Psychotronic Ketchup: Madman (1981)

Director/Writer: Joe Giannone
Jensen Farley Pictures, 1:28, color
Cinema 4 Rating: 4

Oh, Betsy! Do leave us...

Sure, one of the kids that populates the "retreat for gifted children" in this micro-budgeted New York slasher flick from 1981 begs for Betsy not to leave them as she heads out to search for the bodies of her missing fellow camp counselors. But you won't miss her. With her straight blonde locks and her eyes popping out of her flat face, Betsy sometimes seems like the twisted offspring from a threesome rutting between Veronica Lake, Buster Keaton and Don Knotts... but that's not why I want to see her leave.

You see, Betsy represents that which I despise: the worrywart who worries so much "about the children" that she ruins everyone's good time. If she makes it through Madman alive -- and I am betting she doesn't -- surely Betsy will become one of those mothers that slaps stickers on record albums, puts helmets on bicyclists and kneepads on skateboarders, and starts counting acts of violence in prime-time television shows. She will picket for censorship as long as it doesn't shut her up too, and she will demand warning labels on every toy for even the slightest reason. She will try to do away with grades which place children at different levels of achievement, and she will eventually make sure every child is rewarded equally, whether they deserve the praise, ribbon or trophy or not.

She will eventually evolve into one of those Worry Moms who will call the FBI every time that someone of non-Caucasian descent wanders into the neighborhood or just dares to whisper to someone else of their own race. Betsy, you have to go. Your America might seem safer to you thanks to your efforts, while my America -- the one that is about personal freedom and the one that is supposed to give every one of any background or origin a fair shake at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- my America has been smothered by your type.

In Madman, Betsy complains when the owner of the camp, a William Daniels-type named Max, decides to tell scary stories about a local killer around the campfire. I don't know who short-sheeted you and where or when, Betsy, but that is exactly what campfires in the woods are for: to scare the shit out of little kids and the weak of heart. The set-up for the story is that next door to the camp there is, in Max's words, "a dilapidated home" where many, many years earlier, a monstrous farmer kills his family with an axe. When he goes to the local tavern with the bloody axe in hand, after some investigation, he is hung by the outraged townspeople. But his body disappears from the tree where he was hanging, and even worse, no one can locate the bodies of his family. Max holds back on telling the name of this killer until the end, when an immensely annoying kid named Richie demands to know it. Max says that if you say the farmer's name, Madman Marz, above a whisper, then Marz will return to kill you and everyone around you. Naturally, Richie yells his name as a dare, and to seal the deal, he throws a rock through the window of the dilapidated house. And then the fun begins.

Michael Weldon, in the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, mentions that this film is unique in that "all the sympathetic characters get wiped out. Only the wiseguy who started all the trouble remains intact at the conclusion of the film." This would be a significant thing, and hope for class clowns and wiseacres everywhere (such as myself), if the film didn't waste this opportunity. Because the film starts at the campfire, we are given no buildup to show Richie as a wiseass -- we only gather this assumption from his moment where he yells the Madman's name. From that point on, he is as dopey and inconsequential as everyone else in the film. So, he makes it through? Big deal! He is brain-addled and crazy by the end too, so what does that count as? Survival? I don't think so... only when a true prankster and wiseacre makes it all the way through a slasher film intact and coherent, ready to pester nonstop and fart anew with his armpit, will I be pleased. This one gave me hope, but Richie is a big, blithering idiot nothing from moment one.

And those supposedly sympathetic characters that get killed off? Screw 'em... not a single one of them elicits even the slightest bit of sympathy in me, and they are merely fodder for the slasher killer in the same way as the even more truly despicable characters from other more famous films. And at least those counselors and teenagers, generally an attractive lot, tend to get naked before biting it, adding a little extra scenery to those films. A local New York production, Madman is simply crawling with enough unattractive women to make one wonder if the camp is actually Our Lady of the Homely Spinsters Summer Retreat. Of course, these girls, including Betsy (who should only die I tell you), all behave somewhat like the more attractive girls in those other films. We get a handful of whoopee-making scenes, including what has to be the least seductive hot tub scene in a horror film ever.

After a slow strip process, wherein we are given not one, but two frightening closeups of the guy's outie belly button as he undoes his belt, Betsy and her beau climb naked into the tub. Over some horrible synthesizer-drowned romantic music, the lovers proceed to circle each other around and around and around and around and around the tub, before finally falling together in a supposedly erotic clinch that I still maintain is half her trying to consume him bodily by sucking his juices out via her mouth and half him trying to keep a goddamn gorgon at bay. Of course, the film, despite its gore (which is only halfway decent, though there are a couple of clever kill scenes, however preposterous), is too genteel to really give us much in the way except simple teasing in its sex scenes, and the camera thankfully cuts away before we are given a third shot at his outie belly button and her popping eyes engaged in full, icky love-making.

Speaking of horrible creatures, what about the Madman himself? The lasting impression after several scenes in which we see just a little too much of Madman Marz is that -- well, if you have ever seen Shriek of the Mutilated (and damn it, why haven't you?), then just imagine one of those white Yeti costumes in a set of farmer's overalls. It's not an exact match, but it's the image I have resonating within my skull a couple of days later. Well, that and the horrid hot tub scene.

And so, outside of the actor in the Madman Marz get-up, the only one I feel sorry for at all in the film is Max, and that's because Betsy whines to him about scaring the widdle childwen. This man knows how to run a summer camp, and damn it, scary stories at the campfire go with the territory as much as putting someone's hand in warm water while they doze. Look, I'm not one for spoilers, and there's no real big surprise in store in this film anyway. Betsy gets it, and she gets it good. She dies in exactly the way you hope she does once she reprimands Max for doing his duty as the owner of a summer camp. And on the way to that glorious death at the hands of Madman Marz, Betsy will do a couple of really stupid things that make you clamor for her execution all the more.

Besides, if she survived, we would have just one more fear-mongering, fun-quashing, passive-aggressively racist Worry Mom on our hands, some of the true terrorists of our age.

Hell, maybe we need Madman Marz more than ever. Richie, you're still alive. Why don't you open your big mouth again, and get the ball rolling once more?

[Editor's note: Betsy is played by Gaylen Ross, hiding under the alias Alexis Dubin for some reason I don't feel like researching, because I don't care. All of my comments are about the character of Betsy, not Ms. Ross, whom I don't know a single thing except that she -- surprise! -- has two other film credits on her resume... and they are doozies! She played the annoying adulterous wife whom Leslie Nielsen kills in Creepshow's "Something to Tide You Over" segment, and in another Romero effort, she plays the even-more-annoying-than-Betsy character of Francine in the original Dawn of the Dead. It seems playing characters that you want to see dead from moment one is a specialty of hers...]


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