John Carpenter's Last Masterpiece: "In the Mouth of Madness" (1994) Movie Review
Cult filmmaker John Carpenter began his career as a low-budget horror and sci-fi filmmaker in 1974, with the release of Dark Star, a weird tale of terror in space that went largely unnoticed at the time of its release. Then came Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) and Halloween (1978), two films that made Carpenter a name in Hollywood (the latter especially) and allowed him to work on various films with bigger budgets. What followed became quite a mixed bag; the quality of his filmmaking was never consistent. For every masterpiece like The Thing (1982) or They Live (1988), we also got awful films like Prince of Darkness (1987) or Children of The Damned (1995). The latter part of his career saw him return to low budget movies (following the failure of 1992's Memoirs of An Invisible Man). I consider the films that followed to be all very average at best but there is an odd one out. That film is my favorite John Carpenter film. That film is In the Mouth of Madness (1994).
In the Mouth of Madness (1994) was produced on a small budget of $8,000,000 and grossed $8,900,000 in the U.S., eventually turning a small profit worldwide especially after it became available on video. Critics were polarized by the film; after reading a few of them, I would say that this is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of film. I absolutely love it. Luckily, the film now has a small cult following, especially among those who admire H.P. Lovecraft's work (more on that later). I like everything about it; the plot, the direction, the performances of the leading actors, the special effects, the fantastic musical theme...
The plot of the film (hats off to Michael De Luca) is very original and different than anything I had seen before or since. It sucked me in within minutes.
Sutter Cane is this century's most widely read author and his novels have been translated into 18 different languages, spawning a billion dollar industry. When Cane vanishes just days before he's expected to deliver his last manuscript, his publisher hires John Trent to investigate his disappearance. Trent believe at first it's an ill conceived publicity stunt--until he and Linda Styles, Cane's editor, travel to New England. There, they wind up in a town that cannot be found on any ordinary map- called Hobbs End, a fictional village that exists only in Cane's novels. Has the investigation unearthed a fantasy world or has reality blended with the macabre imagination of Sutter Cane? (Blu-ray.com)
Most people who tend to dislike In the Mouth of Madness highlight the fact that it is very confusing and hard to follow. Personally, I would say it is confusing but in a beautiful way. After all, isn't the story about a man trying to figure out what is real and what is fiction? I think it cleverly makes the viewers wonder if what is happening is meant to be taken literally or if it is something else. The beauty of the film is that it's great to revisit it. As a movie-lover, I always have a blast rewatching movies such as this one, where there are so many layers in the story and new elements to discover each time.
Beware: this is not a film that takes you by the hand to help you understand what is going on! Despite having watched it often, I still find elements that don't make much sense to me, but I believe that was the whole point. The main issue I have is that I can't decide at which point in the film fiction overcomes reality. Is it once John reaches Hobb's End or before? Or is the whole film a psychotic illusion? There are a few different ways to interpret this movie, as was the case with 1990's Total Recall. If you are willing to open your mind and accept the fact that you won't understand everything, then you are likely to have as much fun as I have watching it.
The film deals with the end of the world and as such, it is part of John Carpenter's unofficial Apocalypse trilogy, which includes The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987) (those films are otherwise totally unrelated). This time, the Apocalypse is caused by the writing of Sutter Cane (himself possessed by Lovecraftian demons from another dimension), which is driving people mad. A line of dialog from Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) sums up the concept quite well:
A reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane were to become the majority. You would find yourself locked in a padded cell, wondering what happened to the world.
A film with a plot such as this one could easily become a ridiculous mess if its leading actor failed to make the audience believe what he is going through. In the Mouth of Madness needed an actor who could convincingly portray an everyday working man but also one that is believably walking the thin line between sanity and madness. Enter Sam Neill, an incredibly talented actor that I believe is sadly massively underrated in Hollywood. The Australian is perhaps best known for playing Alan Grant in Jurassic Park (1993) and its third sequel from 2001. Despite the amazing success of JP, he never really made it as an A-list star (not unlike his JP co-star Jeff Goldblum), as the only other big film I recall seeing him in after that was the impressive Event Horizon (1997).
