With the horror scene of the 21st Century plagued by sequels, remakes, dumb teenage protagonists and predictable jump scares, it’s refreshing to dabble in genre classics and see how real horror movies are done. And when it comes to classic horror films, those by director John Carpenter are often considered to be among the genre’s finest, and for a damn good reason. After all, the horror luminary was responsible for such pictures as 1978’s Halloween and 1982’s The Thing, just to name a couple. One of Carpenter’s most underrated films is 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness; his H.P. Lovecraft-inspired horror picture which bombed at the box office before quietly developing into somewhat of a cult classic. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a proper horror flick which ticks all the boxes; benefitting from a strong sense of atmosphere, imagination, innovation and style, proving yet again why Carpenter is such an icon.
A cynical, hardboiled insurance investigator, John Trent (Neill) deals with cons on a constant basis and loves to bust phonies. For his latest assignment, Trent is hired by a publisher (Heston) to track down the missing Sutter Cane (Prochnow). Cane is the world’s best-selling horror author, and he disappeared on the eve of delivering his highly anticipated new novel (quaintly titled In the Mouth of Madness) for which readers and retailers are literally going crazy over. Suspecting a publicity stunt, Trent begins his investigation, and is led to the belief that Cane may be hiding out in a small, forgotten American town which has served as the principal location for his widely popular novels. Following the clues, Trent dutifully embarks on a hunt for the deserted town of Hobb’s End, accompanied by Cane’s editor Linda Styles (Carmen). However, upon arrival, Trent discovers that this case is like nothing he has previously handled. To reveal anymore about the plot would be unthinkable – you will just have to watch the film yourself to find out what happens next.
Screenwriter Michael De Luca cited H.P. Lovecraft as an inspiration for In the Mouth of Madness, and this inspiration is evident in the central concept relating to exiled monsters lurking in an extra-dimensional limbo trying to return to earth. By any standards, this is an A-grade John Carpenter film; easily on par with his most acclaimed earlier efforts. What works best here are the ideas. One can only imagine the sense of frustration that a screenwriter must experience when confronted with the challenge of writing an original, fresh horror picture, but De Luca pulled it off. The story indeed displays originality, and it is not as slapdash as the clichéd torture porn films or slasher pictures that are assembled by lazier filmmakers for a quick buck. In the Mouth of Madness gave Carpenter the chance to showcase his propensities for genre theatrics, but also goes one step further. The story-wall ultimately collapses, giving way to mind-fuckery and complete madness, with conventional narrative structure breaking down in favour of an apocalyptic nightmare puppeteered by a master of horror. From start to finish, Trent has no idea what will happen next, and neither will a viewer. That’s why it works.
Luckily, John Carpenter was up to the task of bringing De Luca’s superlative script to the screen, embracing his trademark horror routine to build an apprehensive, uneasy atmosphere and deliver visceral shocks. The man knows how to shock and disturb, conjuring up some genuinely chilling images destined to haunt your psyche for days. The special effects are not always airtight, but Carpenter is such an expert craftsmen in terms of atmosphere and tension that, in all likelihood, you’ll be too engaged to care. Pacing is another strong point – the film runs a solid 95 minutes, allowing it to get into the nitty gritty following a sufficient amount of character development, and subsequently pile on the scares with breathless intensity until the credits begin to roll. Thankfully, as to be expected from a Carpenter movie, the director also contributed to the score, leading to a soundtrack oozing with dread and apprehension.
Despite his role in Jurassic Park, it’s doubtful that Sam Neill is an actor one would think of to fulfil the duties of a horror movie protagonist. Yet, Neill stepped up the challenge and pulled off a wholly convincing, intense performance. Neill is particularly successful in his ability to convey the different facets of his character, from his reaction to being locked in a mental asylum to the emotions he experiences while witnessing the terrifying events that drive him mad. Alongside him, Julie Carmen is not quite as good. As a matter of fact, Carmen is rather weak and forgettable, though she tries. Fortunately, the rest of the actors are sublime. Jürgen Prochnow (Das Boot) is thoroughly chilling in the role of Sutter Cane; emanating evil and dispersing lines with a tone to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes) is strong as Cane’s publisher, while David Warner (Titanic) here displays a brilliant talent for mixing confidence and vulnerability. John Glover is also worth mentioning in the role of a flamboyant asylum worker.
In the Mouth of Madness cannot be classified as a guilty pleasure of a horror flick which demands a temporary lobotomy in order for you to enjoy it – rather, this is a brilliant, unforgettable, scary tour de force. It can also be considered a clever satire on the “movie violence causes violence in everyday society” argument. The ending leaves things open for interpretation, which further solidifies In the Mouth of Madness as a horror film which asks you to engage your brain while enjoying the competent scare show.