Thursday, July 3, 2008

Madman (1982): or, The Bearer of Bad Noose

It's a MAD MAD MAD MAD Movie Week--Day Four, Review #100!

Ah, Madman. Will we ever see your like again?

I can think of a lot of movie-opening set-pieces that get my blood pumping, but for some reason the "scary story 'round the campfire" opening is a sentimental favorite. In director Joe Giannone's 1982 slasher opus Madman, we get just that, and so much more. After an excellent set of opening titles (designed by actor and artist Paul Ehlers, the Madman himself!) over a dated-yet-timeless creepy electronic score ("Electronic music by Stephen HORELICK."--Movie, I love you already!), we're right in the middle of a deep-woods campfire spook-session, and I couldn't be happier.

Actor Tony Fish IS camp counselor, leader, and unconventionally handsome Lothario T.P.--yes, that's right: T.-to-the-fucking-P. Why T.P., you may well ask? Why not something less embarrassing, like "B.J." or "E.D." or even "D.P."? Well, I'll tell you: IT DOESN'T FUCKING MATTER, THAT'S WHY. He's T.P. He has ALWAYS been T.P., he CONTINUES to be T.P., and there WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER T.P. The sooner you wrap your head around it and get that shit laid out straight the better all around.

(I know I'm getting awfully passionate about this right up front, but suffice to say there are reasons.

T.P., baby.



"That's right. I'm totally boning Gaylen Ross. Believe it!"

So T.P. opens with movie with a 2-minute long a capello rendition of the Ballad of Madman Marz, a justly revered folk classic that has been covered by everyone from Peter, Paul and Mary to Grandpa Jones to P. Diddy. Fish totally OWNS it here, stalking around menacing the campers and other counselors with his minor-key retelling of madness and murder from days gone by. According to the commentary fish had one night to learn the lyrics and did the scene in a single take, a feat which would be graven in the annals of motion picture history were there in fact any justice in the world. As T.P. croons to each conveniently segregated group of campers, we get ghostly flash-forwards to scenes of each character in mortal terror, taken from later in the film. It's the first of several interesting storytelling choices Giannone makes, and while its first-time efficacy can be debated, I must say I love it more and more every time I watch it.

After that show-stopping, movie-stealing two minutes' work by the esteemed Mr. Fish, the camp's elder administrator Max steps up to the plate for the non-musical portion of Expository Campfire Theater. He re-tells the story of Madman Marz, substituting flashbacks for harmonies. "He was an EVIL man--ugly and mean!" Max tells us, and goes on to detail the day Marz went on a kill-crazy rampage and murdered his entire family! (We get some very effective flashback shots of Marz's boots stomping on the wood floor, echoing ominously, before some very gory axe-murders, including a little girl getting her head split like a melon!) Max is no T.P., but still--strong stuff.

Once the townspeople learn what Marz has done, they form a posse and string him up from the nearest hanging tree, with one of the enraged community members going so far as to cut Marz's face with the axe as he's hauled kicking into the air. Satisfied that justice has been done, the mob disperses. But when they come back the next morning, they find the noose broken and Marz's body gone...

And there you have the basis of one of the most Kickass Movie Legends it's been my pleasure to witness. Max tells the campers that if you call Madman Marz's name above a whisper, he'll hear you and come out to take his revenge. Like Bloody Mary or the Candyman--simple, classic, beautiful.

A shadow Marz the clear night sky...

Of course like werewolf-heart-enveloped silver bullets are to surgeons, so is a death-stakes prohibition on name-calling to snotty-nosed punk-kid campers. Before you can say "Quiet, you fool!" an annoying little runt of a kid named Richie starts shouting "Hey Madman Marz! Come and get us! Madman MAAA-ARZ!" It's such a jaw-dropping act of hubris, you almost can't wait for Richie to get his. When we're treated to a few shots of a dilapidated, abandoned house deep in the woods, hear a low synth rumble on the soundtrack, and watch as Richie sees a huge, silent shadow moving through the trees--leading the young kid to separate himself from the group and go off wandering in the woods alone (ALWAYS a sound plan), we are assured it won't be long.

Meanwhile T.P. is displaying his natural leadership abilities by marching the rest of the boys double-time back to the lodge, but not before making a hot date for later with fellow counsellor Betsy (Dawn of the Dead's Gaylen Ross, cryptically credited here as "Alexis Dubin"). Despite T.P.'s irresistible manliness, Betsy reacts badly to his forceful approach. Other-fellow-counsellor and somewhat Zen presence Stacy (the improbably-named Harriet Bass--Bass? Fish?--sporting constantly half-lidded eyes and a Welcome Back Kotter perm) tells the frustrated buck, "If you really love her, the biggest test is lettin' go, not holdin' on." Let go? Come on now--this is T.P. we're talkin about here. Get for real.

