If you say Appellate Judge Tom Becker's name in the middle of a dark forest, a rabbit will bite you.
Deep in the woods lurks a hideous evil…don't even whisper his name!
"On certain nights, when the moon is full, he's out there stalking in the woods, searching for people so he can chop their heads off with an axe or hang them from a tree."
Facts of the Case
It's the last night of summer camp, and at the traditional good-bye campfire, it's ghost story time. One of the tales is of crazed farmer "Madman" Marz, a terrible killing machine who, after slaughtering his family, was dragged to the woods and hung by his neighbors. This should have been the end of Farmer Marz, but the next day, the rope was cut…and his body was gone. According to legend, Madman still haunts these very woods, and saying his name any louder than a whisper summons him back to commence killing. Naturally, wise-ass teen Richie begins screaming his name, and even throws a rock, which crashes through the window of a nearby "deserted" farmhouse.
There's one in every crowd, right? But thanks to Richie's adolescent fecklessness, this crowd is about to be severely thinned out.
Madman was made in the early '80s, a by-product of the slasher genre that had already given us Halloween and Friday the 13th, and various sequels and copycats. It would be easy to write this dismiss this one as a knock off of the popular "Friday" series, what with its summer camp setting and preternaturally unstoppable villain. But Madman isn't as slick and cynical as Friday the 13th. It's better acted, written, and shot, and features more imaginative kills—in short, while it might not have the "iconic" status of Sean S. Cunningham's campfire tale, it's a better, more satisfying fright flick.
Director Joe Giannone, working from a script he co-wrote with producer Gary Sales, breathes new life into this oft-trod territory by focusing more on the suspense than just random kills. The film opens with a nice campfire recounting of the killer's story, which goes a long way toward not only setting up what's going to happen, but establishing mood, something sorely lacking in most slasher films. Giannone gives us a number of "jump scares" that are pretty effective, and a few really well done flat-out shock scenes.
Rather than the traditional summer camp "teens," Giannone's film focuses on the counselors, who are a bit older—in their 20s and beyond. Madman was a New York-based production, and most of the actors were veterans of the Off-Off-Broadway and downtown theater scene, including the legendary Mabou Mines theater. As such, the performances are several notches above what you'd expect from a film like this. Giannone wisely gives his actors room to develop characters, and the stagy, theatrical quality makes it all the more entertaining.
There's some nicely atmospheric cinematography by James Momel (a.k.a. James Lemmo). Momel/Lemmo did a lot of work on the New York independent film scene in the '80s and '90s, including The Driller Killer, Ms. 45, and Fear City for Abel Ferrara, and Vigilante and Maniac Cop for William Lustig. The kills are sufficiently gruesome, even if the gore effects sometimes border on cheesy. Overall, this is a fun little Halloween treat.
Following up its great Horror High: 35th Anniversary Edition, Code Red comes up with yet another obscure cult movie dream set in Madman: 30 Year Anniversary Edition. Madman was first released by Anchor Bay back 2001 with a pretty decent letterboxed transfer and a commentary as its main supplement. I suspect that the Code Red disc was sourced from the same print as the Anchor Bay, as it sports the same odd bit of damage—in a few scenes, three red lines appear briefly in the middle of the screen. It's a bit distracting, but not terrible—it kind of reminded me of the poster art from The Howling—but otherwise, this is a very good looking transfer. The mono audio track also sounds great.
As befits a special edition, there's a nice selection of supplements. A commentary from the Anchor Bay disc has been ported to this one. Usually, I'm not really a fan of ported extras, but since this commentary features director Joe Giannone, who passed away in 2006, actor Tony "Fish" Nunziata, who passed away in 2009, along with Gary Sales and actor Paul Ehlers, who played the titular maniac, and since it's enthusiastic, informative, and entertaining, I'm happy to make an exception. There's plenty of new stuff here, too.
Sales, a long-time friend of Giannone's, seems to be the driving force behind this release, and he is part of pretty much all the special features. He introduces "Music From Band Fans of Madman," which is a selection of songs that people have written and performed that were inspired by the film. In some instances, they couldn't clear the rights, so the lyrics are shown along with Web addresses where you can actually hear the music. "Madman Marz Re-imagining Info" is Sales' pitch to fans to help get a 3-D version of the film and a sequel. Sales also offers an "In Memoriam" to Giannone and Nunziata.
The best supplement here is the cast retrospective. Various members of the cast and crew—all filmed separately—recall the making of the film, "old times," share anecdotes about each other, and quietly honor the ones who've passed. Most of these people remained active in the arts, but they never went on to become "big stars," so we get an engaging, slightly eccentric group with some interesting back stories. While retrospectives like this tend to lag, this one is just charming. What comes across here and in the commentary is that these people had the time of their lives making this movie, and they regard it and each other with tremendous respect and affection.
Rounding out the set are a photo gallery, TV spots, and a trailer; the usual "Code Red [Insert Pejorative] Trailers" supplement is absent this go 'round.
By the way, Madman was released in 1982, so this "30-Year Anniversary Edition" is actually two years early.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A little more gratuitous nudity would have been nice. I mean, c'mon, it's a summer camp—albeit, it all takes place at night, and it's evidently a chilly summer night, since everyone's running around in down vests and sheep-sheared coats, but still. All we get is one measly shot of a topless female counselor and a guy's butt.
Yeah, I know, the '80s, particularly the early '80s, were awash with low-budget slashers, but even in this glutted field, Madman stands out as something special, a slasher film with heart. A solidly old-school, above-average entry in an often-maligned genre, Code Red has done an admirable job giving this one another shot at finding the audience it deserves. Add it to your Halloween watching list.
Guilty of making me nostalgic for well-made, low-budget fright flicks.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Code Red
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