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A review of "I, Madman" (1989)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

I, Madman is a fun (if not particularly innovative or terribly intelligent) movie with just the right amount of camp.  It's a horror movie about a pulp horror book that actually pulls off a cornball '50s vibe while still keeping true to its '80s roots.  And if that sounds a little confusing, I hope it helps to clarify just how difficult it is to pull something like this off.

My Rating: 4 / 5

Now I Talk About How Much I Liked The Gate

I would call this part an "introduction," except I'm not knowledgeable enough about the film or its history to feel confident in introducing a damn thing.  But I will say this: I mainly sought out I, Madman because it was directed by Tibor Takacs, the man behind one of my favorite horror movies as a kid, The Gate.

I'm not reviewing The Gate today, so I won't gush too much.... but that was a fun movie, wasn't it?  Remember the part where the giant demon comes up through the floorboards and he's like three stories tall?  And baby-Dorff has to kill it with fireworks?  I love that movie.

Anyway, I, Madman is not as good a movie - probably because I don't have 23 years' worth of nostalgia for it - but it hits a similar vibe.  Plus it's got a stop-motion animated monster, and that's always worth a point or two in my book.

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Virginia (Jenny Wright) is a nerdy clerk with an overactive imagination who works at a used bookstore in The City.  She is dating Richard (Clayton Rohner), a police officer who loves her, but doesn't share her affinity for books or wild tales.

All is well until Virginia gets wrapped up in a horror novel by an obscure author named Malcom Brand (Randall William Cook).  She finds herself easily spooked by his first book and goes hunting for his follow-up, a novel called I, Madman.  We're told that it's a hard book to find - there are no copies readily available and almost nobody has heard about it - but after all of the principal characters are introduced, a copy mysteriously winds up at Virginia's front door.

She begins reading and discovers that I, Madman is a lurid tale about a maniacal surgeon/murderer named Dr. Kessler with a romantic bent to his crimes.  Dr. Kessler was jilted by a lover, you see, and has decided that the best way to win her back... is to rip his face off, kill a bunch of people, cut off their body parts, and sew them onto his own face.

Kinda wish we had the scene where he came up with that idea.  Maybe he was sniffing ether with his surgeon buddies and he was on his fourth martini when he ripped his face off, and by the time he sobered up, he realized he had already committed to the plan.  "You mean I already threw my face in the garbage?!  Shit, I have to kill now!"

After reading through the book, Virginia finds that she is suddenly plagued by horrible visions of Dr. Kessler out in public.  She sees a masked man following her one minute - but then he's suddenly gone.  She's about to dismiss this as just her imagination until one night when she witnesses Kessler murdering a piano tuner across the street.

When Richard and his fellow officers arrive on the scene, they have a hard time believing Virginia's account.  Even she's not totally convinced.  Then they examine the body and find that the murderer cut off the victim's nose - just like in the book.

Virginia now realizes that Dr. Kessler is no longer a fictional character; he's a very real and terrifying threat, and only she has any idea of his next move.  So she faces off against the madman from I, Madman in... I, Madman.

The Part Where I Pretend That I'm a Better Detective Than These Cops

I'm sure police work is tough.  And I'm sure there's always a billion clues that go unnoticed when you're trying to investigate a seemingly random murder.  But how can the police be so friggin' dense in this movie?

The first murder?  Eh, what can you do.  Nobody saw that coming.  The second murder?  Tragic, but you can't establish a pattern from a single event, so I'll give 'em a pass.  But when somebody goes to a police officer with a book that specifically describes the exact details of two murders and then points out that at least two more are expected, why the hell would you ignore that?

Now, I'm not saying that you need to stop everything you're doing and get the whole force to take up surveillance detail just based on whatever hunch Virginia has at that moment.  But you could set up a couple of patrolmen outside of her apartment or maybe have a couple people take a look at potential copycat murders that would resemble the book.  Maybe just do some, uh, what's that thing called... investigating?

They dismiss Virginia outright during one scene despite the fact that she's actually witnessed two of the murders.  For Christ's sake, guys - she's the common denominator!  Have somebody tail her!  If I stumble on two dead bodies who were both shot by the same gun in the same week, I'm pretty sure I'm getting taken in for questioning even if I'm not actually able to shoot a gun.  Did you give her a pass because you like blondes?

At one point, the cops go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum and plan this massive sting operation that involves roughly every available unit.  And of course, that particular scheme fails utterly when Dr. Kessler strikes on the other end of the city and the police only manage to catch a nighttime janitor.

Where's the middle ground?  Where's the rational dude who just wants to chase a lead?

The interaction between Virginia and the cops in this movie is one of those things I can't tell if I enjoyed.  On the one hand, I thought it was hilariously incompetent.  On the other hand, it's frustratingly incompetent.  You ever have that moment where you're screaming at a bunch of idiots on your TV and you don't know if you're having fun?

The Part Where I Talk About Books

Any movie that features an obsession with a book gets to me.  Even if it's actually kind of a crappy movie (like, say, The Pagemaster, or the relentlessly-stupid The Number 23), I still dig it.

Ironically, I usually can't stand movies about writers.  There's something superficial and false about all of them.  Then again, I get the need for all the bullshit - a realistic writer would be terrible subject matter.  Nobody wants to watch a whiny jackass eat Cheetos for 90 minutes while calling himself a genius and failing to actually do any work.  Now that I think about it, I'm surprised that didn't bother me more last week.

Books and literature are a great subject for a movie because they immediately blur the lines between fiction and reality.  The minute you introduce a book on screen, you're basically using film short-hand to tell us, "Hey, at any minute now we might cut back to reality and reveal that none of this happened."

The problem - most of the time - is that they actually do exactly that.  Alternately, one of the characters will call attention to the blurriness and say something like, "A good book can become reality!"  As if we don't get it already.

I, Madman is one of the better movies about books because it wisely chooses to avoid these traps and instead focuses on the central character being totally engrossed by the titular story.  This is a lot more fun and lets the director play with the ideas of reality and story-telling without necessarily calling attention to them.  Sure, the characters don't believe Virginia when she tells them about Dr. Kessler, but that's just par for the course.  The rest of the movie is focused on her breakdown without being bogged by overly-obvious symbolism.

I don't think the movie is necessarily meant to be ambiguous about the nature of its reality - it seems pretty clear to me that things are happening literally as they are presented.  Even so, it leaves a lot of room open for your interpretation.  Did Dr. Kessler become real because Virginia is just so engrossed in the story that she "brought him to life?"  Could she do this with any other book, or was it just because of the specific background of the author?  Would it have happened if somebody else read the book?  Is Dr. Kessler a specific kind of demon that exists only in the realm of literature?  Can he come back in some other form?

These are a lot of fun questions, but I suspect I wouldn't be asking them if the movie speculated on its fiction.  After all, if a movie's going to ask all of that stuff for me, why should I bother?

You can watch I, Madman on Youtube if you get there before it gets pulled.  Or you can buy it on