Sep 8, 2019


It sounds depressing to say this, considering we have to go back over 25 years to 1995, but In the Mouth of Madness is, and probably will be, John Carpenter’s genuinely last great film as a director. Following that would come a string of underwhelming and critically derided titles like Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A., Vampires (underrated!), Ghosts of Mars, and then, after a seven-year break, The Ward. Unless you’re a devout Carpenterphile, it’s likely that more people know about the bad reputation of Escape from L.A. than who know that In the Mouth of Madness exists at all. 

And that’s a crime.

Unexpectedly written by Michael DeLuca, who is known more as a producer and New Line Cinema’s former President of Production than as a screenwriter, In the Mouth of Madness is a Lovecraftian love letter to the genre – one filtered through the use of a purposely Stephen King-ish horror writer, here called Sutter Cane (and played by Das Boot’s Jürgen Prochnow). It’s a Lovecraft monster movie, a mind-bending psychological thriller, a satire on the power of pop culture, but most interesting, it’s also a clever take on film noir. International treasure Sam Neill (the U.S. definitely has joint custody with New Zealand) is John Trent, a private investigator hired to find a missing author, who is forced to work alongside Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), your proto-femme fatale – someone who cannot be entirely trusted. Together they’re tasked with solving the mystery of Sutter Cane’s alleged disappearance, but more importantly, trying to navigate the highly distressing question: what is reality?

This combination of genres boosts In the Mouth of Madness and offers it a non-derivative identity, but the most gleeful aspect is Carpenter’s sheer desire to scare his audience. In spite of the few moments of purposeful comedy (Sam Neill lazily singing “America the Beautiful” and intermittently staring out the passenger-side window during the duo’s very long car ride to Hobb’s End absolutely kills me), you can sense the intent for terror in every frame. Prior to 1995, the last time Carpenter was this dedicated to scaring his audience was maybe 1987’s Prince of Darkness, but definitely 1982’s The Thing. Though the mid-90s and beyond is the era during which the director would begin to embrace graphic violence (Vampires is ridiculous, and his Masters of Horror entries are very icky), In the Mouth of Madness relies mostly on eerie and somewhat abstract images – the former courtesy of KNB FX’s Lovecraftian creations and Carpenter’s simplistic editing tricks, and the latter courtesy of the production’s various Toronto shooting locales, which appear so majestic yet isolated that they feel plucked from a dream. Something as simply rendered as a disembodied hand knocking on a window or touching someone’s shoulder from behind, only to immediately disappear, is almost embarrassingly rudimentary considering its effectiveness. That’s not to say there isn’t bloody mayhem — it wouldn’t be a Carpenter film without at least a bit of the red stuff — but it’s noticeably dialed down in favor of a different kind of horror experience.

In the Mouth of Madness is the most undervalued film of Carpenter’s career. Like many of his other titles, appreciation for the film has grown over the years, having a strong presence on video and benefiting from its association with the very genre-friendly studio of New Line Cinema.

No comments:

Post a Comment