Monday, October 31, 2016

Census Bloodbath: And then it just ends, with her and Falkor flying off into the sunset—it was weird

October's end draws near—and so once again it's time to pull the old switcheroo with Brennan Klein, the finest human being I know not related to me by blood or sexual intercourse!  And so shall it ever be: while Brennan reviews three wonderful Cardboard Science classics over at Popcorn Culture, handpicked by yours truly for their moral uprightness and fine craftsmanship, we intend to wallow in whatever sleaze and gore that Brennan's deemed fit for me to review, in the form of three entries from Brennan's centerpiece feature, the increasingly-complete encyclopedia of the 1980s' slasher phenomenon that he calls Census Bloodbath.  But we take our duties seriously here, and, as usual, I'm having a blast.


Directed by Tibor Takacs
Written by David Chaskin
With Jenny Wright (Virginia), Clayton Rohner (Richard), Stephanie Hodge (Mona), and Randall William Cook (Dr. Alan Kessler/Malcolm Brand)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Here's the thing: I, Madman does not do what it does all that well, and that's even when you generously ignore the fact that "what it does" isn't even the same thing as "what it should have been doing."  Nonetheless, that fundamental concept remains a rather intriguing one: it's about a horror novel come to life.

In the lower-middle-class, non-Hollywood stretches of Los Angeles that we don't get to see all that often in the movies, we meet a woman, Virginia, whom we quickly learn is a consummate reader of trash fiction and may have the littlest problem with distinguishing her pulp fantasies from her actual reality.  In fact—and fittingly enough—we meet Virginia for the first time within her own head, as she projects herself into her latest literary conquest, a potboiler by the obscurest author in the Western hemisphere, a certain Malcolm Brand, author of Much of Madness, More of Sin.  Rather than the nasty giallo you'd presume it to be, however, More of Sin instead turns out to be a vintage tale of science-gone-wrong.  And so we find this novel's villainous protagonist having engaged in an outright Moreauvian plot, hoping to create a race of beast-men for no better reason than that's simply what mad scientists do.  In the process, the first of his race of jackal/human hybrids has escaped to terrorize the actress in the hotel room next door.  That's when Virginia shuts the book, too scared to continue to imagine her fictional stand-in raped to death, or whatever, by the scientist's grotesque experiment.

Freed of Malcolm Brand's curious hold for a moment, we settle into Virginia's quotidian life.  So: she's dating a police detective, Richard (albeit mainly for the convenience to the plot, it seems, considering that his job is too demanding for him to ever make any date with her that doesn't involve showing up at 3 a.m. for the slowest, least physically-demanding representation of sex I may have ever seen in a film, presumably because director Tibor Takacs, not wishing to villify poor Richard too much, has confused torpor with romance).

Meanwhile, Virginia's an aspiring actress herself, although she makes her rent (somehow) with what appears to be a part-time job at a shabby used book emporium, a gig we can imagine she took mostly because she wanted to be as close as possible to the source, in order to feed her ongoing addiction.  And what she's looking for now, although she hasn't found it yet, is I, Madman, Brand's second novel, reputedly even scarier than the first.

But once I, Madman shows up on her doorstep, things get start to get strange.  At first, nobody can figure out exactly where it actually came from—or who left it there.  But she's hooked, and reads the tome anyway, losing herself in Brand's deranged fantasy of an ex-surgeon who has fallen in love with (another) actress, who has rejected him for his ugliness.  In response, the titular madman has hacked his face away, and declared his intention to make himself beautiful by making a new face out of the right pieces from his assorted victims.  He assumes that this act of insane adoration shall, at last, be enough to win his lady's heart.

Well, hell, it still probably beats pick-up artistry.

Things get weirder for Virginia, as Brand's fiction begins to bleed decisively into her reality: she begins glimpsing I, Madman's killer in mirrors, and in her daydreams.  Soon enough he's right damned here, waiting for the bus.  But that's when the people around Virginia start dying, their facial features removed for reasons the police don't dare speculate about, exactly as the madman does in the book.  And it's around this point that Virginia reads the indicia in her mysterious novel, and realizes that this book has been categorized as non-fiction.