Meanwhile Richie Dumbfuck (looking for all the world like a less sexy Greg Brady) has stumbled upon the Majestic Marz Estate. Since no one answers the door, he decides to go inside and make himself at home! After all, there's probably a wide range of seating and bedding choices in there, not to mention hot porridge! Never say Richie never paid attention during story time! Of course, when we see a clawed hand extinguish a candle in the bone-strewn basement, we start to think maybe Richie should have listened to different stories...

Epstein Girls are Strangely Sexy

So far, director Giannone is hitting on all the most important cylinders. The night-for-night shooting around the campfire and in the woods is atmospheric and much appreciated, and the low-angle shots in the flashbacks and in Marz's house coupled with some creepy scoring and neat lighting bring everything together for a pervasive creeping unease. Some neat camera work with obfuscating foreground objects is cool too, and immediately unforgettable characters (such as, oh, I don't know, T.P.) with their thick Brooklyn accents--well, let's just say it works for me.

Meanwhile, back at the lodge, wonderful scenes are brewing. Having imparted her Buddhist wisdom to T.P. without success, Stacy goes to talk to the similarly steamed Betsy, leading to a "female bonding" scene that seems just a After expressing her distaste for men who want to tell her what to do or how to act, Stacy (heavy on the physical contact and Meaningful Smiles) sighs, "You know, Betsy--I don't have many women friends...and I think you're one of them!" Are you making a pass at Gaylen, Epstein? She does wear a sensible plaid shirt...

Outside T.P. is taking out his frustrations King Arthur-style: there's an old stump near the woodpile in which an ancient axe is buried so deep and tight that no one has ever been able to remove it. In fact, old Max offers $100 to the man who can remove the axe from the stump; whether he will also then become King of All Rural New York is not addressed. T.P. tries his damnedest, but to no avail; even with Max's help he's unable to budge the handle an inch. When Max sees how upset T.P. is, he tries out some Stacy-style Zen: "Play too hard to win," he warns, "and you might not like what you become!" T.P. scoffs at such silliness: "You become a WINNER. THAT'S what you become." Stick to frightening punk kids, Max, T.P. is out of your league.

Though his balls be ever so squozen, T.P. will NOT relent!

Of course Madman Marz has been summoned from whatever corner of the netherworld he inhabits when there aren't punk kids to slaughter, and he makes his presence felt at the lodge when a diminutive drunk cook named Dippy opens the freezer and retrieves a neckfull of cleaver! This scene and the bone-strewn basement of the Marz abode are both rather clear homages to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Marz's distorted, animalistic grunts and huge stature also recall Leatherface. But you know what they say--if you're gonna homage, homage from the best!

As Marz scarpers back into the woods--he's light on his feet for a big guy--inside Betsy throws a wet blanket on things by pooh-poohing Max's penchant for wringing urine from the campers with his Madman Marz story. After Max leaves in a good-natured huff--presumably to get loaded at his weekly poker game--T.P. shows what a true man he is by apologizing in front of all the other employees for his asshattery toward Betsy earlier at the campfire. He closes his speech with an eloquent toast: "To friends and friendship, to loves and lovers--may you always have more than you need!" Aw, that's swee--waitaminnit, what?

Betsy doesn't stop to think about the implied polygamy in T.P.'s sentiments, as in the very next scene she is letting the laundry drop and climbing into the hot tub with your hero and mine. I know the words "Greatest Hot Tub Scene in the History of Cinema" get tossed around a lot in situations like this, but I'm here to tell you: this is the GREATEST HOT TUB SCENE IN THE HISTORY OF CINEMA. In an olympic-size jacuzzi that must have taken up the entirety of the sound stage on which it was built, Betsy leads T.P. in an aquatic Dance of Love that's half bird-of-paradise mating ritual and half a re-enactment of being flushed down the toilet. There's something for the ladies as well as the men here--in addition to a quick flash of Gaylen's nipples, we also get to see T.P.'s hindquarters in all their Bronxian glory! It just makes you want to give a rousing Bronx cheer! The schmaltzy easy-listening love theme that plays over it--which we get to hear in its ENTIRETY, thank God!--is just the perfect complement.

Could it get awesomer? I'm gonna go with "no"...

