Monday, June 30, 2008

I, Madman (1989): or, She Got the Books That Kill!

It's a MAD Mad Mad Mad Movie Week--Day One, Review #97

Trivia Question: What's more awesome than a rampaging stop-motion Jackal/Human Hybrid monster? Answer after the review.

I had seen I, Madman back in the days of 49¢ VHS rental binges at my local college-town Hastings, and I remembered liking it a great deal. Of course the same could be said of roughly a hundred-million half-forgotten horror flicks I wolfed down those days along with generous helpings of cold pizza and Icehouse beer. Some of those I've revisited and found that drunkenness and the nightmare visions induced by grease-poisoning had more to do with my memories of horror than the flicks themselves. So when I decided to give this one a spin after all these years, I kept my expecations cautiously low.

I needn't have. I, Madman is a fun, frantic, and even frightening slice of 80s goodness, served with just the right sprinking of shredded cheese. Good gore, a wild plot, and a striking visual style all add up to make this a new favorite in the pantheon of glossy fear flicks from that decade of my youth.

We open in a brightly lit hotel with candy-colored decor and an outrageous wrought-iron balustrade atop a spiral staircase. The fashions and set design all point to a 1940s Hollywood setting. A blinking neon light outside throws pulsing red flashes through the window of Dr. Kessler's apartment as he leaves for the night. Kessler (played by Randall William Cook in great Max Schreck-makeup) barely acknowledges the talky bellhop, who then turns to his manager to comment in a stagey voice what a weirdo that Dr. Kessler is! When they get a call from Kessler's neighbor complaining of animal sounds in the doctor's room, the manager himself goes up to investigate.

The manager finds Dr. Kessler's room in disarray--rotting food, strange medical implements, fetuses floating in specimen jars, and even some scat on the floor that could be from a dog... It must be said that the art direction here is top notch, with the weird shapes in shadow and the red neon pulsing every now and then like a heartbeat to reveal just a little bit more. Cool, creepy stuff.

The manager finds a strange steamer trunk peppered with airholes, and hears a tiny high-pitched voice say "Daddy?" "My god--it's a child!" the manager says, and opens the lock on the trunk before rushing to the phone to call the cops. When he turns around the trunk is open and the "child" is gone. There's a very effective build-up of suspense as the manager hears something moving in the room and struggles to see what it is, only to have it finally revealed: AN AMAZING STOP-MOTION JACKAL BEAST! The humanoid dog-man goes all Harryhausen on the manager's ass--for you kids at home, that equals AWESOME--and then...

Much of Madness, More of Sin--The Vicar's Autobiography

Virginia slams the book closed, shocked at what she's just read. Yes, it was all a story...or was it? Virginia (played by the absolutely luscious Jenny Wright of Near Dark and Pink Floyd's The Wall fame) is ROCKIN' the 1940s nightgown and hairstyle--she was born in the wrong era, clearly, because she looks absolutely smashing here--and her appartment also has period accoutrements. She hears animal noises just like those described in the book, and goes to her door to investigate, when...SHOCK! HORROR! ROOOOOWR!

Virginia slams the book closed, shocked at what she's just read. Aha--a DOUBLE frame! You don't see those every day! Oh, wait, yes you do. Anyway, the real Virginia (still Jenny Wright, still gorgeous, though now in 80s owl-glasses and a panties/silk shirt ensemble...zang) is reading an obscure pulp novel by little-known writer Malcolm Brand, a copy of which she came across at the used book store in Hollywood where she works. She's a wannabe actress--aren't they all?--dating a cop (Clayton "Hey, I've seen that guy in something..." Rohner), who does not fully approve of her choice in reading material. He doesn't mind coming over to comfort her when she's spooked, though, especially when it involves some sexay novel-synopsis foreplay followed by hittin' it jackal-style on the sofa! Bookish Jenny's tentative love bites here hint at her secret, wilder nature and propel the Vicar into his happy place, despite the regrettable lack of nekkidity.

