Madison County (2011) - Here in America where close to 80% of the population lives in urban areas the idea of the isolated communities is something most of us don't experience. Most people have never lived in a community where the hundred or so inhabitants all know each other. We see ads glorifying God and country and they are always some tired looking farmer leaning on his pickup truck. His rough hands shown in close up to let us know he works hard with them. We hear politician somehow trying to qualify small town America as "Real Americans" not even thinking that they are really just insulting eighty percent of the population with their idealistic banter. Lack of exposure though has another side, the isolation that closes those communities to us also create a breeding ground in our heads. We are the outsider when we head to a small town in rural America. We are the one everyone looks at skeptically questioning our motives. We get ideas about what those communities are hiding, why do they stay so alone with a whole world surrounding them? It is a attractive area that has been thoroughly mined by the horror genre. Madison County written and directed by Eric England take another stab into this territory.
The story is the classic formula, get a small group of victims go out into the country so they can inexplicably separate and be killed by the local psychopath. Ah but it is not quite that simple and England should be given credit for the gimmick he sets up. James (Colley Bailey) is working on his thesis about a serial killer named Damien (Nick Principe) he read about in a book by writer David Randall (Dayton Knoll). Randall has been in touch with James only through letters and it spurs James to plan a trip out to Madison County where the killer roamed to interview locals about him and Randall's book. In the book Damian (Yule?) kills 33 people and the story goes that the townspeople did not turn him in. The contrivance actually works on a couple levels. It gets the trip together with James, his friend Will (Matt Mercer) with Brooke (Joanna Sotomura) secretly dating James and Jenna (Natalie Scheetz) with an interest in Will, and Brooke's brother Kyle (Ace Marrero) along for the ride as chaperone heading out on this adventure. Given the back story about the town and killer as well as the fact that David Randall had no internet also creates a tension that the trip will be one where help will be hard to get and communication difficult. I was glad that never did any of the characters reach for a cell phone to let us know they had no signal, that trope has long become cliche.
The story sort of plays out as you would expect once they are on the road. Internal tension comes from brother Kyle not liking James and not knowing the two are already dating. Also from the inevitable struggle of what they should do when things start seeming really wrong with the place. External tension comes from creepy people, first a man in a dark blue pickup who after being a bit too interested in what the kids are doing tries to give them directions to "shorten" there trip. A blue truck is seen again as a sign that our victims may not be alone. Some catches of someone walking in the woods also heightens the feeling that the group is being watched. Then there is the diner they stop at where the patrons all stare and the little old lady behind the counter is just a bit strange. It all give a very satisfying setup. The director does a pretty good job creating that belly feeling you get when you know something is not right in a horror movie. It would have been more effective without the music loudly giving away moments as they built.
It seemed quite a bit of effort was put into making the victims accept that nothing too strange was going on. There were lead in, with the Blue truck and Will thinking he saw a leg hiding behind a tree in one of his photo's. After the diner scene where a local pulls a knife on Will and only Kyle's hard stare ended the situation, they should have all been a lot more on edge. Still though they make a trip out to the supposed house of the writer and then the film falls into some tried and true routines that leave fans of horror films yawning.
As the characters climb the posted no trespassing fence we as an audience know things are about to go horribly wrong. Even though there was much writing effort put into keeping the character attitude nonchalant as they decide to split up and ultimately set up the final act. It is very frustrating to the viewer to watch. It leads me to wonder whether there is a good way to perform the necessary separation without pissing off the audience. It is a trope of horror films particularly slasher films that is necessary but way to expected after 40 years of the sub genre.
The last act pays off with the group being whittled away by Damian trying hard to be iconic in his pig head mask. We have the hope for survivors but really with a small cast this could have ended as a everyone dies story. The twists are solid with David Randall coming into play before the end. The editing in this section is also really well done and may have been more praise worthy if not for the overdone musical accompaniment. Still in the end though this is a slasher and slashers are inevitible for most of the characters in the story. This leads to one more piece of film making that was very effective. Throughout the film the use of foreground focus and background blurry movement was very effective. It was so cool to see the face of the prey while the killer moved up into focus from behind, or scurried in the bushes of the background. Then the final time this is used when Brooke gets to the road and in the background we see her salvation in the background and know she chose to walk the wrong direction on that road. Very well done Mr. England.
In the end I think there is something to be seen in Madison County. It carries the baggage of a genre well explored but there is some engaging and interesting film making while exploring that well trodden path. There is always something for city folk to fear in rural America and in this case its wearing a pigs head.