In The Mouth of Madness (1995)
What if you were nothing but a fictional character? What if you were simply a figment of an author’s imagination? What if reality, as you know it, ceased to exist? What if you were the creation of horror writer Sutter Cane? This is the premise for John Carpenter’s 1995 classic, In The Mouth of Madness.
Sam Neill stars as John Trent, a freelance insurance fraud investigator. Trent is the best in the business, and has just debunked an insurance claim for his friend and colleague, Robbie (Bernie Casey). After his job is done, Robbie wants Trent to investigate an insurance claim that has to do with the disappearance of best-selling horror novelist, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow). Though, their meeting is cut short by an axe wielding maniac with a very bizarre look in his eyes. This maniac nearly kills Trent, and he soon learns that this was Cane’s agent during a meeting with Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), the head man of the publishing company for Cane’s books. Harglow introduces Trent to Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), who says that Cane’s writing tends to have a strange impact on its readers. With the masses clamoring for Cane’s next novel, Harglow is desperate to find Cane, and more importantly, the complete manuscript for the novel, In The Mouth of Madness. Grounded in reality, Trent believes this is all some elaborate publicity stunt by Harglow, and even concocts his own theory of it all. Ultimately, he discovers a map built out of the Cane’s own book artwork that leads to the supposed fictional town of Hobb’s End, New Hampshire. John is sent off with Linda to decipher this mystery, but slowly, reality begins to come undone as Sutter Cane starts to take control. And no matter how much Styles tries to sway Trent’s perspective of everything that’s going on around them, he stands strong in what he believes to be real. However, will this unraveling of reality around John Trent drive him straight into the mouth of madness?
Before I get into the meat of this film, I have to express my enjoyment of the film’s music. As is well known, John Carpenter composes the music for his own films, and has a strong track record of excellent scores and main title themes. Carpenter teams with Jim Lang to produce a fantastic score, and a very bluesy, yet extremely catchy main title theme. If you like Carpenter’s score for Vampires, this theme will be right up there with it! I have been a proud owner of the film’s original soundtrack album for many years, and that opening title theme is a true highlight for me. Carpenter really kicks off this film right with this opening credits sequence, and really sets a great tone for the whole film.
Now, this final installment in John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (which also consists of The Thing and Prince of Darkness) features a fantastic cast! In addition to Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, Event Horizon), Jürgen Prochnow (Beverly Hills Cop II), and Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes), you’ve got the great character actors in David Warner and one of my personal favorites, John Glover. Warner starred in the late 80’s horror classic, Waxwork, has had several parts in the Star Trek film & television franchises, and worked previously with Carpenter on the anthology TV movie Body Bags. John Glover you may know from the 1999 Mel Gibson revenge actioneer Payback, as the Devil on the short-lived FOX series Brimstone, from Gremlins 2, or more recently, his role as Lionel Luthor on Smallville. Carpenter character actor regular Peter Jason also has an appearance early on in the film, and he brings out one of his best performances opposite Sam Neill as an insurance scammer. It’s just a stellar cast that I think only Carpenter could’ve culled together. Every single actor puts in a great performance, and Julie Carmen (Fright Night, Part II) is no exception either.
Most prominently, Sam Neill puts in a superb performance, as he always does, and grounds Trent well into the bounds of reality. Even when a normal person would’ve given into some form of dementia or hysteria, Trent continues to weed out the con, and Neill makes it truly convincing. He inhabits the character beautifully. He richly knows the character. He knows his reasoning, and understands how the character’s mind works. He’s so dead set on finding some level of a con in all that’s going on around him that to give into the illusion Cane is creating is not a possibility. Of course, when Trent eventually does go past the brink of sanity, Neill sells it well, but not by playing it as a crazy, but as a fearful prophet of doom. He knows the inevitable truth, can do what he wants to stop it, but knows that it’s all a futile effort – the world is going mad, the end is near. Overall, it’s an amazing and deeply fleshed out performance fueled by a wonderfully written character.
That being said, I cannot overlook Michael De Luca’s fantastic script, and I give him monstrous praise for the imagination it took to conjure together such a well-woven story of surrealism.. He forges a very intelligent piece of horror storytelling with a smart structure and strong, memorable characters. It’s an entirely compelling premise that is frightening to contemplate, and is the core reason why this is my favorite horror film of all time. It’s not just the idea of reality as we know it degenerating into a horrific nightmare, but how it is masterfully woven together through Trent’s eyes that makes this such a brilliant piece of cinematic awesomeness. Of course, bringing it to John Carpenter was simply inspired and perfect.
Some say John Carpenter had lost his style and talent by the 90’s, and there ARE examples of that – Village of the Damned, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and eventually, Ghosts of Mars in 2000 – but this is not one of them. He directs and shoots this film as well as Escape From New York, The Thing, Christine, or even Halloween. Carpenter really entrenches you in the world of Sutter Cane, and presents Cane as the imposing, frighteningly powerful figure he’s been built up to be. The cinematography by Gary B. Kibbe is fantastic here, and it fits well with Carpenter’s style. It allows for dramatic tension, a foreboding atmosphere, and it nicely conveys the entire ‘unraveling of reality’ element that builds throughout the entire film. This is one of John Carpenter’s best films ever, and it’s only a shame that it doesn’t get as greatly noticed or appreciated as it deserves to be.
The only detractor I find in the entire film are the ‘unspeakable abominations’ that are unleashed from ‘the other side’ late in the film. Not to say anything bad about the usually fantastic makeup and creature effects of KNB EFX Group, but it may have played a little better if we never actually saw these creatures. Keep them hidden, and left in shadow. I just think that unspeakable abominations are better left to the imagination of the audience. They just don’t sell well with me here, but their sequence is a quiet brief and only in quick cuts. So, it’s nothing to ruin the film for you. This is far too exceptional and frightening of a film to have such a minor thing like that overshadow it. There are intensely horrific images within this movie that will disturb you, make you cringe. One of the main influences for much of the film were the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I have read a good deal of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and the imagery and feel of this film truly conveys much of what Lovecraft expressed in his work. Thank KNB EFX Group for creating such dead-on creations that really hold to that influence. They proved their cutting edge talent here with amazing and unsettling make-up effects which bring the horror to intense life.
In The Mouth of Madness is, without a doubt, a Carpenter classic, and is as deserving of all the praise as his other classics. He takes De Luca’s superb screenplay, and realizes it with the skill of a master craftsman. Every nuance in this subtle, intricate horror story is brilliantly executed with a dead-on perfect cast. Carpenter and De Luca weave a chilling story that is strong, setting up characters, a reality, a plot, and then, slowly deconstructing it piece by piece. What remains in the end is madness, and a thought-provoking, but still entertaining horror movie. There is only one other thing to say here, and that is, you need to go watch this movie!
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This entry was posted on 12.31.2011 by Nick Michalak. It was filed under Horror Movies, Movie Reviews and was tagged with asylum, author, blood, charlton heston, creatures, david warner, fantasy, film, gore, hobbs end, horror, hp lovecraft, in the mouth of madness, insanity, jim lang, john carpenter, john glover, julie carmen, jurgen prochnow, knb efx, michael de luca, monsters, movie, old ones, peter jason, reality, review, sam neill, surreal, sutter cane, violence.