A Thousand Words on Madison County

I haven’t been this impressed with a slasher in a good long time. I want to say since Cabin in the Woods. And before that . . . Tucker & Dale vs. Evil? Behind the Mask: Leslie Vernon? Except none of them quite play it Golden Age, either. And that’s good, don’t get me wrong. As you can tell from Demon Theory and The Last Final Girl, self-aware’s more than fine with me. Almost all the slashers to come all along after 1996 have been the children of Scream, after all, if not clones. And you can hardly ask for better parentage. But there’s been hybrids, too. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. Cry_Wolf, Kill Theory. Maybe even The Hole, if you squint just right. And there’s been straight-down-the-middle throwback slashers like Hatchet, say. And, though it prefers the ‘grindhouse’ label, still, Deathproof’s by the numbers, and hardly embarassed of its slashery goodness. And just a couple of days ago I was talking about The Mooring, which has that same throwback appeal. And that’s an appeal that’s not about nostalgia, but tone and delivery—a lack of irony coupled with a seriously low budget.

This is where Madison County lives and breathes.

And, before you ask, no, I have no clue why that’s got to be the name. In itself, it’s not bad, but it’s kind of evocative of a certain ‘bridges’ romance novel, eventually starring Clint Eastwood . . .

Could be there’s some territorial dispute I’ll never understand. Maybe Madison County’s trying to reclaim the name, get it bloody enough that nobody else’ll want it.

If only Madison County had a different title, though, man, it’s built to explode. I so wish I’d seen it on the big screen. Just because, in the real Golden Age of slasherdom, come on: I was ten. I first met Freddy and Jason and Michael on a VCR player in my friend’s garage in eighth grade. But, that spike of terror, that shriek that happens when kid-Jason came up out of the water in 1980, I’ve still never seen it in a theater. I’ve only been able to read about it. To talk to people who there.

Madison County, though. Had this come along in 1986, say, just a couple years after Freddy and Terminator, or 88, the year the director/writer was born, when the sequel baggage of all the franchises was getting so heavy something was about to give—I don’t know. Maybe it could have propped the slasher up for a bit more. And, it’s built for a franchise: there’s the signature weapon, there’s the trespassers keep out back country, there’s that iconic mask, there’s the broken down general store like a last outpost, there’s lifelong banjo duellists hanging around, and, most importantly, there’s reasons for sequels and sequels of kids and investigators and parents and lost people to keep winding up here.

We might have had that Butcher Boy face on our lunchboxes, I mean, had Madison County come out twenty-five or thirty years ago. The mask in Saw would have been derivative. And there would have been variations, other studios trying to capitalize with horse-head killers, sheep-faced mama’s boys with chainsaws, and on and on.

So, to back up: a group of college kids traipse out to this small town, to track down the writer of a book about a local legend of a killer. And then that killer starts killing them all.

It’s so simple it’s elegant.

And, what really makes Madison County work, it’s director/writer Eric England. And the cinematographer, David Starks. This is a beautiful movie, and it’s just beautifully shot, and cut, and everything. I even dug the music, especially when it went all drums. And these unknowns who make up the cast, man, either England gets some great performances from them or they’re names we should be paying attention to.

Most movies I see, there’s always chinks in the facade, like. Places I pretend to myself I could have done it better, if only, you know, I’d been to film school, and a host of other dominoes had fallen into place.

Not so with Madison County.

Well, except for the title.

Otherwise, this as about as good as the slasher gets.

Too, these last couple of weeks, I’ve been watching a lot of slasher stuff, and reading a lot of slasher stuff. Like every month, yes. This time, though, I’m coming to realize that micro-budget deforms the films in really beautiful ways. What no money results in nine times out of ten is “let’s go to the woods to do this.” Which is the first step of any slasher: isolate this crew of not-dead-yets. And then, because effects are expensive, you do it like Hooper did in 1974: with suggestion. With letting our cringing eyes complete the action, hang the girl on that hook. And then what you need are believable reasons for this group to keep splitting up, and ignoring the obvious, and that’s just—‘just,’ yes—writing, whatever the money. And Madison County’s got that writing. Eric England did that kind of writing.

Seriously, if you’re any kind of slasher fan, this one’s a must-see, and probably a must-own. Madison County’s upping the stakes on the whole genre. It’s reminding us that the slasher model or style or formula or genre is still vital, when done right. It’s color-by-numbers, sure, and there’s only really one color, but when you step back, see it all, man. There’s nothing better than a slasher done right. And this one’s as right as it gets.

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