As oddball eighties horror movies go I, Madman certainly is mad. It is like a bizarre nerdy version of The Phantom of The Opera although I suspect it was pitched as like A Nightmare on Elm Street but with books instead of dreams. What’s not to like?
Near Dark’s Jenny Wright stars as wannabe actress who works in a book shop on Sunset Boulevard. She comes across some pulpy old book written by a Malcom Brand which deals with monsters in chests and crazy old scientists. Acknowledging that it is hokey nonsense Wright still wants to read Brand’s other book I, Madman. Once she starts reading that, events start happening in real life that reflect what is on the written page. These events, and when I say events I mean brutal murders, are caused by a faceless killer in a big cloak and fancy beret. And when I say faceless I mean he literally has no face, as he cut it off in some previous crazed moment. Don’t worry he is using bits of his victims to rebuild his image, mostly to impress Wright. Needless to say she is not impressed. Even less impressed is her police detective boyfriend who thinks she’s making the whole thing up.
So that’s the basics of the film. What doesn’t come across is how I, Madman is cleanly shot like a lush mainstream Hollywood movie with some lovely nods to film noir. It has moody lighting with great use of dark spaces and silhouette to hide Brand (but also to show him off). Clayton Rohner as her boyfriend may be a modern policeman but he dresses and acts like he’s stumbled out of a Raymond Chandler novel. Then there’s lovely long shots out of Wright’s apartment window viewing her neighbour playing piano, a touch of light in a sea of darkness.
Wright is also a great noir-like heroine. Berated by her boyfriend for being crazy and Brand for being the object of his desire, Wright is an old fashioned character who might not have the more modern fight back of a final girl but is willing to put herself in harm’s way to solve the mystery and stop the monster. Jenny Wright is an alluring screen presence. It’s a shame she she quit acting a few years after this but then maybe she wasn’t utilized as well as she is here. There are a number of flashback scenes where she plays other characters and dips in and out of madness herself occasionally, all with a great commitment to her role. Her main character, Virginia, is both brave and frightened at the same time, never an easy thing to pull off, but she’s also bookish and nerdy and really likeable. It’s no wonder Brand wants her heart… literally.
Malcolm Brand himself is also a throwback to older movie monsters. When we first meet him he’s a weird old mad professor type, but he also has a sharp long nose and pointy teeth like Nosferatu. Brand could have been a tragic figure, especially the way he swoops around in the darkness like a Phantom pining after Virginia, but instead Randall William Cook plays him like a horrible, demented person, a madman if you will, and he’s all the better for it.
The film certainly looks good enough to have been at some point someone’s idea as a contender to knock Freddy Kruger off his crown. Clearly a decent amount if money has been spent on it. But I, Madman is playing to the beat of its own drum. It doesn’t care about teens in peril, it wants to focus on just one interesting woman with an obsession with pulp fiction. Books were never going to get that young demographic down to the multiplexes the way Freddy and his nightmares did, they’re just not “cool” enough. But director Tibor Takacs obviously doesn’t care about any of that. He clearly loves this world he has created: there is literally a scene where Virginia tries to escape from brand by running up a mountain of novels.
And I love the world of I, Madman too. Its slick enough to be an easy watch but it’s also interested in how literature can spill into real life, and how real life can look like a detective novel. Like the heroine, I, Madman might just be crazy but what’s so wrong with crazy?