends several months earlier. Realizing that they could have copyright issues and serious lack of box office intake on their hands, Giannone and Sales quickly – and lazily – changed Madman’s backstory and antagonist. I will explain what these changes amounted to later, but these changes were totally pointless, as this new killer desperately wants to be Cropsey.

Production finally began near the end of the summer of 1980. The weather was taking a turn for the colder, so production needed to be taken care of quickly. While the film is set in upstate New York, filming was done at Fish Cove in Southampton, Long Island. The first person to be cast was Paul Ehlers as the killer. Ehlers had already created the art for the opening credits. For the role of Max, the head camp counselor (I will explain later), Giannone and Sales wanted Vincent Price, but with the movie being non-union, they felt that Price would decline the offer. So they cast Carl Fredericks. In fact, the only recognizable actor in Madman – actress in this case – was Gaylen Ross, who had recently played Francine in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, released in 1978. Strangely, Ross took a pseudonym for her crediting in Madman: Alexis Dubin. The rest of the cast was made of first-time actors.

Finally, just before filming began, the script for Madman had been modified by Giannone just enough so that the movie was about as generic as it could get. The characters were cardboard cutouts, and the story elements that didn’t involve murders involved melodrama on the same level as a soap opera.

Filming consisted entirely of night shoots. Considering that this was November, the leaves were turning brown and falling from the trees. The crew was ordered to find as many as possible and paint them green to give the impression that the movie was set in summer. Odd, as the script clearly states that the movie takes place on the last Friday night before Thanksgiving.

Fish Cove not only had a large, dilapidated house to film in, but also had about twenty-five cabins, providing room and board for the cast and crew. They were, conveniently enough, charged only $25 per head by the owners.

During production, Paul Ehlers and his wife were expecting their first child. One night during a shoot, Ehlers was informed that his wife had gone into labor and had been rushed to the hospital. Ehlers, in his haste to be with his wife, neglected to change out of his killer garb and prosthetics. He freaked out plenty of nurses at the hospital as he rushed to see his wife. His son Jonathan was born on November 15, 1980. Good for him and his wife!

One particular incident happened on set: one night, some of the cast and crew claimed to see a strange figure in the woods. Ehlers, in full killer makeup and wielding the killer’s axe, headed into the woods to see what was up. If there was anyone in the woods that night, Ehlers must have scared him off, as Ehlers wasn’t able to find anyone, and no odd figures troubled that night’s shoot.

Madman was finally released in January 1982 and was a sleeper hit at drive-in theaters. Over the decades, it was forgotten, but it is still lauded by horror junkies to this day as a classic slasher flick. (What are those horror junkies smoking?)

Why did I give such a detailed account of the conception of 1982’s Madman? Here’s why: I found the movie to be such an uninteresting, generic, and surprisingly inept mess, so I looked to the director’s and actors’ commentary to find something salvageable. When that had only negligible success, I looked to its history and compared it to the commentary. I still have had only marginal success. Madman is a saga of obligation rather than inspiration. It’s interesting to compare the two rocky sagas of Madman and A Nightmare on Elm Street, with the former making its product out of obligation, and, two years later, the latter making its product out of inspiration. Guess which film is better. Guess which film is actually (kind of) scary. Guess which one actually spawned a franchise.

The movie begins trying to scare us literally right off the bat with its title sequence accompanied by a synthesized instrumental “scream”. Transition to the opening credits in black text against a red background, surrounded by a drawing of two gnarled hands, as our subpar, lethargic theme song plays. While the theme song of Halloween was medium-fast, minimalist, creepy, and remains iconic, Friday the 13th’s theme song was fast, driving, tense, and remains iconic, and Nightmare on Elm Street‘s theme song was slow, creepy, took time to establish itself, and remains iconic, Madman’s theme song is slow, tedious, monotonous, gloomy, and lethargic rather than scary.

