Friday, August 22, 2014

Worth Mentioning - Beware the Madman Marz

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody and Priscilla watch a campfire legend come to life.

MADMAN (1982)

When Joe Giannone and Gary Sales set out to make their own independent movie in 1979, the success such films as Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, John Carpenter's Halloween and Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes had recently enjoyed at the box office made it clear that horror was the genre they needed to delve into. Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th was a massive hit soon after, solidifying the idea that horror was the way to go.

Being from the New York area, they even knew of a local urban legend they could flesh out into a screenplay, the story of a maniac that had been told around campfires for years: the story of Cropsey.

It took several months and a lot of pitching to potential investors, but Giannone and Sales eventually gathered enough funds to make their movie a reality, with Giannone writing and directing and Sales producing. Then, as the production start date neared, the filmmakers hit a major snag: brothers named Weinstein, fellow New Yorkers who had also heard the Cropsey tale, were making their own slasher movie based on Cropsey, entitled The Burning. Not wanting to have their movie on the market as a competing Cropsey project, Giannone quickly rewrote the script to replace Cropsey with a campfire legend he created himself. The legend of Madman Marz.

Money in place, a cast assembled, and Cropsey crisis averted, Giannone and Sales' Madman began filming in the late fall of 1980.

The setting is a camp called North Sea Cottages, a special retreat for gifted children. Camping season is drawing to a close, and on the last night the campers will be spending at North Sea Cottages before their parents arrive, all of the children and counselors gather around a campfire to tell and hear some scary stories.

Or to sing a creepy song, as a counselor called T.P. does. As he sings, there are quick "flash forward" cuts to images of the counselors appearing terrified. This night has bad things in store for them.

Once T.P. is done, head counselor Max becomes the center of attention.

When casting the movie, Giannone and Sales had hoped to land genre icon Vincent Price for the role of Max, but abandoned that idea since the production was non-union. The role went to the unknown Carl Fredericks instead, and although Fredericks only has one other acting credit to his name, he does well in making his character likeable and grandfatherly.

The whole campfire scene is very well done. You can see and almost feel the fear that was taking over some of the campers, especially the younger ones. Also when the mood is lighter, that gets through as well. This and the story told by Max make the campfire one of my favorite parts of the movie, even though the cuts during T.P.'s part can be slightly spoilery.

Max tells those gathered around the fire, and the audience, the story of Madman Marz, a farmer who used to live in the dilapidated house that stands at the edge of the woods, not far from the camp. Marz was an evil man; an alcoholic with a violent temper, he who would get into bar brawls, beat his wife, and brutally punish their two children. One night, many years ago, Marz took an axe and hacked his sleeping family to death. Then he went to the local tavern, bloody axe in hand, and had a beer. When the townspeople realized he had murdered his family, ten men formed a lynch mob and hanged Marz from a tree, bashing his face open with his own axe for good measure.

When the men returned the next morning to cut Marz's body down, he was gone. The rope snapped. Also missing were the corpses of his wife and children. Neither Marz nor the bodies were ever found.

It's said that on nights when the moon is full, Marz stalks the woods, looking for people to decapitate with his axe or to hang from a tree. He can be anywhere at any time, and if you say his name above a whisper in the woods, he'll hear you and come after you. There's even a rhyme associated with the legend: "One by one, you'll start to fall / Before night's over, I'll get you all."

Max whispers Marz's name, but a snotty little jerk of a camper named Richie is inspired to challenge the legend, loudly calling out for Madman Marz to come and get them, then throwing a rock through a window of the old farmhouse.

Richie has a really strong arm. He threw a rock in the middle of the woods, and somehow it went all the way up to a window in the house that's way outside the woods. He's also one of the surprises in the movie, as in, we think he's going to be the first one to be killed off... but no. There are a few twists like that in Madman, and it gives the movie an extra something, since it takes you by surprise every now and then.

As it turns out, Richie has made a terrible error by doing this. The legend of Madman Marz is true. The man, who appears to be no longer human, still dwells within the farmhouse. He heard Richie's challenge. And with a full moon in the sky, Marz stalks the woods, looking for people to kill.

Once back at the cabins, Max heads into town to run an errand and play cards, pretty much exiting the movie and avoiding the horror that is about to befall his counselors.

Giannone and Sales couldn't get Vincent Price, but among the counselors is a cast member from a horror classic and one of my favorite films of all time. Gaylen Ross, fresh off starring in George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, plays the film's heroine Betsy, although that fact didn't help much in marketing given that she used the pseudonym Alexis Dubin for this movie.

Betsy and T.P. have been hooking up while they've been working at the camp together, but now their relationship is starting to get complicated as they're about to go back to their regular lives. T.P. fears that Betsy won't want to see him anymore once they're back in the city.

I assume the counselors are supposed to be rather young themselves, judging by the relationship drama some of them deal with, but all of the actors look like they left their teen years behind quite a while ago.

I have to say that one of the first things that stood out to me when I first watched Madman was how unattractive the cast was, especially the women. It's usually the other way around when it comes to slashers, so that was an aspect that felt pretty fresh to me, and made the movie feel more realistic somehow, even though it's far from it. And all of the counselors do look like they were much older than they were supposed to.

