Written & directed by Eric England
Horror fans have a love hate relationship with the slasher genre. For the most part we keep a soft spot in our hearts for the classic franchises and one off films of the eighties. We’ll often overlook or even embrace the glaring flaws of these films-the poor acting, the glaring plot holes, the rigid morality that punishes overt sexuality or cutting loose with a drink or twelve-as long as the kill scenes deliver. Perhaps it’s feeling of contentment (similar to the feelings that her binky and teddy bear evoke in my two year old), the idea that we know what we’re getting ourselves into, that brings fans back to the slasher.
Madison County’s opening moments are familiar to anyone that’s ever watched a slasher film. A battered, bruised and near nude young woman escapes from the back of a pickup truck and runs screaming down the road for help. Her captor incapacitates her and drags her back. What makes this scene different from the hundreds of others is the action takes place in full view of an old timer resting his heels on his front porch without a care in the world. The relaxed look on the codger’s face clues the viewer in that this is just a typical afternoon in town and that Madison County will bring just enough new ideas to the table to make for an enjoyable time.
One of the biggest flaws of modern slasher films is the seeming inability to create likeable cannon fodder. Part of the allure of the classic slasher is the kids in the theater could empathize with the kids on screen. Post Scream, when the slasher film experienced a revival of sorts, studios began filling movies with the stars of CW dramas looking for a project in between seasons. Even worse, the thought of scripting compelling characters one could root for was chucked out the window and replaced with textbook douche nozzles and chuckleheads you couldn’t wait to see bit it in horrific and painful ways. Madison County takes the time to a create likeable, if bland, group of college students en route to slaughter. Even the token jerk of the group is given a reason for his surliness (he can’t stand his sister’s boyfriend and tags along to keep an eye on him) and while he never warms up, he at least comes around to backing up his companions when called upon.
James (Colley Bailey) is a journalism major investigating the truth behind a new book detailing the crimes of an unknown serial killer and a small town’s complicity in covering his tracks. His potential girlfriend, best friend, best friend’s girlfriend and best friend’s girlfriend’s surly older brother tag along for a ride to the back water town. The locals are, of course, none too helpful or happy to see the kids and insist the book is nothing more than a flight of fancy from the long-since left town author. Smelling something funky (aside from the deer musk the redneck hunters cover themselves in) the group sets out to investigate on their own.
We’ve seen this movie before and have a strong notion that things aren’t going to turn out well for our Scooby gang. Yet writer/director Eric England brings just enough in the way fresh ideas along with a confidence in his own abilities to make Madison County a decent watch. For one, he’s got a fantastic slasher killer in Damien (Nick Principe, “Chromeskull” in the Laid to Rest franchise). Sticking to the strong and silent mold of villainy, Damien still finds a way to taunt his potential victims through body language and mocking squeals when they beg for help or mercy. England also demonstrates a flair for framing an iconic shot, including a stalking from behind sequence (while our poor schlub is taking a leak no less. Can you think of a more undignified way to go, with your willy hanging out for the forensics team to find when investigating the crime scene?) and a landscape shot of Damien striding towards his his unaware prey. There’s also a laugh out loud “missed connection” moment that kicks off the epilogue that displays fantastic gallows humor.
Not so out of the norm is Madison County’s reliance on having otherwise intelligent characters take stupid pills in order to necessitate poor decisions that drive the plot forward. While there are precious few absolutes in life, I can tell you with certainty that one of them is if I never see another film where a group of friends stumble upon mysterious circumstances and decide to scatter like the wind and explore it will be too soon. In the thirty years of the slasher film someone out there MUST have come up with an idea to create tension n ways aside from having a young couple wandering aimlessly through the murder shack.
Also, I’ve always struggled to accept that a generation of Mortal Kombat playing kids that had the phrase “FINISH HIM” burned into their brains fail to press the advantage when they have a killer at their mercy. When faced with a human threat that believes washing himself in your best friend’s blood will attract the ladies in a similar manner as Axe body wash, then taking one more swing of the pickaxe, or driving the business end of a shovel through the adversaries throat should be high on one’s priorities list before hoofing it away on foot.
The overall impression Madison County left me with is it was like very good Chinese food. I knew what I was getting going into it, definitely enjoyed it while it was on, but found myself hungry for something more an hour or so later. Madison County manages to deliver a few nice wrinkles, but it’s not too far removed from the norm. It’s definitely worth the watch on a night you’re looking for some comfort food.