The song ends, and we fade to a group of children, young adults, and one middle-aged man around a campfire that’s really just a big light that is cleverly hidden, as there are no flickering effects that a fire would give off. This is a presumably week-long camp for gifted children. The young adults are the camp counselors, and the middle-aged guy is the head counselor. The scene begins with the lead young adult counselor, TP (Fish) (really? TP?), singing the same song that we’ve just been listening to for the past two-ish minutes during the opening credits. This song deals with our killer. Unfortunately, this song is filled with non sequiturs, lines that don’t even rhyme, and – screw it, it’s as if Tony Fish is making it up on the spot. TP is admittedly having a crap ton of fun. TP’s a nice, strong baritone, but his vibrato is a little shaky, and he needs a few diction lessons. I would offer to teach him such for, after maybe a little negotiation, free. Oh, and by the way, Tony Fish, who plays TP, learned these song lyrics at literally the last minute, as the killer’s prosthetics hadn’t arrived yet, causing the shooting schedule to change. Good for Mr. Fish. When TP finishes his song, Max, the middle-aged head counselor, tells the same story, but not in song. The story essentially goes like this:

(shines flashlight under face, speaks in a low, trembling, whispery voice)

We’re not supposed to be this close to that dilapidated house behind the tree line, because many strange things happen around here. That house used to be the home of a man. This man was a mentally unstable, deformed farmer, who was a wife- and child-beater, obviously. Of course, we don’t know why any woman would marry, let alone have sex with the man. He was an exceptionally strong man, and he was a drunkard. Many years ago, on a night just like tonight, in fact, the same night as tonight, this farmer went stark, raving mad. He, in the middle of the night, took his axe and slaughtered his wife and two children. He “chopped them into little pieces”. Right after doing the deed, he walked to the local bar, set the bloody axe on the counter, and ordered himself a beer. An arbitrary length of time afterward, ten men dragged the farmer to the forest next to his house, and lynched him, leaving him for dead hanging by a noose from a tree. The next morning, they went back to collect the body, only to find the rope broken and the farmer gone. The bodies of himself, his wife, and his children have never been found. It is said that this mad farmer still haunts these woods on nights when the moon is full. If you speak his name above a whisper, he will hear you. If he hears you say his name, he will look for you. He will find you. And, by the time the night is over, he will kill you. Ho, ho. His name is Marz. Madman Marz. (Okay, at this point I could easily tell that this was a very lazy change from the Cropsey legends. And plus, what a stupid name. I can think of several better ones right now.) No one will be safe tonight. Anyone alone in the woods will not hear or see him coming. The only sign will be the odor of death, and by then, it’s already too late for you. When you turn around, the mutilated face of Madman Marz looking down at you will be the last thing you see before ZAP (really?)! Off goes your head.

Of course, this story is much better as a campfire story than the basis for a slasher flick. First of all, is it possible to chop anything into little pieces with a big wood axe? Wouldn’t it take hours? Second, how did the two children not hear the commotion, wake up, and run out of the house?

By the way, to achieve the blood effects in the sequence in which M&Ms (ho, ho) killed his wife, they actually filled a condom with stage blood and put a wig over it.

(For those who are confused: Madman Marz)

So, of course, Richie (Steele), a cocky, ignorant teenager, like a doofus, does the obvious.

RICHIE: Hey, Marz! Madman Marz! Here we are! Come and get us, madman! (RICHIE throws a rock into the trees. Somehow, it reaches MADMAN MARZ’s house, and shatters a window.) Madman Marz!

It is now that the script inadvertently reveals that it takes place on the last Friday before Thanksgiving.

And then I told myself, You know, I want to know what this camp for gifted children is like. Do the children enjoy it? What activities do they participate in during the week? What life skills are they learning? Is the camp actually fun? Would I want to send my child(ren) there?