The next day Jenny arrives for her shift at the bookstore where she and her sassy coworker Mona (Stephanie Hodge) engage in some funny banter before Ginny goes to unload some books from a recent estate sale. She's looking for Malcolm Brand's second novel, entitled I, Madman. (How very meta.) While searching the dusty, book-filled attic of the store (aside--I LOVE this bookstore--I could wander for hours there if it wasn't merely a Hollywood set...), she finds a steamer trunk from the estate sale...a steamer trunk riddled with holes, strangely like the one in the book... She opens it, but there are only more books inside. But who is that strange fellow she glimpses later in a bookstack mirror, who disappears a moment later?

"Ooooooh--I need a bookish woman!"

After going to her acting workshop in order to introduce us to her killer-fodder friends Collette (Michelle Jordan) and Lenny (Steven Memel), Virginia comes home to find a strange package on her doorstep--which contains an antique copy of I, Madman! Thinking it a gift from Mona, she dives right in.

Now we enter the candy-colored "fiction" world again, all bright primaries and long shadows, where a damaged-eyed maniac with a scarf over his face is stalking fictive Jenny. Professing his love while admitting the fact that his ugliness prevents her from loving him back, he tells her he will make himself a new face...and removes the scarf to reveal a noseless, lipless, earless visage straight out of an EC Comics nightmare! (How he's able to talk so clearly without lips is one of those "don't ask" questions.)

Virginia slams the book closed, shocked at what she's just read. But then she hears something in the apartment--a tea kettle boils on the stove, despite the fact that she already HAS a cup of tea...but the Virginia in the book WAS making tea! Little details start to build as the world of the book impinges slowly but surely on the real world--a not-quite-but-almost threadbare conceit still handled with aplomb here by directer Tabor Tikacs.

(I wonder if Tabor Tikacs would care for some Tic-Tacs? Or maybe Tikacs prefers a pick-axe? Some tie-racks sans sales tax? A wry fax for buy-backs? What would Tabor make a grab for?)

The Black Beret chases down John-Boy Walton in an atmospheric scene.

Unable to put the novel down, Jenny reads another scene in which a flame-haired actress is stalked by the literally-faceless madman, another scene that shows Tikacs can handle the suspense. Quick tight shots, moody lighting, neat camera tricks (including the time-honored "elongating hallway") all add up to a very tense chase. Of course Red can't get away from the Madman, who drugs her and saws her lustrous hair off with a straight-razor, scalp intact! The sound effects as the Madman saws away while gouts of blood cover the girl's pretty face are squidge-ily great too, it must be said.

The next day, while Virginia in Real Life is waiting on the bus, she is accosted by the Madman from the book--only now instead of his hat he has luscious red tresses, the stitch-scars clearly visible on his scalp! Before she can scream the phantom disappears, leading her to question her own sanity. But when she learns later that Collette has been murdered and mutilated, she wonders if there might be more at work here than chemical imbalances...

Her fears are more than confirmed later that night when she stars in an impromptu remake of Hitchcock's Rear Window, watching from her apartment as the Madman stalks and kills a piano-playing security guard at the music store next door. (We've heard the guard play a couple of times up to this point, usually in love scenes, so this use of the motif is nice; the Madman takes his ears, natch.)

Never do shots with this man.

At the police station later, Virginia tells the unbelieving cops the Madman is collecting facial features. "Why would he--why would anyone do such a thing?" they ask. "Because he thinks it will please me," she replies. You mean it doesn't? C'mon, he just wants to look good for you! The cops offer her no protection, though: the Madman meets her in the basement to show her his new ears and tell her, "I'll have your way or another!" Stakes sufficiently raised, it's time for Jenny to go investigatin'.

She quickly tracks the publisher of the book, a charmingly slimy fly-by-night porn publisher called Sidney Zeit, played with show-stealing verve by character-actor Murray Rubin. (The wonderful pulp-art jackets framed in Zeit's office bear such wish-I-could-read-'em titles as East of Edith and Moby's Dick.) Zeit tells her that Malcolm Brand was a maniac who claimed his characters talked back to him and wouldn't do what he wanted, and who ended his days in an asylum...or did he?

