[We're celebrating some of the most memorable horror and sci-fi movies of 1989 this month in Daily Dead's Class of 89 retrospective series! Check back on Daily Dead throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the 30th anniversaries of a wide range of horror and sci-fi films!]
When I was a kid, my family would spend New Year's Eve watching movies rented from the local video store. As a young film fanatic, this was one of my favorite nights of the year; not only was everyone else in my family finally sharing my favorite pastime with me, but I would even get to stay up way past my regular bedtime watching movie after movie after movie. The only downside of this tradition was that we weren't the only household in town to do this, apparently, because most of the good movies were usually taken by the time we made it to the video store to stock up. That meant we were often forced to rent more off-beat titles—the ones that hadn't been snatched up because most people hadn't even heard of them.
One such title was Tibor Takacs' 1989 horror film I, Madman. I was excited to see the movie at age 12 because a) it was horror, b) it had a cool box cover, and c) the late, great Roger Ebert had given it a positive review. After everyone else had fallen asleep—probably some time after ringing in the New Year at midnight—I put the movie into the VCR and pressed "play." I was not prepared for what I saw and didn't particularly like it. What can I say? I was a pretty dumb kid.
As a much wiser adult (I am not wiser), I can safely say that I was simply too young to appreciate the originality of I, Madman on first viewing. These days, I know that the movie is something special—a wonderful mix of the gothic and the modern, the gory and the psychological. It is eccentric and offbeat in the very best way. It is atmospheric and often beautifully photographed. More than anything, though, it feels deeply original and unique. There wasn't a lot of that going on in the horror genre in 1989, when the genre had already crested and most of the major franchises felt like they were on their last legs. I, Madman was a breath of fresh air in a marketplace dominated by sameness.
The gorgeous Jenny Wright (The Lawnmower Man) plays Virginia, a wannabe actress who works in a book store and discovers two old pulp novels by forgotten author Malcolm Brand (visual effects artist Randall William Cook). The deeper she gets into his second novel, I, Madman, about a deranged doctor (also played by Cook in fantasy sequences) creating a mask out of other human faces, the more she begins to suspect that either life is imitating art or that the character has actually escaped from the book and is murdering the people close to her. Is that possible… or is Virginia just losing her mind?
I, Madman is the kind of movie that can only be made by people who love the horror genre and have absorbed a whole lot of it over the years. Director Tibor Takacs, clearly a fan and a student of the genre, is probably best known to horror fans for making The Gate, and while that film is special and his career is full of horror films (and, oddly enough, Christmas movies), I’ll argue that I, Madman is his masterpiece. There are touches of old Universal monster movies, slasher movies, Phantom of the Opera-style gothic romance, 1950s pulp, '80s practical gore effects, and stop-motion puppetry. It is, in short, a horror lover's dream. It's a movie that's reminiscent of so many other horror movies in bits and pieces, but taken as a whole feels like nothing else. Jenny Wright, an actress who had a couple of noteworthy genre roles in the late '80s and early '90s (in stuff such as Near Dark and The Lawnmower Man) makes for an especially compelling leading lady, beautiful and romantic, but never helpless—she has the curiosity to get herself into trouble, but is the only character in the movie who really knows what's going on. Clayton Rohner (April Fool’s Day) registers less as her cop boyfriend, but certainly serves a function; if nothing else, his performance acts as a precursor to his turn as a cop once again dealing with something way beyond his pay grade in The Relic.
While I, Madman is clearly a labor of love made by horror lovers, maybe my favorite thing about the movie is that it’s about loving horror, too. The protagonist devours horror fiction so much so that the lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur; so, too, do the lines between fantasy and reality in I, Madman. Takacs weaves dream sequences and fantasy sequences effortlessly throughout the narrative while never ignoring the fact that films are basically waking dreams, meaning there are dreams inside of dreams and we, the audience, are the dreamers. It’s a story about storytelling, a movie about watching movies. I, Madman cuts right to the heart—literally—of why we love a good story and the way we as horror lovers long to lose ourselves inside these worlds of monsters and maniacs.
Revisiting I, Madman after all these years was the very definition of a pleasant surprise and makes a case for why we should always be willing to give movies a second chance. If I had stuck with my 12-year-old perception of the movie, I would have missed out on a title that I know I'll be coming back to again and again in the future. In a year that can best be described as “uneven,” I, Madman is an unsung gem—quite possibly the most underrated horror movie of 1989. It deserves to be called a classic.
Check here throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the Class of 89!