2 out of 5 stars

Horror has spawned a seemingly endless number of subgenres over the decades, but undoubtedly the most prevalent niche that continues to terrify audiences is the slasher format. While its origins can be traced back to Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal classic Psycho (1960), it wasn’t until the 1980s that it became one of the most popular and prolific cinematic movements.

The critical and financial success of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) opened the door for countless imitators to deliver a somewhat fresh and exciting experience. Emboldened by affordable equipment and the ongoing expansion of home entertainment, a generation of young filmmakers relished the opportunity to create a smorgasbord of masked psychopaths, each defined by their idiosyncrasies and a shared penchant for gratuitous gore.

Capitalising on the commercial success of low-budget slashers such as Paul Lynch’s Prom Night (1980) and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), two enterprising youths unleashed their contribution to the genre. Drawing inspiration from an urban legend whispered amongst summer camp counsellors in upstate New York, co-writers Joe Giannone and Gary Sales (Vampire’s Kiss) endeavoured to transform the Cropsey murders into their own mythology. With Giannone assuming the director’s role, Sales began his quest for financial backing. After numerous attempts to attract potential investors, Sales eventually secured funding to commence production. However, the project suffered a significant setback when Tony Maylam’s The Burning (1981) appropriated the same legend. Giannone’s original screenplay underwent a cursory rewrite, and Cropsey’s backstory was jettisoned in favour of a campfire legend he created himself: Madman.

Madman opens with a quintessential campfire sequence, set against the backdrop of a quaint summer camp. Several young men and women gather around to hear the head counsellor, Max (Carl Fredricks), share a local legend. Madman Marz (Paul Ehlers) was a brutish farmer who slaughtered his entire family before being supposedly hanged by vengeful townsfolk. Legend dictates that Marz resides in a nearby dilapidated house, and merely whispering his name will summon his soul from its sinister slumber.

The young counsellors dismiss the entertaining fable as they prepare for their final night at the resort. T.P (Tony Fish) hopes to rekindle his romance with Betsy (Alexis Dubin), while Ellie (Jan Claire) and Bill (Alex Murphy) sneak off for a night of passion. However, what begins as a frightening campfire story soon becomes a serious matter when Richie (Tom Candela) accidentally summons the psychopath despite Max’s warnings. Almost immediately, Madman Marz starts swinging his sharpened axe once more, and the closing night quickly descends into a bloodbath.

The roster of victims consists mainly of newcomers or cast members credited under pseudonyms. Horror aficionados might recognise Gaylen Ross, credited here as Alexis Dubin, from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). The young actress is simply radiant as Betsy and imbues her character with a sense of vulnerability and desperation. Furthermore, Paul Ehlers (Ink & Steel) delivers a suitably menacing performance as the psychopathic redneck, Madman Marz. His imposing physical presence and menacing, animalistic behaviour make him a memorable and captivating antagonist. Regrettably, the secondary characters barely conceal their lack of professionalism, fluctuating between contrived passivity and distraught overacting.

While both Madman and The Burning draw inspiration from the same urban legend, their approach to the material diverge significantly. The Burning predates Giannone’s directorial debut by a year and is generally considered the more refined of the two courtesy of its superior budget. Its straightforward narrative cultivates tension with each successive scene, portraying the disfigured and vengeful Cropsey gruesomely butchering summer camp counsellors. However, Madman leans into urban legend idolatry and executes it with the methodical pacing of a campfire tale. Relying heavily on Carpenter’s sense of minimalism, Giannone favours unnerving the audience rather than subjecting them to egregious bloodshed the genre had swerved towards. James Lemmo’s (Maniac Cop) cinematography creates an isolated and claustrophobic atmosphere by allowing the natural darkness to envelop the woodland surrounding the cabins. When Marz is unveiled, he remains largely shrouded in ominous shadows, doused with a moonlit glow that subtly illuminates his menacing silhouette trundling barefoot through the foliage in search of his next victim. 

Unfortunately, these intermittent moments of tension crumble under the weight of Giannone and Sales’s inelegant screenplay. There’s an attempt to establish woefully underdeveloped characters. T.P struggles with his possessiveness, whereas Stacy expresses her desire for sexual freedom. However, Madman‘s midsection ultimately becomes a tedious exercise in endurance. The characters who populate the foreground are suspiciously unintelligent and barely function as human beings. Seemingly lost in a haze of mechanical and uninformed thoughts, they interact with no sense of individuality.

A particularly absurd moment is the unintentionally hilarious and wholly inappropriate jacuzzi sequence with Betsy and T.P starkly contrasting with the entire first act, the two lovebirds engage in an awkward mating ritual laden with gleeful cheese. As they exchange bedroom glances, the serenading tones of a loungecore crooner propel the absurd interlude towards the realm of Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct).

Perseverance is periodically rewarded when Marz begins to unceremoniously dispatch the counsellors with a myriad of fiendishly inventive methods. Giannone provides some excellent and genuinely shocking moments that elevate Madman slightly above the run-of-the-mill slashers from the decade. A hanging is sadistically orchestrated, a body is ferociously ripped apart, and a character is gruesomely impaled on a meat hook. Perhaps the most imaginative death sequence involves a woman working under the bonnet of a truck. As she desperately attempts to restart the engine, Marz decapitates his unsuspecting victim by driving the metal canopy through her neck. It’s not particularly graphic horror, and the spurting wounds may not satisfy the most salubrious gorehounds accustomed to the blood exploits of Tom Savini (Creepshow). However, Giannone ensures that each death sequence is memorable.

