I, MADMAN — Fiction Is Reality [Blu-ray Review]

by Brendan Foley

When you give yourself over to a story, you give that story a life that it never could have had otherwise. The dead words on the page, the phony images on the TV, they all take on a reality and a weight that makes no sense when you stop and think about it. I mean, when you’re watching a horror movie, you know that nobody actually died during the thing. Maybe some mental torture went on, sure, but you know that nobody was actually getting sliced and diced. So why do we still fear the false?

Playing at that inherent falsehood has been at the heart of any number of horror films, going all the way back to Caligari and his cabinet. Horror can often be the most meta of genres, acknowledging its own devices and rules, the better to play with audiences’ expectations.

I, Madman, new on Blu from Shout Factory, deals with these questions head-on. The film can’t bring all its pieces together in the end, but it’s a neat, idiosyncratic little chiller that serves as a nice relief to the cookie cutter slasher fare.

The movie follows Virginia (Jenny Wright, she of Near goddamn Dark), a young bookstore clerk who is quietly obsessed with pulp horror novels. Virginia delights in bringing home cheap tomes of tawdry terror (I really nailed that sentence right there you guys, holy crap), often reading her favorite passages of grue and mayhem aloud to her boyfriend, who happens to be a homicide detective.

Virginia, we learn, is especially fascinated by a book called I, Madman, which details the exploits of an insane doctor who cut off his own face and then began harvesting better features from unwilling victims. The book apparently had something of a nasty history before vanishing, so Virginia couldn’t be more excited when a copy suddenly shows up at her door.

She is somewhat less excited when a mysterious figure identical to the book’s killer begins stalking her, leaving a trail of carnage in his wake.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I, Madman is a cheap horror picture from 1989, and it looks and sounds the part. Even on Blu-ray, this is a decidedly flat-looking film, lacking even the dripping, ugly reality that elevates some of its 80s brethren (like a C.H.U.D., for example). It falls victim to many of the flaws that plague the slasher subgenre, and the weak lead performance does little to alleviate things. SO if you are someone who is agnostic on retro-horror, I, Madman may not hold enough to interest you.

For people who do enjoy themselves a nice slasher now again, there’s some cool stuff to be found with the way the film plays with the traditional format. For starter, Virginia as a character fits none of the usual tropes we expect from Scream-esque breakdowns of horror rules. She’s not a teenager, she’s not a virgin, she doesn’t spend a lot of time getting hysterical. Movies like Candyman and The Ring would do better versions of this same character, but it’s still nice to see a horror film where the protagonist is an adult woman who doesn’t get sexualized or brutalized or infantilized. This should not feel like a big deal, but it kind of is.

And while the screenplay is often clumsy, they pull off some neat tricks at times. When Virginia first sees the Madman stalking and murdering someone, it seems like the movie has primed us for a classic “I swear that I saw Character X get murdered! The room is empty and there’s no sign of a struggle but I swear it!” Rear Window bullshit.

Instead the cops get to the scene and discover a guy has been butchered. Whoops.

There’s also this one weird part where Virginia is hanging out at a street corner, trying to spot who the Madman might be picking off next, and she sees the guy sprinting across the street, doing this totally goofy run while cars honk their horns at him. It’s such a weird, out-of-nowhere gag, especially in a subgenre where we are conditioned to accept slow-moving killers like Jason or Michael catching up to their running victims with no problems whatsoever. The Madman has to put in some legwork.

The Madman, and the stuff surrounding him, in general is a cut above the rest of the movie, and you should watch the film just to get a sense of what a weird riff on the Iconic Killer he is. The special effects on his mangled face walk a great line between amusing and nauseating. Much of the gore is a touch wetter and rougher than you might expect from such a wacky set-up, and it helps keep you on your toes as the movie goes along.

It makes sense that the Madman stands out, as he’s played by Randall William Cook. If you’re not familiar with the name, you are familiar with the work. Cook won an Oscar for all three Lord of the Rings movies, and before that he made his bones doing stop-motion animation for movies like The Gate or The Thing or The The. Love that last one. Anywho, Cook’s a big tall guy, and he really throws himself into the physicality of the killer, going big and broad with his movement and his voice. The rest of the cast may have been striving to play reality, but Cook dives into the wackiness without a second look back. And the big climax even gives him a chance to stretch some of those animation muscles.

I, Madman is not a lost classic that you must revisit, but it is an interesting enough riff on a classic subgenre that I think fans will get a kick out of it. You’re not supposed to say this, but this is a movie that could use a good remake, one that could build on the interesting ideas and maybe do a stronger version.

Get Charlie Kaufman on that, folks. And he could play the Madman! Holy shit you guys let’s make this movie right now, let’s Kickstart and GoFund and all that other awesome-sauce. To the streets!

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