Joe Giannone’s 1982 film Madman arrived amidst the early 80’s boom in slasher pictures. John Carpenter’s Halloween popularised the “Teens stalked by Murderous Madman” narrative in ‘78, then Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday 13th brought the terror to summer camp in 1980. From there, the slasher genre became a highly lucrative sale for anyone with a camera and enough dosh to rattle together some primitive gore.
Madman is Giannone’s one and only writer/director credit, but it’s a total hoot, the kind of film you want to see at an all-night horror festival. The dialogue is that perfect brand of amateur cheese, the characters are a mix of likeable and unlikeable fodder, and the killer is a so-called zombie redneck (Eat your heart out Cabin in the Woods) who goes by the name Madman Mars. Say his name in the woods and he will come to get you, which is exactly what a young numpty at summer camp does.
Mars is a good enough villain, awarded more gravitas than he probably deserves by staying out of shot for much of the film. The brutal deaths help too. Giannone welches on his own deal though, by giving us full glimpses of this inevitably hammy villain in the finale minutes. Mars goes from racing out-back monster to zombie Leon Russell in seconds and it doesn’t quite work; the design looks tame. Zip forward 20-odd years and Adam Green seems to rework the legend of Madman Mars into his referential Slasher Hatchet, whilst correcting all the problems with the villain’s look.
The key problem with Madman is that it doesn’t quite sport enough memorable moments to make it as gobsmacking a delight as, say, The Burning (1981)or Pieces (1982). Going full camp is never going to be a bad thing, but Giannone seems reluctant, still holding fast to the idea that his film is terrifying. And, to be fair, it has its moments. The first on-screen murder is a real fright, a double-barrelled surprise and a nice play on lighting which has you shaken, readily anticipating the next thrill. Yet, no matter how well Madman Mars dispatches councillors, he never quite hits the scares again, instead going for the kind of gritty realism that shocks before it haunts. One of the councillors, the biggest dick of them all (seriously, who wears a belt with their initials on the buckle?), gets a nasty hanging scene which is terrifically put together. Amongst hangings and stabbings, there is a gleeful decapitation with a car bonnet that will probably make your day.
A surprisingly nihilistic slasher with camp undertones and some great deaths, Madman‘s atmosphere and coherence are aided greatly by the restoration. The final moments, almost lost in previous releases, are clearer and more easily appreciable in their intentions.
Dir: Joe Giannone
Stars: Gaylen Ross, Tony Fish, Harriet Bass, Seth Jones, Paul Ehlers