I, Madman

imadmanA regurgitative group, mainstream critics have a tic I find annoying. When faced with a “mediocre” genre film, they dismiss it like so: “Not a great film, but fans of the genre will lap it up.” By saying this, they are implicitly excluding themselves from the aforementioned group, and are thus not capable of understanding the films with the same level of sophistication as a true student of the genre. That’s not to say the mainstream critic’s evaluation is not valid – that depends on the critic – but they aren’t necessarily in a position to judge the film in a genre whose breadth and depth they have not explored.

See the praise given the good but derivative 28 Days Later. At best, it is an OK revue of genre standards, with some better-than-average characterization and more cloying-than-average social commentary. Because it had good elements, it got (in my view) inordinate praise as a great example of the genre. It is not, but it might seem that way to a reviewer who has no background to recognize good work, at least in the context of the genre.1

This I mention because I, Madman is exactly the sort of movie that would be tagged “for fans only.” Meaning, if you lack critical faculty when it comes to horror films, this one will give you ninety minutes in which you don’t have to think. False. Not only is I, Madman a bad movie, it is a really bad horror movie.

If it was scrutable, the premise would be more intriguing. Our heroine, Virginia (Jenny Wright2), whiles away the lonely hours reading trashy horror novels when she isn’t pretending to be an actress or whining to her cop boyfriend. She is particularly enamored of the works of Malcolm Brand, and searches the used bookstore where she works for a copy of his last novel, I, Madman. Virginia’s interest in the novel wakes something’s interest in her, for she finds it on her doorstep the next day. As she reads, the events of the novel come horribly to life.

They also come to life horribly, in sequences that have neither suspense nor terror. Barring an effective voiceover by Randall William Cook, the horror-fantasy bits are too broad. The opening part depends on stop-motion animation, which is very bad, but the worst scene is the murder of a girl for her hair. The hair is obviously a wig, making her look like a drag queen, and the chase has her look back, gasp, and run like a linebacker. It has no pace, no moments of relief to heighten the tension.

The novel is about a poor doctor who falls in love with an actress. When she rejects him for his ugliness, he cuts off his face and hair, and looks for new parts to fill the void. This isn’t original (originality is an overrated virtue), but it has the operatic feel of a horror story. When the real-world story involves the police, the film sucks. Doing so puts mundanity into a narrative that demands excess. Horror’s impact depends largely on a sense of supernature – things that cannot be dissected or explained. The police procedural is the opposite: collection of evidence, deduction and reason. For the two to work in twain, the results of the policework should give you a sense of masterful, insidious design (e.g. the “sloth” victim in Seven). Here, the cops are just standard plot feed. They hinder the heroine, and the most important element of horror: mood.

Some decent makeup, sure. A few good performances, maybe. A terrible soundtrack, but this was the ’80s and thus forgivable. I, Madman is done in by the mediocrity of its imagination. Except for an excess of gore, it should be seen as a bad thriller, not a bad horror film. The premise is murky3>, and the “scary” scenes aren’t. I, Madman could have blurred the lines between fantasy and reality, taking cues from Videodrome and presaging both New Nightmare and In The Mouth Of Madness in terms of why horror stories exist, and why they move and what dangers they may have. But it doesn’t have the head or heart for any of that.

1Hardly their fault, either, given the average quality of the genre in the last few years.

2Best known as the groupie in Pink Floyd: The Wall who took off her shirt to put another one on, showing her dinners to all and sundry. Woefully, they are covered in this film. (When it comes to convincing women to remove their clothing, Alan Parker is better than Tibor Takacs.)

3Are the books coming to life? Are they the memoirs of a madman? Malcolm Brand’s publisher says that Brand insisted the books were memoirs, but the climax (SPOILER ALERT) implies that the real-life events occurred after Jenny read them. When the reconstructed Brand gets the best of her boyfriend, she reads a passage about a jackal boy, and lo and behold, a jackal boy appears. In horror, awe and terror need something to feel awful and terrible about. When the premise has no clarity, your response must be equally muddled.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com