After Madman Marz peeks in ominously at the otter-like lovers, we find Richie still wandering the woods, still lost, still snottily unconcerned. Next we find Stacy playing a lonely flute in her dinghy IYKWIMAITYD, after which she is nearly nabbed by the uncharacteristically slow-grabbing Madman. (Stacy's sex-sounds and o-face while she's climbing a slippery ridge only add to her strange, slightly disturbing sexiness.) At the top of the hill she turns around and gives Mother Nature a full-on raspberry, her own version of the barbaric yawp. It's a weird scene, and typical of the movies smooth, successful blend of suspense and cheese. I wanna dip my...chips in it!

More weird happenings and strange but somehow effective directorial flourishes occur. In the lodge the group of secondary counsellors--including Stacy, gaunt tall guy David, mulleted and pencil-stached loverboy Bill and his semi-retarded booty-call Ellie discuss heavy subjects by the fire. Giannone gives us an out-of-nowhere crazy speech, a Monkees-style overhead shot, a People's Court synth sting, and more near-glimpses of the Madman in the periphery before moving on--a strange but satisfying interlude.

"Hey, guys...what the fuck are we doing?"

T.P. discovers that one of his charges has gone missing, and so immediately goes into the woods looking for the lad. The first true shock of the movie occurs next when (spoiler!) T.P. meets up with the Madman only to find himself on the wrong end of a hangin' rope. It's a stunning exit, and one that still gives me a jolt every time I see it. In fact, I have to pause, shed a tear, and recite the poem that the Duke of DVD himself composed in memory of one of the screen's great near-heroes:

Ode to the Beltbuckle

T.P., shining knight, god
To those mortals below,
Shall you grace us again
With that buckle? Hot
Tub King, we bask in your
Divine glory. T.P.
T.P. T.P! May heaven
Send you once more,
We Pray.
*sniff* Unmoored from our foundations, cut loose from the godlike being we'd hoped would see us safely through the darkness and back into the light, we're woefully unprepared for the brutal onslaught Marz unleashes next. The Madman traipses remorselessly back to the lodge, and with barley a grunt frees Axcalibur from its stump! Hail to the King, baby! We also get some suggestive shots here of a rotting wound on Marz's hand, and some glimpses of his cadaverous, nose-less visage, suggesting that Marz is not merely a madman loose in the woods, but a living dead revenant bent on supernatural revenge. Which is AWESOME, I don't care where you're from.

The next act concerns the 2nd-tier counsellors checking out in the awesomest ways possible. Dave goes to look for T.P. and Richie, and gets axed after a suspenseful chase in which Marz's ability to appear and disappear at will also point to supernatural powers. Stacy goes to look for Dave, T.P., and Richie (I hope I'm not the only one thinking of the Tar Baby here), but not before surprising Bill and his retarded lover in the middle of some "in-tents" sex. (Ba-dump.) Giannone builds the supsense quite expertly as Stacy has truck trouble out on the trails and we the viewers see Marz moving around in the periphery, never long enough to be clearly seen. After an EXCELLENT "body discovery" scene in which Stacy stumbles over the headless corpse of Dave, we get what is quite possibly the GREATEST DECAPITATION EVER FILMED--to say more would be cheating--and bid goodbye to our strangely sexy, ambiguously-oriented Buddhist master.

Too awesome for words

Bill goes to look for yadda-yadda-yadda, and is killed (BACKBREAKERRRRRR!!!) protecting Ellie from Madman's wrath. Then we get ANOTHER great, suspenseful chase scene in which the scrappy mentally challenged slut-puppy barely outruns Marz yet has enough wherewithal to empty a fridge and climb in to hide (he'll never notice the ice cream and eggs all over the floor!) before catching an axe to the chest and then getting her face mistakenly blown off by shotgun-packing Betsy! Elsewhere Richie wanders around more, still lost, still unbelievably alive.

The other counsellors gone, it's a showdown between Heavens-to-Betsy and the unstoppable Madman, and the final battle is so great in my opinion I'm just going to stop there and hope you'll discover it for yourself. Suffice to say we get ANOTHER TCM "homage" (just as awesome as the previous ones), a surprise cameo by a character's cheekbone, and a fiery cataclysm of the kind we just don't see enough of these days. Someone you think would survive does not, someone who you think wouldn't survive does, and over the credits we get THE BALLAD OF MADMAN MARZ in all its glory, second only perhaps to the Ballad of the Film in My Bloody Valentine for sheer folksy awesomeness.



As an 80s slasher goes, this is just about everything you want. Though it rips off TCM and Friday the 13th pretty shamelessly (and maybe even Halloween as well--Marz is kind of a "Shape" for much of the film) it has its own certain style and strangeness that set it apart from the run-of-the-mill imitators. The rural setting is used well, and none of the actors are pretty enough to be unbelieveable--again, perhaps, like TCM. Only with a Shelley Duval lookalike in the Marilyn Burns slot.

