“It all started during a campfire at North Sea Cottages, a special retreat for gifted children.” – Madman
You must not say his name above a whisper.
Madman (1982) is one of two slasher movies based on the upstate New York Cropsey Killer urban legend, the other being The Burning (1981). When it was learned The Burning was using the same plot and killer, a last second decision was made to change Cropsey to Madman Marz, a farmer who went insane and killed his family with an axe. So it’s not a love story.
Joe Giannone wrote and directed Madman, and at times the results are bizarre. The movie begins with a group of camp counselors and young campers seated around a campfire, telling scary stories. One of the counselors, “T.P.” – a name which elicits a chuckle from the middle school student inside of me – begins to sing a song about a killer. Like I said, bizarre.
This is followed by the camp leader, Max, telling (not singing, thankfully) the tale of Madman Marz, complete with cut scene flashbacks to Marz axe-murdering his family. Max warns the children that no one should ever speak Madman Marz’s name above a whisper. I’ll bet you can’t guess what happens next. Would you believe that one of the kids, a wiseguy named Richie, begins shouting Marz’s name at the top of his lungs into the dark and scary woods?
I know. I was shocked, too.
Grave consequences follow, and it’s all Richie’s fault. Madman Marz reawakens, or perhaps returns from his petite lake cottage in wine country, and begins to stalk and slash his way through the camp.
But wait. Another bizarre ritual follows, whereas the children must run in place for a short time before returning to camp. And then the movie gets down to business.
Though I poked (deserved) fun at Madman, this is actually a pretty good slasher with a fair share of creepy scenes. Madman Marz is a scary, intimidating killer, and the brooding atmosphere is one of this movie’s strongest points. A blue filter is utilized for the woods scenes to mimic moonlight and provide an ethereal quality to the production. Though some fans feel the blue is too much, I really like it. It is certainly effective at evoking emotion.
The wooded setting becomes a character in its own right – cold, isolating, and eerily silent. The characters, despite their initial campy introduction, evolve and exhibit “a little depth” as the narrative unfolds. You’ll grow fond of some and be suspicious of others, but that’s the beauty of a good slasher – you’re never quite sure who will meet Madman Marz’s axe next.
The score, by Stephen Horelick, is eerie and atmospheric, complementing the onscreen terror perfectly. The stalking scenes are intense and will keep you on the edge of your seat, and there are more than a few jump scares that are executed expertly.
Another strong point is the immersion. Every time I watch Madman, it’s like I am in the woods with the other characters. I can almost see my breath and feel the chill of autumn creeping up on me at summer’s end. Fans of camp and backwoods-based horror movies will be in all their glory with Madman, which takes place entirely in the deep woods (except for a brief bar scene).
I also appreciated Giannone’s choice to show Madman Marz on screen in prudent amounts, just enough to provide jump scares while letting our minds fill in the scarier details. Madman builds suspense competently, often climaxing with a gory payoff, and the stalk scenes are hair raising.
However, there are plenty of head-slappers in this movie. For instance, at one point a woman running from Marz through the cabin decides to hide herself inside a refrigerator. I don’t want to give the story away, but her plan fails. A hot tub sex scene is made awkward by a regrettable background song, and there are a few lines which will make you groan. But minor snafus are expected in slasher movies, and these are part of the fun.
There’s some clunky dialogue and a few plot holes that might have you scratching your head. The acting is a mixed bag; some performances are quite commendable, while others leave much to be desired. But then again, isn’t that part of the charm of early 80s slashers? The over-the-top acting and unintentional humor often add to the experience rather than detract from it.
One of the most notable scenes involves a hot tub, and it’s both suspenseful and slightly ridiculous. It encapsulates what Madman is all about – a blend of horror, camp, and a dash of absurdity. This combination, while not for everyone, can be endearing for those who are in the mood for a throwback to the golden age of slashers.
In conclusion, Madman, despite its quirks and occasional missteps, stands tall among its peers from the slasher era. It may not reach the iconic status of Halloween or Friday the 13th, but it carves its own unique niche.
Madman vs. The Burning
While both “Madman” and “The Burning” draw inspiration from the same urban legend of the Cropsey Killer, the way they approach the material is notably different. “The Burning” predates “Madman” by a year and is generally considered to be the more polished of the two films, thanks to its superior budget and a backing from major players in the industry. Tom Savini’s groundbreaking special effects work on “The Burning” is particularly noteworthy. It grants the film a visceral edge, making it one of the more brutally memorable entries in the early ’80s slasher genre. The narrative of “The Burning” is more straightforward, focusing on the disfigured, revenge-seeking Cropsey stalking counselors at a summer camp, building tension with each passing scene.
“Madman,” on the other hand, leans into the campfire legend element. The entire story is framed around the act of telling and retelling the Madman Marz tale, making it feel almost meta in its delivery. It’s less polished, but this rawness actually serves the film in some ways, giving it an almost documentary-style authenticity at times. However, where “The Burning” stands out in its gritty and graphic depictions, “Madman” thrives on its brooding atmosphere, making great use of lighting and music to craft a genuine sense of dread. While both films certainly have their merits and will appeal to fans of vintage horror, they offer contrasting experiences: “The Burning” for its savage intensity and “Madman” for its atmospheric eeriness.
For fans of the genre or those seeking a nostalgic trip back to the 80s, Madman is worth a watch. Just remember: never, ever, shout Madman Marz’s name aloud.
Overall, Madman is a pretty good slasher movie and easily one of the better camp slashers from the 1980s: not quite on the level of Friday the 13th and Just Before Dawn, but much better than Don’t Go in the Woods and the Sleepaway Camp movies. A must-see for all slasher horror fans.
The special edition DVD of Madman is available through Amazon.
An added note: Special thanks to Devoida Taste from our horror Facebook group for alerting me to the Cropsey documentary, currently available for free streaming on Netflix.