Synopsis: A bookshop clerk and wannabe actress starts seeing the disfigured killer from her 1950s pulp novels come to life and start killing people around her.
Stars: Jenny Wright, Clayton Rohner, Randall William Cook, Stephanie Hodge, Michelle Jordan, Vance Valencia
Director: Tibor Takács
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Growing up frequenting several local video stores, I became familiar with their selection so I could spot a new release from twenty paces. That’s how I easily eyeballed the box cover for I, Madman when it made its debut at Good Neighbor Video in the Nokomis neighborhood by my grandma’s house in 1990. A rather innocuous bit of VHS box art in general, it had a small image of a redheaded woman being attacked by a masked killer and that’s about all you had to go on. Nothing screamed creative or original so it would be easy to see why it would have been passed over on the shelves in much the same way it was passed over in theaters when it opened in April 1990. Heck, I didn’t even find my way to the film until this year and that was only after obtaining a copy of an out of print BluRay I picked up on a whim thinking it would be a good investment.
Turns out that I, Madman is better than the VHS cover we all judged and more in line with the poster you can see above. It’s a lower-budgeted affair from Trans World Entertainment group (also owners of Musicland, Sam Goody, and other music stores of that late ‘70s and ‘80s era) but what it may have gotten shorted in budget it more than makes up for in imagination, at least at first. Created in the eye of the teen slasher hurricane, it didn’t have a Freddy, Jason, or Michael Myers-type built in fan base that would be guaranteed to come out in droves for the opening weekends. Instead, it relied upon an entirely new and wholly original creation to instill some shocks and was mostly successful in its assignment.
Virginia (Jenny Wright, one of those ‘80s stars that could have had a big career but fell prey to the dark side of Hollywood) loves getting lost in a good book so it’s lucky the struggling actress supplants her stalled career working at a used bookstore in Los Angeles. Sharing a shift with the sassy Mona (Stephanie Hodge) she recently picked out a bit of ‘40s-esque pulp from an estate sale donation to the store and as the film opens is nervously making her way through a tale of terror involving a mad doctor and his beastly creation. Frightening herself, she invites her cop boyfriend Richard (Clayton Ronher, April Fool’s Day) over and he picks up right away that’s she repeating a pattern of scaring herself on another novel of suspense.
Director Tibor Takács takes a script by David Chaskin (the infamous writer of the sequel to the first A Nightmare on Elm Street and somewhat unwitting star of Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street) and gives it some LA noir grit to it, often making Virginia herself a character in her own story. There’s a neat little shot where present day Virginia exits into the shadows only to emerge seconds later as a dolled-up would-be victim from a time gone by. When Virginia comes into possession of the only other novel written by the author of the previous book that gave her the shivers, she can’t suspect that opening those pages would unleash a wave of terror that will endanger the lives of everyone she knows and loves. By starting to read the book, I, Madman, she unlocks a killer from his literary confines and allows him access to her life and her friends. Of course, this being the era where people still say “I’ll be right back!” and ask dark alleys “Who’s out there?” no one believes her until it’s too late and she’s forced to face the grotesque killer in an over-the-top finale.
For an 89 minute film, I’d say there’s a solid 55-60 minutes where I, Madman is humming along nicely, doling out spooky scares and Takács creating an unusual amount of atmosphere for a picture of this type. There’s ghoulishness to the proceedings but it’s not excessive or offensive (well, there’s a strangely unerotic early sex scene between Wright and Rohner that’s more embarassing to watch than sexy). It likely won’t fulfill the bloodlust of gore hounds but it won’t let the easily grossed out off the hook either. The killer is played by Randall William Cook, the three-time Oscar winner for Make-Up Design for the entire Lord of the Rings film series, wearing an ever-evolving doozy of a skin graft to his mottled face. Also designing the frightening make-up for his slicing and dicing maniac, Cook pulls double duty (and even triple if you count his work on the special visual effects) and doesn’t seem to be fazed by any of it. His acting is strong and doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to be comical or discovering a quip for every kill. It’s a nice match between him and the semi-awake Wright. Always sort of floating through whatever film she was in, she has a way with making these characters feel alive even though they appear to be checked out. I also liked Hodge’s silly man-eater, it’s your traditional pre-cougar type supporting older female role but Hodge isn’t playing to the lowest common denominator, either.
It’s not the most exciting non-franchise slasher film you’re going to see this or any year but it’s definitely worth getting your hands on for a look at least once. There’s some interesting filmmaking in addition to several inspired and spirited performances, not to mention special make-up effects that are incredibly impressive. I wish it had followed through with its commitment to the pulp fiction and noir elements it carefully introduces in the first half but it sadly abandons them for something more familiar and palatable for less discerning audiences. Had Chaskin and Takács stuck with their themes and mood, there was a fair to decent chance I, Madman could have become more than just a fondly remembered film by those that know of its existence and moved to a true cult status with a larger following.