TP and his girlfriend Betsy (Ross) have a brief argument about having sex that night before Stacey (Bass) interrupts them, and Max, the kids, and the female counselors head back to camp while the male counselors stay behind to kill the fire. The fire is killed with the speed of a jumpcut, and the male counselors head back to camp. Richie falls behind and sees a humanoid silhouette in a tree. This shot of said silhouette is accompanied by the music bit that is heard every time M&Ms is onscreen or whenever he is present. Three notes, F G G, followed by a soft “chaka chaka chaka” sound that quickly fades. Is it creepy or suspenseful? No, but it is tacky as heck.

By the way, that shot of the silhouette was the image used on the first Madman cover I ever saw. Only the image was entirely in red and black. The killer looked like a humanoid blur, and I thought that this was going to be Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street meet Eraserhead and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Unfortunately, in the actual movie, the shot is in blue and black, because it’s at night.

Richie, like the doofus he is, decides to investigate M&Ms’s house. And in this scene shot in M&Ms’s house, I can’t even tell which shots are from Richie’s perspective and which shots are from M&Ms’s perspective.

I also couldn’t help but notice the odd casting. This is a slasher film – why is there no actually sexy chick meant to be eye candy and cannon fodder? I can’t even figure out who the young, beautiful Final Girl is supposed to be. In fact, each chick lacks every one of these necessary traits for a female slasher film character: youth, beauty, and/or sex appeal. In fact, each of these girls look like their eyes are too wide and far apart, or have Down syndrome. I may as well not even have a sex scene to look forward to.

Also, I just now noticed that this movie’s audio sounds like it came from the early seventies rather than the eighties.

Outside the main building, an axe sits stuck in a tree stump. Max and TP are unable to dislodge it, and then share some pointless philosophical BS for about ten seconds. Gee. I wonder if the attempt to remove the axe is supposed to be foreshadowing.

We are then introduced to the camp chef, Dippy, who literally has no lines whatsoever, and is only there to add to the body count. Don’t believe me? He’s literally in the movie for less than a minute before M&Ms kills him and drags his body away. And with the tamest and cheapest of blood effects, even for a low-budget slasher.

And here is where we get our first glimpse at our killer. He looks sooooo much scarier when he’s barefoot and dressed in the oh-so-terrifying colors of tan and blue, and being well-lit by the full moon. Oooooh. Yes. He’s so much more threatening when we’re given a shot of him putting out a candle with his bare hands. Sigh.

Insert the only charming scene in the movie here, in which Max says goodbye to the camp counselors and asks them to save him a beer from their supposed-to-be-secret stash, and TP publicly apologizes to Betsy and the other counselors for his actions earlier that night. TP is lauded for his humility, and…the movie goes downhill from here.

Fade to shots that fade in between Betsy and TP undressing as a terrible slow R&B song plays. Brief sequence of Betsy showing her boobs for a split second as she climbs into a bubbling hot tub. Brief sequence of TP briefly showing his butt as he too descends into the hot tub. Aaaand this sex scene, perved on by M&Ms, makes the sex scene in Gigli look erotic by comparison. Ouch. At least Jennifer Lopez had a decently voluptuous figure. Gaylen Ross does not.

After more pointless philosophical BS between the other four counselors, Richie is realized to be missing. TP essentially says, “I’ll be right back,” goes to look for Richie and is hung by M&Ms, who later takes the axe out of the stump with ease. You know, when you’re getting hanged, and you survive the first neck-breaking drop, you cannot possibly produce gagging, guttural sounds like in movies. Your windpipe is completely blocked, and no air can enter or exit your lungs.

Also, shouldn’t our killer be wearing some sort of footwear in this deciduous forest set in upstate New York but shot on Long Island?

Ellie (Claire), a skinny brunette with a terrible perm who is possibly somewhat mentally ill, and Bill (Murphy), a less-skinny guy with a porn star mustache, go out into the woods to have sex offscreen. Ellie is even less sexy than Betsy. Great. Thanks to these two sex scenes and the scene with TP’s hanging, I now know that Betsy, TP, Ellie, and Bill are now toast. So…Stacey must be the Final Girl, right?

