Sam Neill - John Trent
Julie Carmen - Linda Styles
Jurgen Prochnow - Sutter Cane
Charlton Heston - Jackson Harglow
David Warner - Dr. Wren
John Glover - Dr. Sapirstein
Frances Bay - Mrs. Pickman
Genre - Horror/Thriller/Mystery
Running Time - 95 Minutes
If you know me pretty well on a personal level, you know that John Carpenter was the director that really got me invested in watching horror movies and doing something in the film industry period. 1978's HALLOWEEN started my love for horror in 1985 at the age of four and it has been my favorite film ever since. On this blog, I have reviewed a few of his other films, such as THE FOG, 1982's THE THING, and THEY LIVE - all films I enjoy on various levels. Many consider THEY LIVE to be Carpenter's last great film, even though Carpenter has done some decent work on other films post-80s.
1995's IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, a film inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, is one of Carpenter's films that seems to get lost in the shuffle whenever the director is discussed. It barely made a dent at the box office. It gets overshadowed by one of his weaker efforts, the remake of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED that was released in the same year a few months later. Plus 1995 wasn't a huge year for horror, just missing the profitability of 1996 with SCREAM. It's considered a cult film now, with many loving the film while others dismissing it as one of Carpenter's weaker efforts.
Personally having not seen this since my teen years, I still am fond of IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. Is it as great as many say? Well that may be a bit of fiction, in my opinion.
Private investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) is locked in a padded room inside a mental institution. Dr. Wren (David Warner) talks to him to find out where Trent's mental instability has stemmed from. He tells the story about how he as hired to figure out the whereabouts of Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), a horror novelist in the vein of Stephen King who has gone missing. He has a novel that's about to be released and no one knows where he is, or if he's even alive. Funny enough, Cane's novels tend to bring out the evil out of people, causing his readers to become unstable and commit harsh acts. Trent believes that this whole deal is a publicity stunt, until he starts having really odd dreams related to Sutter Cane. Compiling the covers of Cane's novels, he figures out that, put together, they form a map of New Hampshire. Feeling Cane is hiding out there, Trent goes there to solve the case.
Taking Cane's editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), along, Trent finds the town that appears in Cane's novels - Hobb's End, which can't be located on any map. However Trent and Styles find it after a night of surreal events that seem to be right out of Cane's novels themselves. Both realize that Hobb's End is exactly as Cane has described it, and find Cane writing his latest novel, In the Mouth of Madness, inside a church. Trent soon realizes that Cane's novels are coming to life. And if In the Mouth of Madness is completed, it will release demonic gods and create chaos of apocalyptic levels.
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is a pretty good 90s horror flick that takes an idea that was very popular around this time - the blur of reality and fiction, creating a meta-world where both meet to the point where it's hard to decipher what's real and what isn't. Many other films have tackled this concept - 1983's VIDEODROME and 1993's THE DARK HALF come to mind. In fact, a year before IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS' release, Wes Craven released NEW NIGHTMARE, which was set in the real world, yet had Freddy Krueger coming to life and haunting the actors and production crew to great effect. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS isn't as good as NEW NIGHTMARE due to its flawed storytelling, but at least it manages to throw ideas at you that keep you interested for the long haul.
The strongest part of Michael De Luca's screenplay is really the concept itself. The idea is so strong and imaginative that any screenwriter could have a lot of fun playing with the separation of fiction and reality, putting characters through a memorable journey for them and for audiences. In fact, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, who loved dealing with psychological horror that dealt with the battle of light and darkness and ancient gods who saw humanity as nothing but pests that needed to be eliminated. In fact, the title itself is a take on Lovecraft's 1936 story, At the Mountains of Madness - which is about a man who is locked inside an asylum after going insane, as he recounts the events of the horror that made him turn mentally unstable. Not coincidentally, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS starts out the same way, with John Trent being locked inside an asylum mentally ill as he recounts what happened to him, whether others believe him or not.
