Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: Michael De Luca
Starring: Sam Neill, Jurgen Prochnow, Julie Carmen, David Warner, and Charlton Heston
Reviewed by: Wes R.
“You must try reading my new one. The others have had quite an effect...but this one will drive you absolutely mad.”
During a time when the horror genre was labeled “dead”, truly good films were being made but overlooked. If horror really was dead in the 90s, then 1995 was the exception (and remember, Scream and the slasher rebirth was merely a year away). I’d put Demon Knight, In the Mouth of Madness, and Lord of Illusions over almost any horror film released in the 2000s thus far. 1995 was a great, but often-overlooked year for the genre. My personal favorite horror film from this period is also one of my favorite films from John Carpenter. In fact, at the age of 15, this film made me a fan of Carpenter’s work. I’d seen Halloween and The Fog in the past and liked them, but was still pretty new to his work. In the Mouth of Madness made me sit back and say “Wow, this guy is amazing.” The music, the monsters, the story, the ending…the film is just a genuinely solid movie all-around. Why do so many horror fans neglect it? That’s hard to say. It’s hard for a film that was released during a time in the genre that most people would much sooner forget, but it deserves a second look from all fans. This film is the very definition of an unsung treasure awaiting your discovery.
What if the works of H.P. Lovecraft came true? What if some of Stephen King’s most terrifying stories really happened? What if a horror story or movie had the power to actually drive the reader or viewer insane? These are the type of horror fanboy questions that fuel John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, a film that was written on spec by genre fan (and at the time a New Line Cinema exec) Michael De Luca. At the time this was made, the Internet was in its infancy, but I can remember the project being hyped greatly by magazines like Fangoria. They were calling it John Carpenter’s comeback and the like. However, upon release, the film just couldn’t seem to find an audience. Blame it on lack of star power, blame it on New Line’s marketing, blame it on the bad time of year of its release (February, I think it was), but someone you can’t blame it on is John Carpenter. This truly was his comeback film. This truly was a return to form for the former master of horror. Though I dearly love They Live, Big Trouble in Little China, and Prince of Darkness, this is Carpenter’s best film since Escape From New York.
We open on a mental institution in which freelance insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill of Jurassic Park) has been recently committed and is now loudly ranting from a padded cell…a cell he has drawn crosses across every square inch of for protection from something. What has driven him this mad? A psychologist (played by horror vet, David Warner) visits Trent to find out what happened to him and why he is in there. It seems a publishing company filed an insurance claim and Trent was asked by a book publisher (Charlton Heston) to hunt down his biggest selling author, Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Cane is a horror author who has gone missing not long after finishing his latest book, In the Mouth of Madness. Heston wants the book returned so they can publish it, and Cane found so he can keep up his reputation as a cash cow for the company. One of Heston’s assistants (Julie Carmen) is sent along with Trent in hopes of aiding in the search. After researching the author, Trent and his assistant set out to find Cane. Slowly but surely, they begin to discover that the horrific, otherworldly things that Cane writes about might not be all that fictional. Readers of Cane’s work are turning more and more crazed and deranged. Some, even homicidal. Why is his work so important to his fans?
When you put this film in the VCR or DVD player, turn the volume up. Way up. Right from the New Line logo, Carpenter’s opening titles music is probably his best themes since the original Halloween. Seriously, it’s that good. The addition of rocking electric guitars was a welcome one. In high school, when I participated in a student-run pro-wrestling fundraiser for our FCA organization, my ring entrance theme was the main titles theme of In the Mouth of Madness. It’s not just that piece, though. The whole score is amazing and shows quite a surprising range for Carpenter. While some of his earlier films had great main themes, they often had lackluster supporting music. Not In the Mouth of Madness. I proudly own the CD soundtrack, and I highly suggest you track it down if you’re into instrumental horror scores. It’s one of the best. Though he didn’t write it himself (rare for Carpenter) the script is very accomplished and original. The subject matter is heavily influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Cane himself is an amalgam of the mind-blowing Lovecraft and the best-selling Stephen King. Only, Sutter Cane doesn’t just have fans. He has followers. The ending of the film…wow. I’ve not seen a mainstream horror film since whose ending has equaled this one for sheer audacity and execution. This is not a happy story, and its no surprise that the ending is appropriately bleak. Though it is grim, the ending left a smile on my face because of its implications and boldness. Carpenter almost always delivers a unique ending for his films and In the Mouth of Madness features one of his most enjoyable.