Counselor Dave (Jones) notices that TP is missing, goes to find him, and is decapitated by M&Ms.

And, somehow, Richie is still out in the woods. Wow.

Stacey then goes out to find Dave. She gets a ways into the woods, finding a headless, bloody obvious dummy, and flees a little ways before her truck engine stalls. She gets out, opens the hood, and leans in far enough. M&Ms is present, but Stacey isn’t going to die; she’s our Final Girl, right? WRONG! M&Ms jumps on the hood, bringing it down, and somehow decapitating her. This was an awful idea with terrible blood effects.

Then who is supposed to be our Final Girl? The only other two girls in this movie have had sex! They’re doomed!

Also, what a terrible attempt to not be cliche in a movie that made every attempt to be cliche.

Ellie and Bill are asked to look for Richie, TP, Dave, and Stacey. Ellie and Bill split up, because of course, and Ellie sees M&Ms at the truck. She screams, flees, and finds Bill.

This is our first decent shot of M&Ms’s face…and he’s just a grizzled, fat, old mountain man that is not the least bit frightening.

Also, the character of Ellie is just this scared, weak little mouse that my cats would love to play with before brutally killing. And her scared face is a mix of fear at what M&Ms looks like, and excitement that she’s actually in a movie.

And then one thing is at least half decent – the claustrophobia of its forested sets.

Ellie is nigh incoherent when she finds Bill. They go back to the truck, not seeing the obvious blood splotch on the hood, and cannot start the truck. The audience hears the obvious squishing sound. Bill gets out to check what the problem is, is horrified by the sight of Stacey’s head, throws it away, and starts driving away with Ellie. But M&Ms shows up and yoink! He picks up Bill like an obvious mannequin and drags him out of the truck. Come on! Nightmare on Elm Street pulled off a similar shot infinitely better! And considering the context of that sequence, it was legitimately creepy in that movie! Anyway, Ellie runs away, but not before she turns back to see M&Ms break Bill in half offscreen, accompanied by poor dubbing on Bill’s part.

Richie is still busy exploring; in fact, he’s back at M&Ms’s house. Uh, why? He goes down to the basement and sees something that obviously shocks him to his core as the music builds. We see his facial reaction, but we don’t see what he sees, as we immediately cut to Betsy comforting a child.

Okay, dick move (pardon me). You had this opportunity for a big, effective plot twist, and you just squandered it. You could have given us a big scare, and you didn’t bother. Dick move (pardon me again. I try to keep my swears to a minimum).

And now, about sixty-five minutes in, I came to a realization. Though I have labeled plenty of movies with this in the past, I have realized that this is not one of those movies that you and your friends pop in on a Friday night and laugh at over beers. It’s far too boring for that. This does not even qualify as a movie that you can pop in, have a conversation over, and occasionally make a remark about it, kind of like 30-to-70-year-old mothers and grandmothers watching chick flicks (have you ever been a part of that? It’s actually quite entertaining). It’s too uninteresting and not fun to look at for that. What this barely (and I mean barely) qualifies as is the movie that plays in the background at low volume as you and three friends play Parcheesi or some old-timey, easily playable board game around the coffee table. You or a friend will occasionally look up, think to your/him/herself, Yup, it’s still bad, and go back to playing Parcheesi, talking about the latest movie or football game, and popping some beers. Speaking of which, does anyone actually remember Parcheesi? Does anyone get any nostalgic feelings when Parcheesi is mentioned? I played Parcheesi as a kid with my doting grandmother, and I enjoyed it.