Something should be said about the acting here, to which the Duke and I have given a great deal of thought. It would be easy to dismiss the acting in Madman as stilted, amateurish, or even bad--and the way T.P., Stacy, and Max intone their lines does seem over-earnest and trying-too-hard to the untrained ear. However, upon repeat viewings you might discover a strange sort of rhythm developing in the way the actors speak, the way they interact with each other. It's not realistic, but almost hyper-real--almost like the dialog of a Grimm's Fairy Tale brought up to the present day and slapped with Noo Yawk accents. Maybe my love for the other stuff in this film is clouding my vision, but I think there's really something not-quite-usual going on here, and I'm glad to have witnessed it.


There's also a bit of mystery involved. In the commentary the mighty Tony Fish claims he and "Alexis Dubin" were an item during the shoot, and that not all of the hot tub scene was "acting" IYKWHMAITYD. Yet neither he nor the director nor the producer ever refer to her by her more famous stage name, Gaylen Ross. And it's CLEARLY her--of that there can be no doubt. Also, Ross is apparently reluctant to talk about Madman, and doesn't put it on her resume. Actually, if internet reports are to be believed, she won't even sign DVDs or memoribilia at conventions related to the movie. Why? What happened? Did Fish break her heart? Did something behind the scenes scar her forever? Was she working for non-union wages while holding a SAG card? The world may never know...unless someone can get her dancing in a hot tub and convince her to spill the beans.

Finally, Marz himself is just such a great character. Brutal, swift, silent, always seen in the periphery but seldom close-up, he's an enigma in a beard, a riddle with an axe. He's a legend come to life--he even has his own song. While there were no Madman sequels, there totally could have been, as the lads over at Kindertrauma proved conclusively.


In short, I can think of no better way to close out this Mad Mad Mad Mad movie week than with Madman, which receives the coveted 3+ thumb, MUST SEE rating. A spectacular lesser-known slasher from the golden age of the genre, and one that more people should pick up and appreciate. Gaylen included.

And if you ever see that belt buckle on me. IMMEDIATELY. I have my reasons.

BONUS MEDIA! SEE and HEAR Max relate the Legend of Madman Marz!

LISTEN to the movie-closing Ballad of Madman Marz! (Inexplicably set to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. WTF, Internet?)

REVEL in the Electronic Opening theme, T.P.'s Astounding a capello campire creepout, and the end credit song...again!


The Duke of DVD said...

Ahh Vicar, my dearest friend, such a fittingly epic way to spawn #100. When we set forth on this endeavor, I had little hope that we would reach this landmark without an angry mob suddenly appearing, pitchforks and torches in hand, outside our respective estates.

You have outdone yourself on this review, sir! Somehow you have managed to both convey the blurred shape of Marz while at the same time preserving the badassery that is T.P. Kudos to you, my friend.

Madman ranks right up there in my own personal Top 10 of horror. It has everything one could want from a movie, but most importantly it has T.P. and his belt buckle.

Tenebrous Kate said...

I have to compose myself because you appear to have gotten your glee all over me, Vicar. This is truly a gold star review in a blog full of gold star reviews. Giant belt buckles, ridiculous acronyms, decapitation, a reference to the much-missed sketch comedy show "The State..." Really, I'm just overwhelmed by it all. If this movie contains but a third of the Sheer Excellence of this review, it is a cinematic gem indeed.

Mr. Karswell said...

Yes indeed, this is a total winner of a film, very underated too which is weird though I think people get it confused with other Madman movie titles, sorta like the confusion by all the Maniac movies.

Audio clips too! Woo hoo!!

bazza davison said...

This movie deserves its place in the horror hall of fame.Madman Marz should have his own statue erected in Fish Cove, Long Island.Why didnt this movie catch on but we got 12 Friday 13ths? Theres no justice in the world,THIS MOVIE IS MOST DEFIATLEY THE BEES KNEES

Inspector Winship said...

You posted this two years ago but I don't care; I must comment. This is one of those strangely beautiful films that only a few of us sick bastards really appreciate. Strange that Ms. Ross would hide from this film. I personally see nothing to be ashamed of. Renee Estevez does the same with Sleepaway Camp II; one of her finest performances IMHO. Some people just wouldn't recognize beauty if Elle McPherson walked up and kneed them in the crotch.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Inspector, it's never too late to give MADMAN it's due! I see that in the latest press releases/ads the movie is being touted as starring Gaylen Ross, so maybe her attitude has softened with time?

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