Director: Joe Giannone
Words: O. Innocent
From its earliest incarnations the slasher film has always borrowed liberally from urban legends, those macabre tall tales of indeterminate origin that supposedly happened to a friend of a friend’s mother’s cousin twice removed. With their sinister content, designed to frighten or gross out, and underlying morality messages, these stories gelled perfectly with the slasher’s own exploitation machinations. One of the first films to combine the two was the ultra creepy proto-slasher, Black Christmas (1974) which takes as its basis the urban legend of ‘The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs’. Although there’s no babysitting in Black Christmas, the concept of a killer’s disturbing phone calls being traced to the upstairs of the same house receiving the calls is rendered truly terrifying. The same legend is also used to elicit maximum tension in the expertly crafted opening act of When a Stranger Calls (1979).
While the best known slasher films went on to create their own urban legends such as the curse of Camp Crystal Lake in Friday the 13th (1980), the dream demon Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and the killer doll Chucky in Child’s Play (1988), lesser-known entries struggling with creative block raided the urban legend back catalogue for inspiration. The Burning (1981) takes the campfire tale of ‘Cropsey’, a disfigured madman said to kill those who wandered too far into the woods, as its central concept. In a standout scene from The House on Sorority Row (1983) the legend of ‘The Clown Statue’ is brilliantly realised as the statue in question is revealed to be the killer in disguise. The Clive Barker-penned Candyman (1992) offers an interesting variant on the ‘Bloody Mary’ legend as the eponymous spectre materialises when his name is spoken before a mirror five times. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) appropriates aspects of ‘The Hook’ as the film’s ultra hip teens discuss the legend before being stalked by a hook-handed killer. By the late 1990s urban legends had become such an integral aspect of the subgenre that a slasher film came along which explored the concept of urban legends themselves. The appropriately titled Urban Legend (1998) makes explicit the relationship between slasher films and these modern myths, the killer’s modus operandi being the reconstruction of urban legends as murder set-pieces.
One of the most interesting examples of the relationship between slashers and urban legends is the little-seen Madman (1982), another variation on the ‘Cropsey’ legend (the filmmakers tweaked the original concept after they discovered The Burning was in production at the same time). Beginning with a campfire tale recounting the legend of Madman Marz, a maniacal fiend who killed his wife and child before being hanged by the locals and then disappearing without a trace, the film then segues into the usual body count formula as the summer camp staff are dispatched one by one. What raises Madman above many of its contemporaries, preventing it from being just another Friday the 13th cash-in, is its handling of the titular Madman. Rather than your average everyday woodland psycho, Madman Marz is instead positioned as a supernatural entity a la The Shape from Halloween (1978), a ghostly figure who can emerge from the deep dark woods anywhere, anytime – an urban legend made flesh. An eerie mood is established from the get go as the unsettling legend of Madman Marz slowly but surely begins to seep into reality. First spotted in silhouette hiding atop a tree, Marz’s appearances become increasingly sinister as he literally steps out of the shadows of myth and legend and makes a rather violent entry into the real world. For once in a slasher film the killer’s sudden appearances, superhuman strength and imperviousness to damage are entirely justified as Marz is positioned as a myth, and myths aren’t subject to the standard laws of reality. Mars is a great slasher villain, a hulking brute imbued with supernatural powers who boasts some of the most outrageously over-the-top kills of any celluloid psychopath (decapitating a woman by jumping on the bonnet of her car while she fixes the engine is particularly sensational). It’s easy to see where the inspiration for the ghostly killer Victor Crowley and highly exaggerated bloodletting of Hatchet (2006) came from. The perfect blend of slasher exploitation and spooky urban legends, Madman is definitely one of the best ‘80s slasher films you’ve never seen.