The Film: 4/5
Like any ordinary person in need of an escape from the doldrums of everyday life, used book store employee and budding actress Virginia (Jenny Wright) loves to get swept away in a good novel. Lately she has become quite taken with the works of an obscure author by the name of Malcolm Brand, a specialist in bloody, lurid pulp written from the perspective of murderous psychopaths. After finishing his first thriller, Virginia obsessively seeks out his second - and last - published novel, I, Madman. One day she finds a copy on her doorstep, but isn't sure who sent it to her. Immediately she digs into Brand's horrific prose with a zeal and eventually the gory events of the book find their way into her dreams. She even begins to have visions of the novel's "hero", a deranged surgeon who mutilates himself and others to win the affection of his unrequited love, appearing in her apartment and following her every move. Then a series of very real murders commences that Virginia knows Brand's monster is responsible for committing. Her police detective boyfriend Richard (Clayton Rohner) is reluctant to believe her story, so she decides to investigate the mysterious background of both the book and its elusive author. What Virginia discovers about Malcolm Brand is far more terrifying than she could imagine. He wasn't exactly writing fiction, and she has become his latest obsession, one that he will slaughter anyone standing in his way to covet.
I might be in the minority here, but I believe that Tibor Takács is deserving of more recognition than he actually receives. The Budapest-born, Canadian-raised director has always been underrated despite having made two certified gems of late 1980's horror. Though he has worked mostly in television for the duration of his career, Takács kicked it off with the ghoulishly amusing, teen-friendly monster flick The Gate (and its inferior 1990 sequel) and followed it up with 1989's I, Madman, a surprisingly literate and witty thriller that pays tribute to vintage pulp potboilers and the vivid imaginations that brought them to life. The film was born of a collaboration with screenwriter David Chaskin, who had most recently scripted A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge for New Line Cinema, and Randall William Cook, the stop-motion animation artist extraordinaire who was Takács' visual effects supervisor on The Gate. Cook, who later went on to work for Weta Digital as an animation designer and supervisor on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy after logging a lot of time at Charles Band's Full Moon Pictures (he also directed second unit on Jackson's 2005 remake of King Kong), pulls triple duty on I, Madman as a special effects creator, an uncredited make-up effects artist, and as the actor charged with embodying the film's diabolical villain - the murderous Malcolm Brand. You wouldn't think a story like the one Chaskin devised would require the services of a stop-motion animator at any time, but that's one of many left turns I, Madman takes with relish and energy.
Jenny Wright, the luminous stage and screen actress who made an impact on audiences in the 1980's with supporting performances in Pink Floyd: The Wall and St. Elmo's Fire and stole much of Kathryn Bigelow's modern-day outlaw vampire thriller Near Dark (as well as a vital chunk of my teenage heart), takes the lead of I, Madman as its smart, sympathetic heroine Virginia. She is in terrific form here as an Everywoman who loves to visualize the book she's reading as a twisted little movie playing in the single theater of her own mind. When the events of the Brand novels began to take form as actual murders in her real world, it's not unthinkable for Virginia to doubt her own sanity, and for the other people in her life to do the same. Chaskin's script is tightly structured and focused from the start and never sags under the weight of its own pretensions or excess subplots and random weirdness, proceeding full speed ahead from one narrative beat to the next. The devil is truly in the details and Takács loads up each scene with priceless little touches. There are clever homages to classic film noir tropes, like the constant presence of people smoking and drinking hard liquor and the trenchcoat that Virginia's lover Richard wears as a detective. Clayton Rohner (Just One of the Guys) makes for a capable young hero who can convince easily as a dogged, cynical cop. Setting the story in Los Angeles and employing the city's iconic streets and dilapidated buildings for their local color and ability to serve as stylish locations for chases and murder sequences only adds to the film's noirish ambience and helps to set it apart visually from the majority of slasher flicks made during the 80's.
Scenes from Brand's novel are recreated with fine attention to the details of the distant era where they take place, which could not have been easy given the modest budget with which Takács had to make his film. Cook himself is a terrifying treat as the madman of the title, a mangled mass of pure evil whose gruesome machinations are motivated almost entirely out of unrequited love. He even gets to ply his chosen trade in stop-motion animation in order to give presence and reality to a monster as close to being horrific as the character of Malcolm Brand that at times resembles one of the miniature demons of The Gate increased in size and girth substantially. It's the perfect finishing touch for a horror flick that dares to be a bit different than its peers while often bowing to the narrative conventions of the genre that please audiences so dearly.
For MGM's 2003 Region 1 DVD release, I, Madman received a full frame transfer that wasn't enhanced for 16:9 televisions. Fans of the movie can rejoice as Scream Factory's Blu-ray finally presents it in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in a fresh 1080p high-definition transfer. The color reproduction and sharpness are excellent for the most part, but some of the scenes are awash in noticeable grain that rarely remains consistent. Plus there is are traces of dirt and minor print damage on occasion, but it's hardly enough to be a distraction. The previous DVD came with a English 2.0 surround audio track and Scream has ported it to this Blu in DTS-HD Master Audio while also including a 5.1 track that might offer home theater owners a more immersive and audible experience. Truth be told, neither channel is really that spectacular, but though they won't give your speakers a proper shakedown, each track serves the movie (which was released theatrically with an Ultra Stereo soundtrack) very well with dialogue presented with clarity and strong volume and a slightly above average music score composed by Michael Hoenig (the 1988 remake of The Blob) that meshes well with the rest of the sound mix without overwhelming the other elements or fading into the background. English subtitles have also been provided.
Icons of Fright's Rob Galluzzo moderates a terrific commentary that brings together director Takacs and actor/FX artist Cook to share tons of production anecdotes and talk with fondness about the finished film. "Ripped from the Pages: The Making of I, Madman" (33 minutes) is a solid new retrospective documentary featuring interviews with the commentary participants as well as actors Rohner and Hodge and screenwriter Chaskin. The information offered in this Red Shirt Pictures rarely overlaps with the Takacs/Cook commentary and helps to create a well-rounded overview of the production and its reception as a cult film. Cook also offers commentary for some vintage behind-the-scenes video (11 minutes) and a full motion still gallery (7 minutes). Oddly enough, only the still gallery commentary is optional. Rounding things off on the Blu-ray are a theatrical trailer that uses the "Hardcover" title (2 minutes) and a video trailer with the real title (1 minute). This release also comes with reversible cover art.
A surprisingly smart and bloody little chiller that makes the most of its premise and tosses a few welcome curveballs our way at the same time, I, Madman is terrific fun for pulp fiction fans and lovers of original horror alike. Scream Factory has treated yet another unjustly ignored cult feature with the respect it deserves via improved picture and sound and some interesting new supplements bound to make fans very pleased.