There have been plenty of horror movies that point to the genre’s cliches, some intentionally with satire and levels of meta, while others point to these same cliches in a way that seems completely unintentional. In these unintentionally cliche films, the tropes fly by in a way that seem less referential than an unwittingly earnest telling of a familiar story. There are no winks to the audience, no affirmation of the well known plot points, just a loving rehash of used up material. If nothing else, Madison County, written and directed by Eric England, is a particularly loving rehash of the slasher.
The story of Madison County is about as assembly line horror as you could possibly imagine. A group of teenage-ish friends take a road trip to somewhere distant and remote. The variants within the plot never really matter because it ends up in the same place, at a creepy gas station/diner in a creepier town with residents acting overtly creepy. We move on to the teenagers separating into smaller groups for reasons that are only logical as a plot device. They separate because the script calls for it, never because it would actually make sense.
There are two points, though, that this movie nearly makes a turn into a clever play on the slasher film. The first point is when a local recommends a short cut, as they are wont to do in most horror movies, but the teenagers ignore this advice, unlike most horror movies. I won’t say what comes of that decision but it was divergent enough to make it seem that the movie might turn a little introspective. The second point is that nighttime never comes; no darkness of any kind really. It’s actually strangely bright through the entirety of the film. If any time were spent on these moments of distinction Madison County could have slipped into the kind of movie that nods to the horror cliches, and what works about them, while forging something new.
Unfortunately, though, these two points pass by with little more than an eyebrow raise. The makers of the film never really focus on these moments of differentiation, seeming to be intent to retell us the same slasher story we have seen so many times before, and that is really a shame. It’s a shame because they introduce one of the more memorable masked madmen of the last decade. Sure he borrows a lot from his predecessors, Leatherface especially, but when he finally gets screen time he is effectively menacing and noticeably frightening. It’s also a shame because of the skill involved in the filmmaking. Considering the budget and the scope, there is a lot that works here on a logistic level. You can tell that Eric England can deliver a story, he just seems intent on delivering a story we’ve all seen before.
Madison County can’t really be dismissed because it creates a relatively successful slasher movie. On the other hand, it can’t really be commended because it never breaks out of the cookie cutter plot structure. If you’re looking to see a pure slasher that doesn’t break any new ground, but also doesn’t betray what has worked in the slashers before it, you could do much worse than Madison County. The disappointing part, though, is you can’t shake the feeling that Madison County could have done much, much better.