I must admit that - in an unfortunate turn of events - I, The Mike, never learned how to read. Or maybe I did know how at some point, I'm not really sure anymore, all I know is that now that I'm older and more hairy and less able to remember what happened this morning, I simply don't know how to do it. Those books are so nice looking, and I'm sure there's plenty of things inside them that could prove helpful or even enlightening to me, but they just don't talk to me like movies do. No, literally. They don't talk. Except those little kids books with the buttons. Those are cool.
If there's a movie out there that helps validate my decision to not know how to read, it's Tibor Takacs' 1989 horror film I, Madman. The film stars Jenny Wright - fresh off her romantic lead performance in Near Dark - as a young blonde woman who enjoys sitting around in a tank top and see-through panties and reading books when she's working at a quaint little book store. As the story begins, we witness a scene from the book she's reading, a horror tale called Much of Madness, More of Sin, in which a genetically created "jackal boy" harasses folks in a seedy motel. The book's terrors clearly have an impact on Wright's Virginia (such a literary name, I say); in fact, she's so scared by the book that she has to make a booty call.
After some passionate I'm-not-sure-what with her boyfriend (a detective played by '80s cool dude Clayton Rohner, who is awesome), Virginia shows up to work at her seemingly ginormous book store, which I really just wanted to walk around. It's a fantastic set - even though I'm sure it was probably just a book store that they were able to film in - because the sky high shelves packed with old dusty books set a segmented view of the space that allows for plenty of ominous shadows and dark corners. The multi-level book store - which includes an upper level with a ridiculously high (Gee, you gotta wonder if that's gonna come into play later on) ceiling. Some shots of the dark hallways remind me of the kind of things we'd expect to see from John Carpenter in The Thing or Halloween, as the absence of movement in these cramped, dark spaces can be just as ominous as an attacking jackal boy.
Oh, we need a reason for the book store to be ominous, don't we? Well, it seems that Virginia - entranced by Much of Madness, More of Sin, is trying her damnedest to seek out the author's second and last book, another horror tale entitled (you guessed it!) I, Madman. Though she's unsuccessful in her early attempts to find the book, a copy mysteriously appears on her doorstep the next day, and now she's even more intrigued and afraid.
I, Madman - the book - follows a character named Dr. Kessler, who is murdering a string of victims and taking elements of their face to make his own. I, Madman - the movie - shows us some of these scenes and then quickly blurs the lines of reality as killings begin to occur in Jenny's world that mimic the actions of the titular madman in the book. Once haunted by her imaginings of what the book's death scenes look like, Virginia is now haunted by real visions of what is either Dr. Kessler or the book's author, Malcom Brand. These visions draw increasingly close to Virginia, at times even threatening her, but it becomes clear to her as the plot moves on that her fate is entwined to the book - which is revealed to have been published as NON-FICTION!
As a film, I, Madman occasionally struggles to stay interesting with such a silly script, but the film is visually interesting - in a cheap, '80s horror way - on a consistent basis. The scenes in which Dr. Kessler/Malcom Brand stalk victims are often darkly lit with billowing fog, and the 1950s setting of the book scenes are fantastically retro. To be fair, I should say that the whole film (which is only available these days on a sadly pan-and-scan DVD) seems to have a retro filter over it at this stage in its life. This makes the movie, much like the book it's named after, and odd little outlier that feels like it belongs in another dimension. It's dated and silly - and it's certainly intentionally pulpy - but it certainly hooks the viewer.
In the same way, the book sinks its hooks into Virginia. There's a fantastic scene in the middle of the film when Virginia - knowing the book's potential power - does her best to ignore the text by watching television. But as she flips the annoying cable channels, her eyes continue to glance at the book - which seems to be inching its way out of her purse and crawling toward her. This woman is completely incapable of escaping the nightmare she's unleashed upon herself, and simply because she's a bookworm.
I, on the other hand, am not - which is probably why they turned I, Madman into a movie. Like The Gate (Takacs' more known and more accomplished horror film of the '80s), I, Madman is a visceral film that works on the level of nightmarish pulp. It may not "make Stephen King read like Mother Goose" as Virginia claims, but it's a surprisingly unique horror tale that is certainly worth a few viewings - especially if you enjoy stop-mation monsters as much as I do. If nothing else, it's a film that allows you to stare at Jenny Wright (or Clayton Rohner, if that's your thing) for 89 minutes.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have the strong desire to wander around a dusty book store. Even if I don't know how to read. That stuff's dangerous.