The lead-up is competent; and the ending is certainly memorable—even if it is also unbearably, egregiously stupid.  Obviously, the biggest problem this picture has is in the middle, wherein Virginia ineffectually attempts to convince Richard and the police of what she knows.  And, naturally enough, the middle is also most of it.

Of course, it also doesn't really quite earn that gonzo finale either, for I, Madman's other big problem is just how staid and self-regarding it is, clearly fancying itself a psychological thriller, or even a full-on character study, when it is so self-evidently not.  There's no doubt about it: the overly-wooden timbre is the direct result of a decade's worth of disposable slasher trash, whereas I, Madman's makers reasoned that, if they put the slightest intellectual gloss on what amounts to a dour serial killer film with a smattering of 30s flavor, then they'd be able to deliver something that might earn them a bit more respect than (for example) Jason Takes Manhattan.

Somewhat frustratingly, their gamble seems to have worked out: the film is generally well-regarded; and no less a figure than Roger Ebert himself gave it a positive notice.  But maybe that even says all that needs to be said, for Roger Ebert was often a grating moral scold when it came to horror movies, a man who whined—almost weekly over the years 1981-1989—about so-called "dead teenager films."  Unfortunately for everyone, however, "respectability" is a pose I, Madman can't possibly support.

And thus the bad acting and sloppy screenwriting of an 80s slasher film mixes uneasily with the slow pace and half-formed insights of the 70s psycho-thriller which I, Madman typically feels like.  Meanwhile, the overwrought 30s pretensions of its villain—his jet-black cloak, his fealty to unknowable super-science, and (of course) his Gothic confusion of rape with love—well, these come off as straight-up window dressing.  As a visual or as a concept, then, Brand is a jarring element once placed against the backdrop of urban life at the turn of the 90s, yet the narrative doesn't even seem to care, and so what might've been, in the best of all possible worlds, something uncanny slicing its way into the mundane, ends up not much more than just another handful from the genre grab-bag.

But I was talking about the middle, and that's where I, Madman's gears really audibly grind.  There is a moment, around the time that Virginia actually witnesses the villain's second murder, where the film can go one of two ways.  It can dive directly into heady metafiction; or it can retreat, and come up with a more prosaic explanation for its horror.  It chooses the latter, and this is disappointing enough, I suppose, insofar as when Virginia solves the mysteries of Malcolm Brand, the solutions don't make very much sense.

What's really galling, however, is that in the process of tamping down its ambitions, and setting its sights on a resolution that wouldn't test its audience's commitment to ordinary storytelling logic, it actually becomes vastly more illogical, raising importune but rather important questions, that simply wouldn't have mattered if we were actually living in Virginia's horror-inflected imagination: how did Brand even come across Virginia?  is it just a coincidence that the woman Brand has decided to stalk and confuse with his own fictional character is also a fan of his writings, or is there a connection? if so, how? why does Virginia's perception of reality seem to break down, if ever-so-slightly and not to too much horrific effect, if she's actually just a fangirl, and not going insane? or are we supposed to think—and this is just intolerably dumb—that the hulking figure in the overcoat was really in her house, rearranging her stuff, and she just didn't notice?

The sins are compounded as Virginia suffers what looks to every outside observer as a psychotic break, informing her cop boyfriend (much to his ongoing chagrin) that the book is real, which is a conceptual leap that the film takes no abiding interest in, either on the level of its plot (as noted, it gestures toward metafiction, without ever embracing it), or on the level of Virginia's character, who possesses so little self-awareness that it takes her several long minutes, reciting the novel as testimony, before she even realizes she might sound crazy.  And since I, Madman does not bother giving Virginia so much as a perfunctory gaslighting arc, where one can at least pretend that everything that's happening might be in her head, it never lets us soak in her insane theories—mostly, it just shorthands Virginia's frayed nerves, by having scenes where (gasp) she's started smoking again.  Then it's just a few minutes of screentime before it totally confirms her suspicions (she pretty easily tracks down Brand's publisher, and gets the full story).  And so Virginia's brief struggle with her own crumbling perceptions is entirely dismissed, with what amounts to a mulligan.  As for any prospect that Virginia herself might begin to grapple with the fact of her own fictional construction—the heart and soul of metafiction—well, that's never so much as suggested.

