When most people think about modern horror movies, the vision that comes to mind is one of scared kids running away from crazed axe-wielding psychopaths through the woods screaming their heads off. While this image is due mostly to the Friday the 13th franchise, additional scared camper films like Sleepaway Camp and The Burning also contributed to this stereotype. In 1982, just two short years after the first Friday the 13th movie, director Joe Giannone and producer Gary Sales unleashed their offering to the genre, a slasher called Madman, upon the horror world. The institution of summer camp would never again be looked at in the same way.
Madman starts just like the second Friday the 13th film, with a bunch of camp counselors sitting around a campfire. Max, the head counselor (Carl Fredericks) tells the story of “Madman Marz,” an old lunatic who slaughtered his family, narrowly escaped the hangman’s noose and still lurks in the woods around the campsite. Max goes on to say that if anyone utters his name above the volume of a whisper, Madman Marz will find them and kill them. An arrogant camper named Richie (Jimmy Steele) laughs at the story, stands up, shouts the name and throws a rock towards the house in which Madman Marz supposedly lived. Predictably, Madman Marz (played by Paul Ehlers) shows up and counselors start dying. The counselors drop one by one, and it comes down to a young woman named Betsy (played by Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow star Gaylen Ross, curiously billed as Alexis Dubin) to save the campers and herself from the axe-swinging killer.
Madman has become a classic film among slasher movie fans, mostly because of the cinematography of horror veteran James Lemmo (billed as James Momel, also known for Maniac Cop, Ms. 45 and The Driller Killer). Lemmo’s use of primary colored lighting and surreal camera angles gives the film a “Tales from the Crypt” feel. Lemmo also uses the natural lines of the trees and forest to frame his shots, which adds to the almost comic-book-like look of the picture. Lemmo’s visual fingerprint is what makes Madman more than just a Friday the 13th clone.
Although Lemmo’s work is exceptional, it suffers at the hands of the film’s editor, Daniel Loewenthal (who also worked on Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter). Loewenthal’s editing is choppy and without continuity. During several of the more suspenseful scenes, the pace is broken by the poor rhythm of the cutting. Some of the edits could be blamed on insufficient footage, but nothing wrecks a good decapitation scene like a bad jump cut. The disjointed editing is distracting from the more important things in the film, namely the blood. And there is a lot of blood in Madman. There’s even a special effects man (Joseph Rosario) who is listed in the credits under “hemoglobin application,” which is most likely just a fancy way to say “sprays blood on people, places and things.”
The character of Madman Marz, while not nearly as iconic as Jason Voorhees, is just as effective and creative of a killer as his hockey-masked counterpart. Marz looks like a long-haired, latex-covered hillbilly and has the size and strength of a professional wrestler. And, like Jason, he kills with much more imagination than the average slasher villain. For example, in one scene, he kills a counselor by hopping on the hood of a car that the hapless victim happens to be working on, severing the head of the poor youth. Marz rips, tears, cuts, stomps and chokes his prey, and never disappoints the viewer while doing it.
The music in Madman is a vital component to the movie. It’s primarily an electronic music score, composed by Stephen Horelick (who also wrote the themes to “Reading Rainbow” and “Shining Time Station”), and it’s reminiscent of Walter/Wendy Carlos’ work for Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. Horelick’s use of a Moog synthesizer is not as complex as Carlos’, but Madman is a different kind of film than The Shining and Horelick’s simple yet threatening single note motifs mesh flawlessly with the comic-book style of the work.
Madman may be thought of as one of the “other” camp killer movies by casual fans, but to the rabid horror watcher, it’s much more than a simple copycat film. It pays tribute to a host of other films that came before it, yet still manages to keep its own identity, earning its place in history as a cult classic.