There have been hundreds of movies just like “Madison County” since the slasher boom hit in the early 1980s – collection of attractive young people venture into a place where they shouldn’t be, mysterious killer begins bumping them off one-by-one, most perceptive/down-to-earth guy or gal (but usually gal) manages to barely escape with his/her life.
What sets “Madison County” apart from many of its ultra-low-budget forebears is the clear amount of care director Eric England has utilized in constructing the film’s handsomely-articulated visual landscape. At only 23 years old, the helmer has a keen, sophisticated cinematographic eye (employed alongside director of photography David Starks) that makes him more than worthy of securing a spot on our collective radars.
All of that said, “Madison County” is far from a perfect film, and the majority of its failings can be attributed to England’s banal, largely unconvincing script – though as I will argue later, considerations such as plot and dialogue seem almost besides the point in what essentially amounts to an above-average directing sample.
In a nutshell, the film centers on a group of five college-age friends – wiry, intelligent Will (Matt Mercer) and his girlfriend Brooke (Joanna Sotamura); Brooke’s overprotective older brother Kyle (Ace Marrero); and a pair of flirtatious friends, Jenna (Natalie Scheetz) and James (Colley Bailey) – as they travel to the rural county of the title to track down the author of a tell-all book which recounts several local murders.
Problem is, when the kids arrive in town the author is nowhere to be found; and what’s more, the glowering locals claim not to have seen him in years. I don’t think it’s giving anything away (if you’ve seen the poster, you know this) that a silent killer wearing a pig’s mask subsequently begins stalking the group to keep them from finding out…well, what, exactly?
Given the relative simplicity of the plot, it’s hard not to see “Madison County” as anything but a purely stylistic exercise – a way for England to demonstrate his bona fides as a formalist. And in that more limited sense, it mostly succeeds; the film contains a number of shots that struck me with their compositional beauty and refinement. In this age of found-footage shaky-cam horror cinema – believe me, with the monstrous success of “The Devil Inside” last weekend we’ll be seeing plenty more of that – considerations of formal elegance are becoming increasingly more rare, and that’s unfortunate.
By contrast, England has concerned himself with following in the footsteps of the old genre masters (Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is an obvious influence), and if he doesn’t quite transcend mere mimicry in that regard, he has a clear gift for wringing the maximum amount of production value out of severely limited resources (IMDB lists the film’s budget at a teensy $70,000). Truly, it’s amazing what the a simple dolly shot can do to at least momentarily paper over a film’s starved financial realities.
The acting here is pretty much what you’d expect from a low-budget slasher, though the main cast of young performers seem to have been given a bit more improvisational license than usual, which actually helps to give the dialogue scenes (particularly those between Mercer and Sotamura) a refreshing sense of play. While I can’t say I actually felt anything for any of England’s young victims, I still respected his intermittently successful attempts at giving them actual personalities. In some sense, the slow build employed here reminded me of Sean S. Cunningham’s “Friday the 13th”, particularly in the way we’re given brief glimpses into the characters’ inner lives (“It just keeps getting louder and louder, and then the rain turns to blood…”) before the shit truly hits the proverbial fan.
Hardcore slasher fans will probably bemoan “Madison County”‘s relatively low gore quotient, and it’s true that some of the kills here feel far too obligatory and unimaginative (one murder that takes place at a swimming hole receives a nifty setup and a comparatively lousy payoff, for instance). And I’m sorry to report that the minimal practical effects work, worked up by Robert Hall’s Almost Human studio (which also created the pig mask worn by the killer), is also relatively sub-par, failing to convince in the near-seamless fashion modern horror fans have come to expect.
In fact, the best kills in the film work because of what you don’t see, particularly a vicious outdoor stabbing in the final reel that owes more than a small debt to the famed Janet Leigh shower murder in “Psycho” (an observation I can’t credit to myself, though it’s one I wholly agree with in hindsight) in the way it utilizes a succession of rapid edits to suggest far more brutality than it actually shows. That’s a testament to England’s skill (with an obvious debt owed to his editor Levi Blue) as an invigorating visual storyteller who, if given a decent script, I can see making a truly good film and not just – and this is what “Madison County” ultimately boils down to – a convincing demonstration of his aesthetic strengths.