But, to be fair, it is not a terrible film: it is reasonably well-mounted, and at times noirishly-atmospheric, especially in Virginia's fantasies, which couldn't be stronger in their 30s or 40s period markers if Franklin Roosevelt were there, popping wheelies.  (Then again, the film's single most effective stab at atmosphere—a security guard at the piano shop across the street from Virginia's apartment, who plays beautiful classical music long into night—finds himself brutally removed from I, Madman's equation all too soon.)  Meanwhile, Randall William Cook's game attempt to pull a Lon Cheney, by playing the villain whose makeup he also designed, is itself quite effective—especially once you handicap him for the villain's poor fit with his surroundings.  (But let's be nice: the makeup job, in and of itself, truly is fantastic.  Likewise, while the film is not nearly as gore-happy as it probably should be, when it does deign to show us what Brand's getting up to, I, Madman does have the goods.  On the other hand, how much more interesting would I, Madman be if its madman's mad plan actually sort of worked, and he came out the other end looking like, say, a young Harrison Ford?  Just a little chin scar, you know?)

And, finally, there's still that ending: so terrifically weird that I just can't totally dismiss it—even when it clearly has no place whatsoever in a movie that has explicitly committed to the idea that Brand is an explicable horror who exists in a recognizable version of our real world.

What I, Madman actually is, then, is simply kind of a mess, and whatever influence it might've had on the meta-horror films to come—In the Mouth of Madness, New Nightmare, Scream—must have been quite minimal indeed.  For even the weakest of Carpenter and Craven's experiments in genre self-reflexivity boast a vastly more solid understanding of genre—and of how to twist it inside out—than this.

Killer: Malcolm Brand
Final Girl: Virginia
Best Kill: Brand's removal of Mona's "passionate lips"
Sign of the Times: People read
Scariest Moment: The barely-offscreen scalping of the redheaded dance hall girl
Weirdest Moment: When the stop-motion-animated jackal-man breaks through the door in Much of Madness, More of Sin, where you're like, "What the hell kind of movie is this I'm watching?"
Champion Dialogue: "Are you Sidney Zeit?" "No, I'm Nelson Doubleday.  What can I do for you?"
Body Count: 5 actual people, plus one jackal-monster, plus one fictional character
1. The hotel manager in More of Sin
2. Collette, Virginia's acting rival, is scalped (although we only see the version that plays out in the book)
3. Sing us a song, Piano Man, we're cutting off your ears tonight
4. Lenny, Virginia's acting partner, has his nose cut off to unspite the madman's face
5. Mona's loosened lips
6. The jackal-man is bisected by way of a pane of falling glass
7. Malcolm Brand is slammed through a window by half of a jackal-man
TL; DR: I, Madman doesn't have anywhere near the storytelling chops, or on-camera talent, to live up to its pretensions as a (nominally) classier version of things we've seen done better elsewhere, and the one thing new it does, it gives up on halfway through.


  1. I'm sad you didn't like this one as much as I did, but even at that adjusted score, it's still one of the best slashers of 1989.

    I think maybe I'm inclined to ignore the "is it real or is it imagined?" subplots of horror films because so many do them and do them poorly that I just assume everything is real and get on with my life.

    Anyway, Happy Halloween!

    Maybe I'll pick some more conventional offerings NEXT year, muahaha...

    1. Happy Halloween, B!

      I mean, obviously, I had fun. Chopping Mall was worth one okayish movie and one not-good one. And even a bad slasher is usually somewhat enjoyable. (Of course, this probably has a lot to do with the fact that, in your generosity, you've never overtly punished me with the real dregs.)

    2. I couldn't do to you what I do to myself. If I ever wanted to end our friendship, I'd assign The Outing, but until that day I'll keep trying to find things you'll enjoy, good or bad. I keep missing my mark though. The ones I think you'll receive the best never seem to resonate with you.

      Next year I'll have to bust out the big guns.

    3. You know, I think I only actively hit you with something bad-bad was that one time, with The Giant Claw, which is good in many ways (as you noticed!), and which is bad in such stunning, ridiculous ways, that I still suspected you'd have with it.

    4. ...Oh, right. Invaders From Mars.

      I'm sorry, man.