Betsy and T.P. are able to put their issues aside long enough to engage in a hot tub sex scene that may be the most famous moment in this film. They disrobe (which includes T.P. taking off his belt buckle with his initials on it), climb into the hot tub, and proceed to circle around each other in the water, doing random spins, as a love song plays on the soundtrack.

The hot tub scene felt so out of place at first. Despite being kind of a jerk, T.P. being the pimp that he was still convinced Betsy to get it on with him, in one of the weirdest scenes I've ever seen in a horror movie. The belt buckle, their moves, the looks on their faces, that song... everything is just so bizarrely staged that it becomes amusing.

After we've gotten to know the counselors a bit - Betsy and T.P. have drama, Bill and Ellie are a couple, Stacy is Betsy's pal and confidante, Dave is an intense weirdo - Marz begins to pick them off one-by-one.

Bill seems to really love Ellie. She is the strangest one out of them and probably the least attractive of the bunch. She's also another surprise, because for a while it almost seems like she's going to make it.

Which brings me to T.P. and the fact that I thought for sure he'd be the surviving hero. Wrong again.

Stacy has a peculiar way about her. I mean... who would go into the woods in the dark by themselves to sit in a canoe and play some flute? She would, and did.

Dave is almost scary at times, but it looks like he just needs the attention... some sort of attention anyway.

Marz's superhuman abilities are demonstrated as he lurks around North Sea Cottages. First, he kills alcohol-swilling cook Dippy simply by swiping his long, sharp fingernails across the man's throat. Then, he pulls free an axe that had been deeply embedded in a tree stump. Earlier, we saw T.P. and Max struggling unsuccessfully to pull the axe out together, as Max has had a longstanding reward offer of $100 to anyone who could get the axe out of the stump. The strength of two men combined couldn't get it to budge, but Marz pulls it out with one hand and a little effort.

You'd think the axe handle would've succumbed by now. But lucky for Marz, it was intact and the axe becomes his weapon of choice.

Marz puts that axe to deadly use as he goes after the counselors, and the scenes of him stalking them in the woods are excellently done. With Stephen Horelick's awesomely '80s electronic score playing over scenes and blasting out stings, we see glimpses of Marz holding his weapons behind characters or watching from behind trees. He raises an axe behind one potential victim, but the person moves on before he can strike. He reaches out for the foot of another, but the person pulls out of reach just in time. He tries to open a car door, but the car drives off... All of this happens without the people he's going after even realizing he's near.

All of those moments work to his advantage, allowing for him to go on with his killing spree without anyone being aware of his presence until it's too late. Richie knew Marz was out there, and I often wonder why he didn't alert everyone at the camp. They probably wouldn't believe him anyway.

The night scenes in the woods are also enhanced by the cinematography of James Lemmo, who often worked with director William Lustig on movies like Maniac Cop, Maniac Cop 2, and Relentless. On Madman and Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45, Lemmo scrambled up his last name to be credited as James Momel. Since Madman is set on a night with a full moon, Lemmo has the moon represented by deeply saturating the image in blue lighting. I know some people don't like the look of blue nights in movies, but I think it looks awesome in Madman, and the unnatural look of it is fitting when paired with the supernatural legend of Madman Marz.

The blue lighting works here, and I think that Marz should've stayed in the shadows. We don't need to see too much of him, and the scenes that only show his silhouette are by far more effective and creepy.

Although Betsy is the lead, the character who gets the extensive chase sequence is Ellie. Marz knocks doors off their hinges or hacks through them with his axe as he pursues her. Ellie tries hard to survive...

And even hides in a place I've never seen anyone else being chased by a slasher hide in.

...but it doesn't save her from meeting a tragic end.

A very tragic one. Just when it appears that she might have gotten a lucky break, she proves to be the unluckiest person of the whole bunch.

Poor Ellie. She had a very good idea of a place to hide, and after that it feels like she might escape, you want her to make it after what she's been through. But she's the one who gets it worst.

As soon as Betsy figures out what's been happening to her fellow counselors, she springs into action, arming herself with a shotgun and getting the children on a bus out of the woods... But being the heroine, she can't just leave without first making sure that everyone who could be saved has been saved. Shotgun in hand, she enters the Marz farmhouse for a climactic confrontation.

I love Betsy vs Marz, though I would've made the ending different. That's another unexpected moment right there, the way their confrontation ends.

Madman is an awesome movie. Outside of the Friday the 13ths, it's one of my favorite slashers of the '80s. Marz makes for a great killer, and despite its low budget it really has style to spare.

I watched Madman for the first time less than a decade ago, and I couldn't believe I hadn't even heard about it until like a year before I got to watch it. I think it's great, and so much fun! Sure, the blood doesn't look so good, the makeup isn't perfect, the acting isn't brilliant, but still... the pace is good, the score goes perfectly with the movie, and the atmosphere is just right. Plus, the "surprises" thrown in here and there make it very interesting.

Giannone and Sales got their indie horror film made, and in doing so created what I feel is an under-recognized classic of the slasher subgenre. It's very well executed and a whole lot of fun to watch.

I agree, I make sure to watch it a few times every year. It's always a very enjoyable experience.

It's a shame Madman didn't catch on as much as some of its indie horror peers of the '70s and '80s did. Joe Giannone never directed another film after this, and unfortunately passed away in 2006. Watching Madman makes me wish we had gotten several more movies from him.

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