Speaking of how the film opens, it's really strong and gripping. Usually I have issue with seeing part of the aftermath right from the start and then seeing the story unfold as flashback. But seeing Trent get dragged into a padded room and watch him draw crosses all over the room and on his own body before telling his story not only captures your interest, but makes you wonder what the hell happened to the guy to make him behave like this. De Luca manages to keep that interest for the first two-thirds of the film, creating scenes that come across as dreams or visions, but end up being real as its effects the world surrounding the main characters. Is it possible for works of fiction to get so popular that they end up becoming real? Look at the world of Reality Television and how the stars of this genre have become celebrities. What about those fans who go to conventions and actually dress up and behave as their favorite characters? Maybe we're there already, which is a scary thought.
The moment where the film begins to play with this idea is when Trent and Styles begin travelling to Hobb's End. During the drive there, Styles begins experiencing weird visions - stranger when she recognizes them from coming from Cane's novels themselves. She leads Trent through this mysterious town, recognizing characters and buildings just from reading the stories. This help leads to the whereabouts of Sutter Cane, which causes all hell to break loose. It's all interesting stuff and it's great to see the characters deal with the fact that it's possible that the novels they've read have now come to life, with them being the actual characters played in Sutter Cane's upcoming novel. The way the story is structured and how the scenes are written and play out create a world that's neither real or fake, blurring the lines quite convincingly.
Unfortunately, this also leads to the film's downfall in its final act. Instead of maintaining a level of logic needed for a satisfying conclusion, it just ends up being so cliche that the effectiveness of what happened before it is gone. We never really understand the reason why Sutter Cane would want to start an apocalypse since he's only a pawn in a greater scheme when he has so much power in the pop culture world. We never get the point as to why Linda Styles is even involved so much in the story period. And then there's Trent's descent into madness. Now obviously, it's because of what he experiences at Hobb's End. His hallucinations become real and as a skeptic, Trent really deal with it properly. The problem with that is that Trent starts having these dreams and visions way before going to Hobb's End. He's barely completed one Cane novel and is already getting screwed in the head. This becomes an issue since we never learn how powerful Cane's books are. If you read a single page, are you scarred for life? Does it take half a book? An entire novel? The whole collection? I think the story needed to explain how powerful Cane's influence was. Sure, others got affected. But a lot of people who read these books weren't. And when people didn't get their fix of Cane's novels, they went mad too. It's like his fans were crazy no matter what. So this aspect needed more depth.
Speaking of the final act, it felt too disjointed and rushed for me. We watch Trent struggle with what he experienced, which is fine. But suddenly we get time shifts, random character appearances, the novel Cane was working on haunting him whether he got rid of an old copy or not. Things were just happening and none of it was being explored. And then the very end of the film is supposed to be thought provoking, but it just left me more confused than before. I get what it was representing, but if it were stronger, it would have been stronger and more clever than what De Luca and Carpenter were going for. Instead, all I got were ideas being played with but none of them feeling at all substantial or satisfying. It felt like it had to happen this way because it was expected, rather than it feeling natural. It just feels like one dream sequence after the other, more focused on the hallucinations and the cliche visual scares rather than the actual plot and characters. It's hard to like a film when you're never sure what you're seeing is real or not without some sort of hint that gives you that "a-ha!" moment.
Speaking of characters, none of them come across as deep enough to become sympathetic or even likeable. John Trent is our main character - a non-believer who comes across as a real jerk for whatever reason. He refuses to believe the phenomenon of Sutter Cane, even thinking his missing report is a way to build publicity for the new novel. He even thinks a fan trying to kill him with an axe is a silly stunt! Huh? For most of the film, he thinks what he's seeing is being done just to promote Sutter Cane's novel. Then when he realizes that isn't true and that everything is really happening, he becomes automatically insane. We're part of his journey to figure out the case, which is good. But there's nothing about this guy that makes me want to root for him. He's so cynical and hardened by his detective work that he comes across as an asshole. If we knew why he was this way, it'd make things easier. But we don't really know much about him - only during the course of what we see of him in the film. Sutter Cane isn't really deep either, but at least I can understand his role of the crazy villain with the lust for power, even if it is evil. His character never changes, even though it's rather shallow and cliche. The other characters don't mean much in the course of the film, especially Linda Styles. She's supposedly meant to be the love interest for John Trent, but that never happens. Instead, she's more of a pest to him even though she's the only one who sees Hobb's End for what it is before it's too late. She doesn't really add much besides being the only major female presence in the film. It's as if she was there because every film like this needs a female lead and she HAD to be there, instead of her naturally being there because she'll aid the hero or be a foil in some way. Neither one describes Styles at all. She's just there because the screenwriter wants her there. She did nothing for me as a character.