The acting is overall very good. There isn’t a single lazy performance in the bunch. I’ve always admired Sam Neill’s acting and his work as the jaded investigator who’s lost his belief in the goodness of his fellow man is among his best performances. Likewise, Prochnow gives a truly haunting portrayal as the creepy, prophetic author. Star Wars fans, look quick for a bit part by future Anakin Skywalker, Hayden Christensen. The current format of our screencaps doesn’t allow for an accurate representation of films shot in the 2:35:1 aspect ratio, but let me tell you, this is a beautifully shot film. Frequent Carpenter collaborator, Gary Kibbe did a fantastic job with the shot composition and camera setups here. If you watch this film on TV or in fullscreen, you are really doing yourself a disservice. In the intended widescreen version, there is virtually no wasted space. Every shot is filled with information and is composed in a way that gives them the feel of a painting. The film features one of the best uses of the 2:35:1 ratio in a horror film in quite some time. Carpenter is one of the few filmmakers out there who utilizes the ratio for art, and not just to make the screen wider.
Though much of their FX work is briefly glimpsed, the team of Kurtzman, Nicotero and Berger (KNB) should be applauded for their work on the film. The monsters and makeup effects are original and effectively gruesome. The fact that the monsters are only glimpsed may be a disappointment for fans who like to see everything explicitly, but the way it’s edited leaves quite a bit more for the imagination. I didn’t mind a bit that the film took the “less is more” stance, and I think it’s stronger because of it. The best horror stories (especially those by Lovecraft and Poe) use haunting imagery to let the reader draw his or her own mental images of what is occurring. The editing of the monster scenes give viewers just enough of a glimpse that the most horrific images they experience are the ones they see in their own mind. This is a longtime staple of minimalist filmmaking, and it works superbly to Carpenter’s advantage here. Each viewer will have a different idea of what the monsters look like. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t feature plenty of good makeup shots and FX. The film isn’t overly gory, but the madness and surreal nature of the violence of the film gives it an additional shot in the arm that more cartoonish bloodfests lack. The blood and violence here resonates. There are very dark concepts at work here, and there is an actual reason for the bloodshed.
Why do some films get cheesier as they get older, while others continue to hold up? Films like In the Mouth of Madness will always get better as they age, because they actually provide horrific thoughts and concepts. It’s not the jump-scares or the monsters and the things that can “get you” which provide the film’s fright. It is the concepts presented by the script and the filmmakers. Posing to the viewer mature and thought-provoking questions about popular culture, fiction versus reality, religion, and the nature of true evil, In the Mouth of Madness offers a more sophisticated scare than others of its ilk (much like Lovecraft did). The scares here are more along the lines of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser than Halloween. Featuring ancient demons, lunatics with axes, slimy monsters in the dark, haunted paintings, nightmarish hallucinations, mutant children, an evil church, grotesquely deformed cannibals…the film is no mere by-the-numbers stalk and slash film. In the Mouth of Madness is pure horror, in every sense of the word. It celebrates the genre by providing a perfect example of what a true horror film can and should be. Director John Carpenter shows all of the doubters that his earlier success in the genre wasn’t just a fluke, and although he hasn’t directed a film since that has lived up to the power of this one, do not count him out. Fans who have become jaded by remakes and mindless films with ditzy bimbos being chased by masked killers, vampires wearing Abercrombie, or blink-and-you-miss-them ghosts will find much to love in this wholly unique and original movie. Oh, the horror! Essential!
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