Anyway, back to the “story”. Ellie is still being chased by M&Ms. She flees into a cabin, goes into its kitchen, empties the refrigerator of its contents, throws them on the floor, causes quite a ruckus, makes it easy to tell that she’s in the kitchen, and, in one of the most awkward moments I have ever sat through, she climbs into the fridge. M&Ms busts into the cabin, looks around, actually passes the fridge by like the walking, stalking sack of meat he is, and leaves. Ellie climbs out and gets to the cabin door before she is axed in the chest by M&Ms.

Wow. I’m actually glad Ellie’s dead. She was the one character out of the many slasher movies I’ve seen that is, surprisingly enough, unworthy of being given a stereotype.

Betsy, who apparently is now our Final Girl, discovers the bloody cabin, phones Max, tells him to come back, grabs a double-barrel shotgun, takes only five shells with her, and begins a minute-long buildup walk to the cabin, all while the camera shows the same bored expression on her face. It’s as if she knew how far she had fallen since Dawn of the Dead. Betsy gets to the cabin window, but Ellie’s corpse slams against it, startling Betsy, and causing her to shoot the corpse. Another dick move (pardon me).

Betsy tells all the children to get up and board the bus. She instructs the oldest male kid, who’s probably a licensed driver, to drive the bus to town.

An armed Betsy goes to M&Ms’s house for the final confrontation. She goes inside…and is easily overpowered by M&Ms, who drags her downstairs to his basement as she makes the most laughably bored cries of fear, and impales her on a coat hook. Well, what did Betsy think was gonna happen? Betsy pulls a knife out of her butt and stabs M&Ms in the shoulder, causing him to knock over a lit candle, somehow setting his own house on fire. After making a vocal impression of a sad leopard and giving us our best shot of his obviously prosthetic face, M&Ms presumably leaves as Betsy and all the other bodies, including those of M&Ms’s wife and children (gasp.), are immolated.

Richie, still alive somehow and exploring but shaken, is almost hit by Max as Max returns to camp in his car. Max starts to console the mentally scarred Richie, but Richie leaves Max, and the audience, with these words:

RICHIE: Madman Marz…he’s real.

Insert brief incoherent song about M&Ms.

“Lore of the campfire, telling of his horror / Lost in the woods with the madman and the stars / Don’t laugh at the tale, heed if you call him / The legend lives beware the Madman Marz / The legend lives beware the Madman Marz.”

And then the movie sort of just…ends. Scratch that; the movie sort of just…stops.

And then credits, but not before the credits end with the same synthesized instrumental “scream” that the movie opened with.

Well, what a mess.

While watching it for the first time back in September of 2015, I almost fell asleep. After watching it for the third time the night before I posted this review, I was physically exhausted by how uninteresting the movie was. The feeling of such boredom had literally drained me of energy, and, that night, I literally fell asleep like that (snaps fingers) in my computer chair.

The story is laughably generic, boring, and is desperately trying to not feature anything having to do with the Cropsey legends. The characters have absolutely no identities whatsoever. Our killer is legitimately amazing…ly pathetic. The acting is as poor as it gets in a cheap cash-grab of a slasher movie that can get borderline sleazy at times in how much it just wants money. It’s not fun to look at with its poor, cheap blood effects and set design. With the awful sex scene, it’s as if the movie is willing to suck you off for a few bucks. In fact, after watching that scene for the first time, I felt like I had just been part of a sexual molestation attempt by a predator who would give me candy if I would take off my clothes, but I had given him just enough money to make him back off. It’s not even worth its R rating. It ultimately deserves to disappear into the blur of movies that formed the eighties slasher craze.

But for some strange reason, this is somehow a cult classic. A lot of people really love it, and consider it one of the staples of its genre. Oh, you poor fools…

In fact, I can summarize the entire movie in two words: Inept. Worthless.

I’m actually kind of glad that hardly any of the cast or crew went on to do anything good. I’m a craphead that way.

Well…anyone up for a game of Parcheesi?

Final verdict: .5 out of 5. Ineptitude alone cannot earn a 0.

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