In 1995 John Carpenter unleashed In The Mouth Of Madness upon audiences; I think it's safe to say that we were ready and waiting for the master to return to the form that had given us classics like Halloween, Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China. Carpenter himself has said that he considers it to be the final entry in what he has termed his "Apocalypse Trilogy," which consists of The Thing and Prince Of Darkness. I say it stands tall alongside his finest work, and is my third favorite of all of his films.
In The Mouth Of Madness concerns the tale told (from a mental asylum) by insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill), who is the best at what he does, which is sniffing out cheats and liars and the fraudulent claims they make - and it seems the pure joy of the hunt and the thrill of it explains a great deal of his success. He is commissioned to find a reclusive horror author, Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), who has disappeared unexpectedly and without giving his publishers the manuscript of his latest book, and Cane's loyal fans (who are not exactly what one would term "stable") have begun to riot in their frenzy to get the latest work from their literary messiah. Cane's novels are largely set in a New England town named Hobb's End, and through some clever detective work, Trent is convinced that there in fact is a such a town - in New Hampshire - and that that must be where Cane is hiding out. Bringing Cane's editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) along for the ride, Trent sets off to find Cane and thusly expose what he is sure is merely a publicity stunt. What they find involves strange townspeople, reality that appears to have become unstuck and is in constant flux, Lovecraftian terrors, and more utter weirdness than you could shake a stick at.
I am torn about how much to give away here; mostly because the first time I saw the flick, I knew only the bare bones of the plot, and as such the movie just kicked my ass mercilessly. My friend and I rented it and before the night was over we each had a new entry on our list of classics. We jumped and said "Holy. . .shit." and "What the hell?" and unwittingly quoted another Carpenter winner with "You gotta be fucking KIDDING." Scene after scene, sight after sight, the rug was yanked out from under us. A painting that doesn't have the good manners to stay the same each time you look at it, or even stay sane each time you look at it. The kindly old inkeeper lady who could eat the witch in "Hansel and Gretel" for breakfast. Children with an "unspeakable evil" within them that make you wish there was no such holiday as Mother's Day. The way Styles chooses to "step" out of a car late in the film. A town where you can find your way around by consulting a work of fiction. And said author of these hellish tomes, Sutter Cane, presented here as the narrator of mankind's last days, more or less. . .and Trent's ultimate fate as the purveyor of Cane's message is one that stands with Carpenter's finest endings.
The notion of a book coming to life through people's shared perception of what is real and what is not is presented with style and psychosis by Carpenter, whose treatment of the script by former New Line Cinema head Michael DeLuca is show-stopping to say the least. Allow me to simply state that the flick goes utterly batshit in the last 20 minutes and that as a whole, In The Mouth Of Madness may be nuts and kinda all over the place, but given the nature of the piece, it is more than apt and ultimately works in its favor. There are many obvious homages to the work of H.P. Lovecraft and parallels to Stephen King's work throughout the film; Carpenter's stamp is also plainly evident on the screenplay as shot - the lone wolf antihero with a constant, burning cigarette in the corner of his smirk, etc.
Sam Neill gives an award-worthy performance as Trent; it's always impressed me how the man can go from Oscar bait like A Cry In The Dark and Sirens to stuff like Merlin and Event Horizon (another movie where he rocked it like a big dog). His character's position throughout, even in the face of clear and present insanity, is that of a man who has so trained his mind to see everything as a scam that he simply will not - CANNOT - allow himself to believe what he is experiencing as actually happening; this becomes a liability as the nightmarish events take a toll on his psyche. Julie Carmen as Styles, fares less well, and the part could perhaps have been handled better by another actress, but she is adequate and hardly sinks the movie in any case. Charlton Heston has a small role as the president of Cane's publishing house and is old-school smooth as always. As Sutter Cane, who is really the main character of the movie when you get down to it, German vet Prochnow is cult-leader charismatic and satanically, dangerously unbalanced. This is a man in dire need of his meds, and perhaps a prescription or two should be written for his outsize ego and God complex as well. Bernie Casey has a few scenes as Trent's boss, and old pro character actors David Warner and John Glover are more than welcome in their small roles, as psychiatrist and head of the mental institution, respectively.
When the gore and monsters and special makeup - which become more and more outlandish as the tale progresses - comes, it is courtesy of KNB, for my money the best FX studio around, and the job they do here does not disappoint at all, as usual. Industrial Light & Magic also contribute a few impressive visual effects. Carpenter (working with Jim Lang) also provides the score, as he has for every film of his save The Thing, and it's a bit more rocked-up, with loud, distorted guitars and pounding drums, and it adds the typical sonic pulse that any Carpenter flick displays.
New Line's DVD is a decent affair, with a commentary by Carpenter and his longtime director of photography Gary B. Kibbe. It's a tad dry and not as entertaining as his rollicking sessions with Kurt Russell or even Ghosts of Mars' track with Natasha Henstridge; it's very technical and concerned with the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, but would certainly impart some knowledge to aspiring directors. Some filmpgraphies of the cast and crew and the original trailer can also be found. There is also the option of fullscreen or widescreen, but as with every Carpenter flick, the only choice is really the widescreen format (and may those blasphemers who choose the fullscreen option have their DVDs melt in their players) as Carpenter has always been a master of knowing exactly how to compose shots and fill up such a frame.
The Thing, Halloween, and In The Mouth Of Madness. If all John Carpenter had ever made were these three films, he would be considered one of the greatest horror directors of all time, no need to mention the many more entertaining flicks on his resume. Sad to say, this was really the last unadulterated masterpiece from Sir Carpenter, as his more recent output pales in comparison to his earlier classics. Not to say that I don't really dig Vampires or that I think Ghosts of Mars is a waste of time; they're both fun and acceptable for what they are, but they don't even come close to his previous triumphs. In The Mouth Of Madness, however? This is the John Carpenter we know and love - just a monster of a flick, no question. . .I've seen it many, many times with many different people. Lots of different kinds of people from different backgrounds, as a matter of fact, and it always surprises me (although it really shouldn't) when I meet another person that, when the movie comes up in conversation, says, "In The Mouth Of Madness? Oh, man, I LOVE that flick, it kicks ass!" And the next thing you know, I've dug out my copy or we go out and rent it, and another group of us sit and watch it the way God and John Carpenter intended: quietly (except for the screams, of course), almost reverentially, in the dark.