Considering the market was already saturated with a plethora of uninspired Friday the 13th imitations during its release, Madman distinguishes itself as a noteworthy attempt to deviate from the monotonous herd. Giannone dares to disregard well-documented genre conventions several times throughout the succinct 85-minute runtime. One distinguishing feature that separates Madman from its contemporaries is the absence of the archetypal Final Girl. The morally pure heroine who triumphs over the antagonist. Marz exhibits no discernment when selecting his victims and a surprise candidate is elected to endure and tell the tale. It’s an interesting decision that subverts the audience’s expectations by crowning an unexpected survivor.

Additionally, Max’s campsite theatrics are punctuated by moments of prolepsis, brief yet profoundly unsettling glimpses of the characters’ impending doom. Predating similar techniques used by Carpenter in The Thing (1982), these flash-forwards subject the audience to unknown sights of disorientation, instilling a palpable sense of inevitability. Accompanied by Stephen Horelick’s haunting synthesizers, this unusual opening imbues Madman with a real personality that simultaneously respects and experiments with genre conventions.

Following its release, Madman languished in relative obscurity due to an egregious lack of marketing. It remained in distribution limbo until it was finally unleashed worldwide in 1982. It steadily garnered the recognition it deserved, amassing a devoted fan base and ultimately grossing $1.35M domestically. While many of its contemporaries suffered at the hands of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), the original UK release remained mercifully unscathed. Nevertheless, it eventually found itself ensnared in the infamous ‘video nasties’ list following the moral hysteria surrounding violence in cinema in Britain during the 1980s. It was revitalised when an uncensored version was released on home video courtesy of Anchor Bay in 2002, allowing it to be appreciated in its unadulterated form by a new generation.

While lacking the elegance of Halloween and the bloodshed of Friday the 13th, Madman remains a cult classic of the 1980s. Joe Giannone’s formulaic slasher is a mix of questionable acting and infuriatingly silly character decisions that propel the meandering plot forward. However, it excels at conjuring campfire chills and satisfying the audience’s desire for brutal violence. Its success rests on the ruthless efficiency with which each character meets their demise, executed with swift and merciless precision. Madman Marz may not possess the notoriety of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger, but he doesn’t lack in style and panache. Just remember, whisper his name at your peril.

USA | 1981 | 88 MINUTES | 1:85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Limited Edition 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Special Features:

Showcasing a stunning 2160p Ultra HD transfer, Madman has received a marvellous 4K restoration courtesy of Arrow Video. Sourced from the original camera negatives and presented in its native 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the beautifully rich image honours the film’s unsettling beauty. Unfortunately, the original negatives have sustained a considerable amount of damage, and vertical scratches appear periodically in the centre of the frame. This was also present on the previous DVD and Blu-ray releases. However, Arrow has managed to revitalise the print by infusing almost every frame with vibrant colour.

Dolby Vision exhibits a rich and stable colour palette, accurately reproducing the primary colours. Notably, crimson reds have received a noticeable boost, more so than ever before. Considering Madman largely takes place at night, black levels remain strong, and there are no fluctuations in noise to report. The level of detail is sublime, and viewers will appreciate the picture quality being noticeably different compared to the previous Blu-ray release. Individual patterns and clothing textures remain discernible under various lighting conditions. Flesh tones appear natural, revealing the finest imperfections across the characters’ faces. The transfer retains a healthy amount of grain, delivering a pleasing low-budget aesthetic. Overall, Madman undoubtedly benefits from a remarkably clean and bright transfer, and the final result surpasses Arrow’s previous release.

Unfortunately, there’s only one standard audio track on this release with optional subtitles. It’s immediately obvious Arrow Video has restored the English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Stephen Horelick’s electronic score is delectably cheesy and surges through the speakers with clarity. The side and rear channels bring significant weight to the supporting sound effects and create an immersive atmosphere. Dialogue is generally clear and discernible remaining primarily at the front. The audio becomes occasionally distorted during certain sequences. However, it’s generally crisp and nicely balanced. Overall, this is a solid transfer and perhaps the best Madman has ever sounded. 

  • 4K transfer of the film from the original camera negative.
  • 4K (2160p) Ultra HD Blu-ray presentation in High Dynamic Range. 
  • Original uncompressed mono audio.
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
  • Audio commentary with director Joe Giannone, stars Paul Ehlers and Tony Fish, and producer Gary Sales.
  • Audio commentary with The Hysteria Continues.
  • UK-exclusive introduction by Sales and Ehlers.
  • I’m Not A Screamer, a 2022 interview with star Gaylen Ross.
  • The Legend Still Lives! Thirty Years of Madman – a feature-length retrospective documentary on the slasher classic including interviews with various cast and crew.
  • Madman: Alive at 35′—Sales, Ehlers and star Tom Candela look back at the making of Madman, 35 years after it was filmed.
  • The Early Career of Gary Sales’—the Madman producer discusses his career in the film industry.
  • Convention interviews with Sales and Ehlers. 
  • Music Inspired by Madman—a selection of songs inspired by the movie, including the track ‘Escape From Hellview’ from former CKY frontman Deron Miller. 
  •  In Memoriam–producer Sales pays tribute to some of the film’s late cast and crew, including director Giannone and actor Tony Fish. 
  • Original theatrical trailer & TV spots.
  • Stills & artwork gallery with commentary by Sales. 
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin. 
  • Collector’s booklet featuring writing on the film by critic James Oliver, illustrated with original archive stills and posters.
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Cast & Crew

director: Joe Giannone.
writers: Joe Giannone (story by Joe Giannone & Gary Sales).
starring: Gaylen Ross (under the pseudonym Alexis Dubin), Tony Nunziata (under the pseudonym Tony Fish) & Harriet Bass.