The Savage Stack: MADMAN (1981)

This week, Jacob covers a C-Grade '80s slasher with possibly the greatest theme song of all time.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The ninth entry into this unbroken backlog is the C-Grade summer camp slasher, Madman

In the annals of slasher horror, possibly no subsection is more cherished than the “summer camp slaughter” picture. Made infamous by Friday the 13th in 1980, there would be many imitators in the wake of Mama Voorhees’ murderous rampage. Films like The Burning (featuring SFX by jumped ship F13 gore maestro Tom Savini) and Sleepaway Camp (not to mention its two completely gonzo sequels) attempted to redistill the Bava-infused moonshine Sean S. Cunningham and Victor Miller bottled by replicating the basic ingredients of their “dead teens in the woods” formula. Even weird-outs like Cheerleader Camp that emerged at the tail end of the slasher boom were not only paying homage to Crystal Lake, but also Ivan Reitman’s Meatballs – an inversion of the spank bank boys’ club comedy that struck gold and predated its bloody cousins by only a few years.

Madman is like the simple cousin of the above-mentioned gore bonanzas. Released a mere half-year after the Weinstein Brothers’ churned out their own knockoff, The Burning, it’s based on the same Staten Island urban legend (“Cropsey”, a deranged child-murdering boogeyman) and even features the same campfire setting. Only where the writing team behind that seminal stalk n’ slash (which, to be fair, did include a pre-Sopranos Brad Grey and pre-Thundercats Peter Lawrence) had at least some semblance of an idea regarding how to effectively plot a horror picture, Madman writer/director Joe Giannone (who never made another movie before or since) possibly napped through the “boring parts” (see: plot) of Friday the 13th. Both pictures boil their respective specters of doom down to an elemental campfire nature, but Madman is focused on playing like a former counselor’s half-recollected memories of fucking, roasting weeines and sharing tales of nightmare people who became all too real for the tellers.

If you were to show Madman to an audience of Millennials without providing context, they’d probably think it a parody of slasher films made in the post-Scream era with “retro” aesthetics. Characters wander off to explore old houses and odd sounds. There’s a pre-bunk saga that begins with an urban legend that is not only told, but fucking sung. Gratuitous soft-core sex ends in (somewhat) gory death. The killer wields an axe, wears overalls and expresses himself in honking, unintelligible grunting rackets. Shrill synthesizers pierce the ears. Severed necks squirt bright pink blood. There’s even a final girl (Dawn of the Dead goddess Gaylen Ross, credited here as “Alexis Dubin”) who saves the seven children attending camp with a school bus. None of it seems like it’s supposed to be taken seriously, but it should. This is genuine counterfeit cinema, manufactured with legitimate enthusiasm for the genre that cannot be denied.

What truly keeps Madman from becoming full-blown satire is the strange, inept dream logic Giannone implements. Where many of the summer camp slashers take place over the course of several days, Madman is set over a single night, ensuring the audience doesn’t witness a moment of sunlight during the film’s running time. The distance between the grounds and Madman Marz’s lair is at once very close and very far away (a character hits the house with a rock tossed from a campfire, only to get lost in the woods while returning from an exploratory journey to said murder den for the REST OF THE MOVIE). The soundtrack seems to elicit actual reactions from the stalked, as if they can hear its piercing tones. All of these characteristics lend an air of unintentional hilarity to the film that reeks of exploitation instead of lampoon. The sub-genre was still in its infancy, rendering said send up somewhat premature, but it’s hard not to wonder if Giannone (in true outsider fashion) accidentally cracked a genre code without realizing it.

There’s an eccentric teetotaler subtext that pervades Madman. The leader of the camp tells the maniac’s story – a recluse who murdered his own family in a drunken rage…only to end his massacre at the bar, where he places his bloody axe aside and orders a beer. None of the counselors are ever seen gleefully imbibing (they actually sit around the table and eat chocolate parfaits), and the camp’s manager even seems sarcastic when asking for a beer at one point. The group frequently extolls the virtues of bettering the campers’ lives and all communicate with a plastic, borderline Stepford affectation. When one supervisor does stray off the sober path (with a bottle of Jack Daniels) his throat is instantly cut in the outhouse. Even the sex scenes contain zero nudity, as a lengthy hot tub seduction is stretched out to interminable length with a non-pornographic close. The chaste handling of the movie’s smuttier moments is either an ill-advised attempt at restraint, or purposefully piled on to warn the viewer about the dangers of booze and extramarital fornication in a subliminal fashion the often puritanical subgenre rarely sees.

To be frank, Madman isn’t the slasher you’re going to run home and tell all your friends about. There really isn’t any stand out “gotcha” moments or showcase gore set pieces (a la the raft sequence in The Burning). Yet Giannone’s picture is certainly a fun one to see with an audience, either gathered in your living room with a case of beer or (if you’re truly lucky like this writer was when it screened at Terror Tuesday) in an auditorium filled with fellow devoted horror freaks. For anyone who spent countless weekends perusing the horror rack at their local video store, Madman is a reminder of both the sincerity and clumsiness that came with early ’80s horror. No winking nonsense to be found here — just a pure, near plot-free murderpalooza.

Madman is available now via a DVD/Blu combo pack.