Convinced now that it's flesh-and-blood Brand following her and acting out his own literary scenarios, Virginia tries so save her friend Lenny from the madman's clutches, but fails by a nose. (Ba-dump.) She convinces her spectacularly unsupportive boyfriend to set up a stakeout where she thinks the final killing will be, but faulty literary interpretation proves her downfall and leads to a wild climax in the bookstore that boasts among other things: a corpse-eating kitty, an awesome avalanche of books, and a Deux Ex Libris ending that is just about as perfect as you could wish.

Michael Rooker in an early role.

Tabor Tikacs (which backwards is "Scakit Robat," a Japanese robotic aerial mammal toy that's all the rage overseas) puts a lot of nice touches in this film that make the visuals almost as much fun as the wild plot. The "hyper-reality" of the scenes depicting passages from Brand's books is very striking, everything filmed and colored like one of those awesome pulp book jackets from the 50s. The cinematography is great throughout, and the score is nice too--even if a bit too obviously Elfman-derived. (In fact, I got a strong Darkman vibe from the killer's look and some of the compositions here, together with the whole facelessness thing--sort of "Darkman Gets Darker.")

The gore and makeup are really standout aspects--we get a lot of thick dark blood and some cool sound fx when the Madman is working on his victims, but the nicest touch is the way that Brand's self-stitched skin grafts deteriorate over the course of the movie, making his final appearance more grotesque and gross than any previous. (Obviously he just sewed them in without attaching any blood vessels...ick. Nice attention to detail, Robat.) All in all, a squicky icky effort that exemplifies what we love about 80s horror.

The acting is fairly good too. Cook is really creepy as Brand, and only part of that is the makeup--okay, a big part--but his mannerisms and speech work well with the prosthetics to create the character. A few bit characters do well in small roles (Rubin most memorably), even though love-interest Rohner is fairly bland. But it's Jenny Wright's movie to carry or drop, and she plays vulnerable, shy girl with a wild side very well (though admittedly there WERE a couple of scenes where the glazed look on her face made me wonder whether she might have been "altered" that day). And she's easy to look at, especially in those wonderful 40s gowns. (Ziggity-zang.)

"Put it away, Vicar! I'm frightened!"

A success by any 80s horror fan standard, I, Madman also delivers some meta-metafiction, dark fantasy, and book-nerd in-jokes to keep you turning the pages. It's a story I couldn't put down, and you won't either. 3 thumbs. Do yourself a favor and it out. (<--Library pun! Get it?)

Trivia Answer: Incredibly,
half a rampaging stop-motion Jackal/Human Hybrid monster! Strange but true.


Tenebrous Kate said...

>>I wolfed down those days along with generous helpings of cold pizza and Icehouse beer

So that's what they serving in the cafeteria at the VHS seminary? I had no idea, although this makes perfect sense! ;)

As for the movie, you had my interest at "Stop Motion Jackal/Human Hybrid" and sealed the deal at "Corpse Eating Kitty." Seriously, "Killer Cats" is in my top ten most awesome things in movies. If there was a rapey bigfoot, this might be one of the finest films ever...

OCKerouac said...

How I missed this gem when I was blowing off classes in favor of cheap horror rentals is beyond me... Probably because I accidentally rented Shock 'Em Dead twice instead...

BTW, SO worth it BOTH times...

The Duke of DVD said...

A masterful review, dearest Vicar. I shall immediately order a crate of Scakit Robats, and I simply must watch this movie.

Karswell said...

Man I haven't thought about this movie in years! I remember attending a showing at the theatre but this was during the "date years" so I'm sure I wasn't paying enough attention to the silver screen. I will seek this one out immediately though as it's always fun to re-evaluate an 80's film 20 some years later with a new set of eyes (and my hands not down some chick's pants.) Ahhh, it's all coming back to me...

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