KNB's FX work, while dated, still works well. The effects are similar to what was done in Carpenter's earlier film, 1982's THE THING. The creature special effects are mostly done in a practical manner, looking gross and disturbing but never truly scary. Honestly, my favorite effect was one done with computers [or possibly good old-fashioned film editing], when Cane peels away at his body, revealing pages of a book. It was very cool and I loved the metaphor that it created. I think the film could have used more of that. We don't get a lot of gore or special effects even, but what we do see is very good. No complaints. This film definitely took advantage of the SFX, especially in detail of how different the monsters look, human or otherwise.
The direction by John Carpenter is mostly good. While I do feel the pacing felt pretty slow, which is funny since IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is only 95-minutes long, I thought his visual work was quite strong as one would expect. There were moments where the direction was reminiscent to some of his earlier work, like HALLOWEEN, THE FOG, and THE THING where scene composition was concerned. Things happen to pop up in the foreground and background quite nicely at times, either to jolt the audience or present a hint or clue that one would miss since our focus would be elsewhere. I do think he does this a bit too frequently towards the end, but the framing and composition reveal quite a lot that words don't. The soundtrack is okay, but I barely remember any of it. The music doesn't really pull you in, unlike his more superior work in HALLOWEEN, 1976's ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, and THE THING. I thought the editing by Edward A. Warschilka was pretty damn good though. Whenever the action or horror would happen, the editing definitely helped quicken the film's pace. That said, this isn't Carpenter's best flick director-wise. But I still like the visual presentation.
The acting was good as well. Sam Neill is more than decent as John Trent, a man who is either trapped inside a messed up nightmare, or a man who realizes he's just the figment of a horror writer's imagination. He really shines at times playing the cynical jerk, although he doesn't play the insanity aspect of his character enough for me during others. His performance did make me like his character more than I probably should have though. Neill is a good actor. Just wish he had a meatier role. Jurgen Prochnow is probably the best actor in the film as Sutter Cane. While the character is underdeveloped, Prochnow makes the most of it and creates a memorable performance. Just his body language and his commanding voice makes the man one to watch. Again, I wish he had a meatier role. Julie Carmen is probably the weakest actor as Linda Styles. She does nothing for me as a character or an actress in this film. It feels like she's sleepwalking through the role, never becoming convincing as Trent's potential love interest or his psuedo-assistant. Honestly, she was given a nothing role which should have never been in the film anyway. Neither Carmen or the character added anything at all. Others, like Charleton Heston, John Glover, and David Warner do well in their shorter roles. And watch out for that cameo by Hayden Christensen as a teenager on a bike.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE WONDERING IF I'M CHARACTER IN SOMEONE'S NOVEL ABOUT A NEW YORKER WHO WRITES REVIEWS IN HIS FREE TIME INSTEAD OF BANGING STRIPPERS
- John Trent was locked in an insane asylum strapped in a strait jacket. I guess there are still some folks who don't believe that dinosaurs still exist in modern times...
- Trent drew crosses all over the padded walls and on himself. It's kind of ironic since he grew up to be the Anti-Christ and all...
- "Don't make your wife a partner. And if you do, don't fuck around behind her back." At least One and a Half Men followed that rule...
- Trent had really weird nightmares after reading Sutter Cane's books. I had the same reaction with the Kama Sutra. My legs and hands have to go where?? Screw that!
- Linda had an episode after she got a sneak peek of Sutter Cane's new novel. I guess she's having a FRIGHT NIGHT 2, huh?
- Linda swallowed Trent's car keys. She sounds like a good time. Hey there now...
THE FINAL HOWL
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is one of those films I can respect and appreciate due to the interesting ideas and concepts, but the execution of it all brings it down a notch or two. If the story had more depth instead of relying on cheap gags to get a rise out of the audience, the film would have come across better. At least the direction, special effects, and most of the acting works enough to keep you invested. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS wants to be clever and original, but ends up being mostly cliche and more confusing for its own good. As the end of the unofficial "Apocalyptic Trilogy", the conclusion isn't as satisfying as one would want. And while it's nowhere close to being my favorite John Carpenter flick, at least IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is mostly solid and worth a rental. And remember...it's just a movie. Well I think, at least.