Madman (1982)

Madman first published by

Like so many scary stories, Madman begins around a campfire: “at North Seas Cottages”, as storybook-style text reveals, “a special retreat for gifted children.” Camp counsellor T.P. (Tony Fish) gives a spiritedly dramatic rendition of a ballad about a legendary killer who takes out one by one those who have “trespassed his ground”, and drags their bodies away. Then Max (Carl Fredericks), the older manager of the Cottages, tells the story of a local ‘evil’ farmer who went mad one night, chopped up his wife and children with an axe, and somehow escaped the posse of townsfolk; now, if anyone utters his name out loud, , ‘Madman Marz’ will return to kill. No sooner is Max’s tale over than “young and foolish” counsellor Richie (Jimmy Steele) ignores this Old Man’s Warning™ and shouts a grinning challenge to Marz – and so the boogeyman is conjured to begin his killing spree again. Heads will roll.

While it is not clear that T.P.’s song and Max’s story are intended to be about the same monster, the gigantic, grunting Madman Marz (Paul Ehlers) will turn out to be a merger of these fabled murderers, as well as differing from both in certain details (for example, and this is a spoiler, the one who summons him will in fact be the only survivor of his onslaught, in a rare instance of a ‘final boy’). Yet the prologue around the campfire establishes Marz’s status as a mediated product of myth, while also nodding slyly to the film’s multiple origin stories. For in 1979, first- (and last-)time writer/director Joe Giannone conceived Madman as telling the New York urban legend of the Cropsey maniac, but then, when he heard that Tony Maylam’s The Burning (1981) was also adapting the Cropsey story, he had to reconfigure this source material and rewrite the script, resurrecting a new villain out of the ashes of the old. So Marz truly is a composite figure, now breaking free from the confines of his own (multiple) tales as easily as he once (according to legend) escaped his townsfolk’s noose.   

Marz begins as little more than a half-glimpsed silhouette, and only gradually, as the film’s events unfold and characters start dropping, reveals himself in his full not-quite-human form. Along the way, he becomes the repository for all manner of imaginative projections. If Marz represents masculinity turned monstrous, then he is a hyperbolic embodiment of the other male counsellors’ conduct, and also of its boundaries. ‘Possessive male’ T.P. keeps pushing himself insistently at fellow-counsellor Betsy (Dawn of the Dead‘s Gaylen Ross, here credited as Alexis Dubin), even when his advances are plainly not welcome – behaviour for which he will subsequently apologise as Marz never would; and in his determination to prove himself a macho ‘winner’, T.P. struggles (and fails) to pull from a log a deeply embedded axe – a phallic tool which is significantly Marz’s weapon of choice, and which the hulking murderer will later remove from its resting place with ease. Meanwhile, stoned with his fellow counsellors, Dave (Seth Jones) will pull a knife and declare (of himself): “Who is this man? Where does he come from? I could take your bodies, one at a time, and hide them so no one would ever find them. I could chop off your heads!” Dave, however, is just clowning around – whereas Marz is the real deal. 

Meanwhile, Stacy (Harriet Bass) complains to Betsy of the men around them: “They chase you till you’re half-dead, get you, then try to get rid of you.” Here Stacy is characterising relations between men and women in terms of a cat-and-mouse pursuit that clearly overlaps with the predatory activities of a generic slasher – even if it will turn out that Marz, unlike the male counsellors, likes to hold on to his prey long after it has been caught. In this sense, there is a metaphorical dimension to Marz, who errantly incarnates the kind of manhood to which men like T.P. aspire and for which women like Stacy thirst (“I’m looking forward to finding me one man,” the fickle, field-playing young woman promises, sealing her own fate, “and I’m going to stay put”).

All this brings a resonance that is much needed once the by-numbers killing gets underway. For while Marz may be an unnatural distortion of these co-eds’ anxieties and desires, he is also, in the end, just a bog-standard, heavy-breathing, backwoods slasher of a kind that had been seen many times before. As soon as Marz is hanging and hacking his way through the camp’s adult population, and then hauling their corpses back to his home, Madman too, in delivering exactly the routines that a slasher audience expects, becomes something of a drag. Still, it is well written, and well shot  – which is more than can be said of many similarly low-budget members of this subgenre. And while in the end its subtext may, like Marz himself, have vanished into thin air, perhaps both ultimately belong in that elusive, indeterminate realm of urban legend. 

Summary: Joe Giannone’s one and only feature Madman hangs up some sophisticated ideas before being dragged into slasher routine.

© Anton Bitel