Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Shocktober Review: In the Mouth of Madness

 True story: the Cap'n has often mentioned, but never officially reviews John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness. There's no good reason why I haven't; it was on my "Top Ten Horror Movies" list, I played it for college students during a pre-Horror Fest III event, and generally speaking I think of it fondly. Hell, when I picked up the Blu-Ray, I thought I'd throw it on just to check out the picture quality and ended up watching all the way until Sutter Cane first appears. The phrase "this is reality!" comes up frequently in conversation with friends (to be fair, we talk about Lovecraft quite a bit). For its twentieth anniversary, it only seems fair to actually talk about In the Mouth of Madness, my second favorite entry into Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy."

 Many years ago, back in the early days of the internet, I remember going to an H.P. Lovecraft fan site and looking at the "adaptations" section, only to find that the entry for In the Mouth of Madness goes out of its way to insist that Carpenter's film is in no way "inspired" by Lovecraft and was clearly more influenced by Stephen King. Because, uh, King is mentioned by name in the film? Because it sort of sounds like his name? I hadn't laughed that hard since a Cliff's Notes knock-off insisted that MacBeth's "parade of Kings" was in no way Shakespeare flattering the royalty because "he was above such things." So In the Mouth of Madness is not directly lifted from a Lovecraft story (true), but it shares locations, character names, and thematic elements that come from his stories. Let's not forget the direct passages from "The Rats in the Walls" and "The Haunter in the Dark" attributed to Cane. It's as clearly tied to the concept of "cosmic horror" as Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy is, and that doesn't get brushed away into the broom closet.

 Perhaps it's because In the Mouth of Madness is Carpenter at his most unabashedly pulpy (at least, until Vampires). This is the last of his great run that began with Halloween and came crashing down with Village of the Damned (the less said about Ghosts of Mars and The Ward, the better), but as I mentioned in the Horror Fest III recap, it's "quaintly 90s." It represents the last of an era of "contemporary" horror films that don't have any version of cell phones, the internet, or digital anything. I'm not actually sure how you would make In the Mouth of Madness today, as some intrepid Sutter Cane fan would have easily found (and posted) the map to Hobb's End online well in advance of the publication of his final novel.

 That's also why In the Mouth of Madness still works, because at first, we're not entirely sure what's happening to John Trent (Sam Neill). We know he's in an asylum (Arkham, if you were curious), and that he's been admitted under the care of (sic) Dr. Saperstein (John Glover) - hello, Rosemary's Baby reference - and that "things are really going to shit out there." When Dr. Wrenn (David Warner) comes to visit, we're introduced to the flashback of how insurance investigator Trent ended up unleashing the "Old Ones," with the help of literary agent Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) and, inadvertently, Arcane publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston). But it's a slow burn - aside from the framing device, most of the first thirty minutes of In the Mouth of Madness are procedural. This is punctuated with moments of violence, or hallucinations and, in one case, and old Carpenter favorite - the "double dream" fake-out.

 Well before we're aware how much influence Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) has over the story we're being told, a sense of unease permeates In the Mouth of Madness. It's arguably more effective than Prince of Darkness, which attempts to set the same kind of tone of foreboding menace. Carpenter and screenwriter / former New Line President Michael De Luca (who often doesn't get the credit when discussing this film) wisely frame the film through the perspective of the pragmatic John Trent. He's trained to spot a con, to find the angle in any story too good to be true, and the "disappearance" of Cane in anticipation of his novel In the Mouth of Madness is one he can't pass up. Not that, if you take the ending at face value, he ever had any choice, but his stubborn insistence on what is "real" juxtaposes nicely with the increasingly impossible world he finds himself in. Paired with Styles, Trent becomes the Dana Scully to her Fox Mulder, in some improbably warped version of The X-Files.

 Cane's novels have an "effect" on readers, one that slowly works on Trent as he does "research" - Carpenter sets up the overlapping dreams as being grounded in reality (an overzealous cop beating some kid in an alley) and slowly distorts it, introducing imagery we'll see later in the film. In the Mouth of Madness benefits greatly from multiple viewings, as Carpenter and De Luca set up much of where the story's going well before Trent and Styles leave to find "Hobb's End," the fictional town that Cane is believed to have disappeared to. There are a number of other, smaller, details, like Trent's asylum and hotel room number or the color of everyone's eyes being tied directly to something Cane says that you might not catch the first time through. In many ways I think that Carpenter improved on the weaknesses of Prince of Darkness and made In the Mouth of Madness a stronger film for it. This could, to be fair, also have something to do with my affinity for Lovecraft, whose influence hovers over every minute of the film.

 This brings us back to the distinction between Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. In the Mouth of Madness presents us with a sort of hybrid of the two - a wildly popular horror writer whose fiction is tied together by a sense of impending doom. It's an unofficial version of Lovecraft's mythos, to be sure, but De Luca and Carpenter are treading into the territory of the "normal man who stumbles into a vast conspiracy of cosmic proportions and goes mad" almost from the end of the opening credits. This is not a story of good vs. evil (which, I would argue is a hallmark of King's novels, if not his short stories), but of inevitability, of humanity realizing its insignificance in the presence of the "Old Ones," for whom Cane is a conduit. (If you're SPOILER averse, I'd skip the next sentence) As tends to be the case for the poor sap who wanders headlong into the Mythos, Trent eventually succumbs to his own madness, embracing his fate and transforming in a final audio cue. His hysterical laughter while watching the film-within-a-film (that is the film we're watching) is all the more telling. He's just a pawn. Embrace the change.

In the end, Carpenter might have one too many visual or editing flourishes (the kid on the bike, for example), but In the Mouth of Madness is one last great salvo from a director who would largely fall off of the cinematic map by the end of the 1990s. Sam Neill is great as the hard boiled-ish type who slowly but surely melts down in the presence of something more ancient, more powerful. I've always been shaky about Julie Carmen as styles, but as time passes I find her less grating. And how can I finish without mentioning Wilhelm Von Homburg, aka goon from Die Hard but more importantly as Vigo the Carpathian? He has a small role in Madness as the father of a boy that Cane takes in Hobb's End, and his two scenes ("Cane! Give me back my son!" and "I have to, he wrote me this way") are memorable in a film full of chilling moments. It's certainly the most pessimistic of the Apocalypse Trilogy, but if you're going to follow The Thing and Prince of Darkness, why leave any trace of hope?

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