Wednesday, July 22, 2015
I, MADMAN (1989) Blu-ray Review
I, Madman (1989) d. Tibor Takács (USA)
This is a very good time to be a fan of genre/exploitation cinema, which is ironic considering how grim things looked even just a few years ago. DVD sales have been on the decline for years and Blu-ray hasn't fared any better, and it seemed the death of physical media would be upon us any day. But several home video imprints have appeared on the scene giving long-overdue releases to some fan favorites and lost gems alike. Scream Factory has particularly been on a winning streak with their slate of horror releases, and their latest Blu-ray offering finally brings a cult favorite home in the presentation it deserves.
Virginia (Jenny Wright) works in a used bookstore, and when an estate comes in she picks up a curious old pulp horror novel titled Much of Madness, More of Sin by Malcolm Brand, an author she has never heard of before. The book scares her enough to call her new police detective boyfriend Richard (Clayton Rohner) over to her apartment to keep her company, but despite its graphic violence and macabre story of mad science and murder, she finds herself drawn to Brand's passionate prose style. She discovers that Brand only published one other book entitled I, Madman, and after failing to find it in the books from the estate, a copy mysteriously appears at her apartment. Virginia starts reading but finds the book considerably more disturbing than Brand's previous novel, and soon she begins seeing the villainous monster from the book appearing in real life.
Even worse, the monster murders a woman from Virginia's acting class in a manner lifted directly from the book. After a second grisly murder, Virginia realizes the killer is Brand himself (Randall William Cook, also the film's visual effects supervisor), somehow brought back to life by her reading of the books and on a mission to re-enact the events of I, Madman. When Virginia tells Richard what she thinks is happening, he's naturally skeptical, but as the bodies pile up the police get desperate enough to pursue any possible leads. But how can the police catch a seemingly omniscient first-person narrator? Will Virginia be able to find a way to stop him before he gets to the end of the book, and consequently her life?
Director Takács is probably best known as the director of the 1987 "Satanic panic" classic The Gate, in which a young Stephen Dorff and his friend accidentally open a portal to Hell, unleashing an army of pint-sized stop-motion demons on a quiet suburban neighborhood. Following the success of that film, Takács was approached to do numerous similar projects, but wisely chose to go in a completely different direction. Whereas The Gate was a goofy PG-13 teen horror film, I, Madman is decidedly R-rated and geared toward adults. It's still fun (and a very familiar-looking stop-motion monster makes a few appearances), but it trades in its cast of teenagers for adults and its Harryhausen-esque monsters for an adult menaced by a gruesome supernatural stalker. Unsurprisingly, the practical effects and makeup are mostly very effective, the best of which being the killer's patchwork features carved from his victims and grafted crudely onto his own head.
Wright gives a great lead performance that requires her not only to scream and puts her through the horror-film paces, but also requires she spend a lot of her on-screen time reading. Someone sitting quietly and reading is hardly the most cinematic of actions, but Wright makes even those scenes effective and compelling. Stephanie Hodge also shines in a supporting role as Virginia's co-worker at the bookstore, and Cook makes for a seriously creepy villain even when he's hidden away behind a mask. This is especially impressive given his double duty on the production as supervisor of the film's visual effects. There are some very memorable smaller roles as well, helping to give the film a unique and humorous tone without tipping too much into comedic territory.
The film has an interesting mix of late-'80s locations and '40s/'50s style, with several sequences taking place in the books as Virginia reads them. These scenes are among the film's best, and Takács seizes the opportunity to give them a vintage feel by judiciously employing some period cars, clothes, and music. The constrained spaces in which these scenes take place also give them a nice claustrophobic feel that lends to their nightmarish tone. They are especially interesting in contrast to the exterior daylight scenes that show off Los Angeles in the late '80s, making the intrusion of the fictional monster into that world even more effective.
Scream Factory's Blu-ray of I, Madman is a huge upgrade from the old MGM DVD, not just because of the higher-resolution presentation but because it presents the film in its correct widescreen aspect ratio instead of the DVD's full-frame "pan and scan" picture. In fact, this is probably the first time the film has ever been seen in widescreen on home video, making it an automatic must-buy for fans.
There are also a number of special features, including an 11-minute compilation of behind-the-scenes footage from Cook's camcorder showing the shooting of some of the film's in-camera effects. Cook also narrates a 6-minute stills gallery that includes stills from the film, publicity photos, and pictures of Cook and his effects team working behind the scenes. A theatrical trailer (looking surprisingly pristine) and home video trailer (in full-frame) are also included.
The two main attractions for special features, however, are a 30+ minute "making of" featurette entitled "Ripped from the Pages: The Making of I, Madman" and a feature-length commentary with Takács and Cook moderated by Rob Galluzzo of the horror site Icons of Fright. Takács and Cook are clearly excited to talk about the film and its production, and offer a fun, informative stream of discussion. "Ripped from the Pages" includes interviews with a number of people involved in the production including Takács, Cook, Rohner, Hodge, and screenwriter David Chaskin.
Like the commentary, it's fun and fairly comprehensive, although the lack of any input from or appearance by Wright is conspicuous. Scream Factory does good work, but they are known to produce some of these special features on tight schedules, so it's possible the Near Dark star was just unavailable when they were being put together. Still, it's disappointing not to hear from the film's lead at all, especially since Wright has been making convention appearances and is likely willing to talk about her work on the film, which everyone else here seems to remember quite fondly.
(EDIT: Following this review's initial publication, Red Shirt's Michael Felsher reached out and informed us that Wright was indeed approached to participate in the special features, and that the actress politely declined.)
Despite this unfortunate omission in the special features, I, Madman is definitely worth picking up for fans of the film and of '80s horror in general. It's gory, imaginative, and fun, and the new HD widescreen transfer looks great. Stay tuned for whatever they've got coming up, because chances are good one of your old favorites might be in line for a similar release in the near future!
I, Madman is available now from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE:
--Review by Jason Coffman
Check out more of Jason’s movie musings at https://medium.com/@rabbitroom