Saturday, June 11, 2011


John Carpenter, 1994
Starring: Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jurgen Prochnow

To say that In the Mouth of Madness is a good film would be a stretch at best. And somehow I like it anyway. I've also seen John Carpenter's Vampires about three or four times and managed to be pretty entertained. I like John Carpenter. A lot. I consider this a virtue rather than a flaw in my cinematic taste, but I do have a tolerance for his later films that isn't shared by most people. Some of them are pretty bad. In the Mouth of Madness falls somewhere between his great early works and his cheesy later ones (Ghosts of Mars...), but it is a valid attempt at Lovecraftian horror that should be seen by all genre fans at least once.

Horror writer Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) goes missing and his publishing company hires investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) to discretely find the author and his latest manuscript as soon as possible. The new novel is due out soon and the publishing company will loose millions in sales if the remainder of the book isn't found in time. Cane, a weird amalgamation of Steven King and H.P. Lovecraft, writes popular horror novels about otherworldly beings that warp reality. This unfortunately becomes true as Trent traces him to a town in New England, one that should only exist in Cane's fiction. Trent and Cane's editor Styles (the extremely annoying Julie Carmen) find Cane and much more than they bargained for.

There are some interesting things at work in this film. The effects waver between successful and ridiculous, but I always have respect for a director who tries to reproduce Lovecraftian horror for the screen. There are a lot of direct references to Lovecraft and fans with a passing familiarity to the great writer are probably going to confuse In the Mouth of Madness with Lovecraft's "In the Mountains of Madness." There is no real relationship between the two or really any connection between the plot and Lovecraft's writing other than text quoted by Cane, character names, and shared themes. The screenplay really goes for it, but unfortunately falls apart at the end. By the time Trent is watching In the Mouth of Madness, starring himself, it has been reduced to utter ridiculousness.

In addition to the Lovecraft references, there are plenty of nods to Stephen King and even a few sneaky ones to the great Quatermass sci-fi/horror series produced by the BBC in the '60s and '70s (Hobb's End, for instance). I wish someone would release that on region 1 DVD.

Sam Neill is Sam Neill. I could watch him in anything, but there are times when he seems totally removed from the action of the film. Whether the fault is with Neill or the screenplay, I can't say. Jurgen Prochnow is perfect as Cane and I wish his part in the film had been bigger. I also wish someone other than Julie Carmen had been cast as Styles, the editor, Trent's foil and pseudo-love interest. She's mannish, annoying, power mad, and I desperately hoped for a noir-inspired femme fatale in the role instead.

This film is the third and final entry in Carpenter's loosely connected Apocalypse trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) and, unlike the other films, stupidly has "John Carpenter's" in the title, something I refused to add to the heading of my review. Anyone going to see the film probably knows who Carpenter is. Why did he have to use John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness and John Carpenter's Vampires?

On a final note, I have a problem with films that try to deal with reality warps like time travel, alternate realities, or, in this case, gradually changing realities. They are always great on paper, but difficult to write and often come across as an attempt to cash in on a horror/sci-fi trope that will pack a punch and allow writers to neglect character. In this case, that's exactly what it feels like. The idea is that because Cane's books have so many readers, they begin to change reality and come alive. While this is an interesting concept, it provides a number of almost un-fixable continuity problems.

Overall I recommend the film. It's fun if you keep the flaws in mind and don't have high expectations. There are even a few genuinely creepy moments. If you like John Carpenter's work, definitely seek it out. The New Line DVD is technically out of print, but you can find it everywhere for very cheap. Rent it first.

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