Filmmakers who want­ed to imi­tate Friday The 13th had an easy time of it: just get a killer with a mask and a pseudo-mys­tery plot with plen­ty of killings and you were halfway home. Going for the dream-hor­ror vibe of the Nightmare On Elm Street series was a big­ger chal­lenge. Capturing the play between real­i­ty and the sub­con­scious mind tripped up a lot of film­mak­ers who fol­lowed in Wes Craven’s wake. I, Madman is one of the few that got it right, cap­tur­ing that dream/reality see-saw act effec­tive­ly while adding in fresh ele­ments that I-Mad-poskeep it from being a mere cash-in.

I, Madman is a sto­ry of obses­sion. Used book­store clerk Virginia (Jenny Wright) becomes obsessed with the work of Malcolm Brand (Randall William Cook), a long-deceased writer whose pulp-hor­ror sce­nar­ios take root in her mind. When peo­ple begin dying in ways resem­bling the killings from the books, she warns her police detec­tive boyfriend Richard (Clayton Rohner) and tries to fig­ure out what’s hap­pen­ing. She quick­ly dis­cov­ers Brand is not as dead as he seems and he’s got plans for her that might spell doom for every­one else.

While it is unam­bigu­ous­ly pitched at the hor­ror crowd, I, Madman also sets itself apart from the com­pe­ti­tion through a hand-in-hand com­bi­na­tion of ambi­tion and style. The ambi­tion comes from David Chaskin’s screen­play, which has great fun with the blur­ring of fic­tion and real­i­ty: for exam­ple, note how a lone­ly piano melody heard in a piano repair work­place near Virginia’s home makes its way into her imag­ined ver­sion of a scene from a sto­ry. He also weaves in goth­ic ele­ments, like a Phantom Of The Opera-style touch where Brand sev­ers the fea­tures of his vic­tims to apply to his own face, and a set of book­ends that bring in Harryhausen-style stop motion effects.

Director Tibor Takacs sup­plies the style, han­dling the tricky nar­ra­tive with con­fi­dence. He uses visu­al and audi­to­ry ele­ments to seam­less­ly link the fic­tion and real­i­ty sequences: a great exam­ple is when a scream in a fic­tion scene tran­si­tions to a tea kettle’s whistle in the real sto­ry­line. He also uses pro­ducI-Mad-01tion design to aid this “blur” effect via visu­al col­li­sions of the old and new, manip­u­lates tone effec­tive­ly and brings a pulp-inflect­ed the­atri­cal­i­ty to the big set­pieces. The finale, which blends slash­er movie sus­pense with stop-motion mon­sters, is a true high­light of the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry.

Takacs also gets solid per­for­mances through­out the film. The under­rat­ed Wright is an inspired choice for the hero­ine, bring­ing a lost qual­i­ty and build­ing a con­vinc­ing sense of emo­tion­al tur­moil as the sto­ry pro­gress­es. Rohner does solid work as the cop boyfriend but the real scene-steal­er in the sup­port­ing cast is Stephanie Hodge as Virginia’s quirky yet kind­ly cowork­er at the book­store. That said, the big sur­prise is the fine per­for­mance from Cook, who also did the impres­sive stop-motion FX and his own make­up, as the tit­u­lar killer. It’s pri­mar­i­ly a phys­i­cal role but he gives it a nice, under­stat­ed sense of men­ace.

In short, I, Madman might be the best of the ‘80s dream hor­rors to fol­low after Nightmare On Elm Street because it offers its own dis­tinc­tive­ly styl­ized take on the con­cept. If you want a dream hor­ror that doesn’t come from Wes Craven, this is an option worth explor­ing.