Sam Neill is a very intense actor (those eyes...) and I think he has all the qualities to be a perfect leading man in any kind of film. I think one of his major assets is that the audience can easily relate to him through what happens in the movie, as his reactions are quite believable. Here, the whole concept of the movie rests on his shoulders and he carries it beautifully. His performance is both heartfelt and funny but never played for laughs only. Behind the scenes interviews with Carpenter revealed that Neill was portraying the character as if he was in a comedy, which is an interesting point of view, to say the least.
Julie Carmen plays Sutter Cane and her performance is quite average. Sometimes her delivery is wooden and she fails to maintain the same level of authenticity as her co-star. However, maybe it was all intended as we learn that she might have never existed... Still, next to Sam Neill, her performance is a bit off.
Upon release and on the covers of the home video releases, there was a lot of emphasis put upon the fact that the legendary Charlton Heston was in the film. However, his role is very small and I think he does not even have 5 minutes of screen time (like in 1994's True Lies). He plays Cane's publisher, and while it's nice to see him in such a film, he didn't leave much of an impression on me.
The same could be said about Jurgen Prochnow, who portrays Sutter Cane. He is not that menacing and doesn't have much to do except talking. He is tolerably well cast, but to me, the highlight of the film remains Sam Neill.
Being a horror movie, it has to be scary to be effective. Is it? Oh god, yes. Carpenter knows how to create troubling visions and an unsettling mood.
He starts early in the movie, during the Arkham-like asylum scenes and when Cane's publisher attacks Trent with an ax totally out of nowhere, asking him simply : Do you read Sutter Cane? But the real horror starts happening when we reach Hobb's End. The villagers are nowhere to be seen and when we see them, it's terrifying, especially the children. Wilhelm Von Homburg (you might have seen him as Vigo in Ghostbusters II) plays what seems to be the only sane villager left but he ultimately kills himself. When the only person you can rely on is this man, you know you are in deep trouble.
The film also throws in some body horror in the mix as some characters are transformed into Lovecraftian monsters. There is also one scene involving Julie Carmen's character that seems to make a reference to The Exorcist (1973) that I always find troubling to watch. Carpenter uses some jump scares throughout the film such as for the dream-within-a-dream sequence (see picture below) but the effect is always well done and I never felt like it was a cheap jump scare. The mood and general atmosphere created by Carpenter is one of dread and desperation; I genuinely feel uneasy when Trent starts realizing he is going mad and that he can't escape Hobb's End... I think the only other film in which Carpenter managed to create such an effective atmosphere was in The Thing (1982).
The film features plenty of special effects, and what they managed to achieve with such a small budget is impressive.
The Industrial Light and Magic team worked on most of the shots that involve monsters taken right out of H.P. Lovecraft's work. Lovecraft emphasized the cosmic horror of the unknown (and in some cases, unknowable) more than gore or other elements of shock, though these may still be present. His creatures, such as the famous Cthulhu, were full of tentacles, teeth, etc. Most of the creatures appear at the end of the movie when Cane opens the portal to their dimension. Sadly, we don't see much of ILM's work because the scene is so dark! The behind-the-scenes footage shows truly impressive work.
In the Mouth of Madness deals with themes that were often found in Lovecraft's writings: the end of civilization, non-human influences on humanity, superstition, etc. To me, the most disturbing creature is Mrs. Pickman, the hotel tenant who seems to hold her husband hostage. She looks like a loving grandma at first sight but is in fact a tentacled monster who loves axes. The special effects do look dated, but in a good way, and I believe it gives a lot of charm to the film. The same thing could be said about The Thing (1982), a film in which the special effects are even more impressive. I hate when all is CGI, like in that awful The Thing remake/prequel from 2011!
Lovecraft was an underrated author during his lifetime but he got the recognition he deserved once he passed. Perhaps the same will happen with John Carpenter...
As was usual with John Carpenter's movies, he also composed the music for it. I always appreciated the fact that Carpenter is a complete artist; he can write, direct and compose, making his films deeply personal projects. Most of the time, the music fits the film seamlessly (one great example is Halloween). For In the Mouth of Madness, Carpenter created (with collaborator Jim Lang) a score that mostly uses synth and a small orchestra. Honestly, the bulk of the soundtrack is unimpressive, and not worth seeking out unless you are a die-hard fan of the film. It is effective in the movie but not very satisfying to listen to by itself. However, there is one outstanding cue that was created for the film: the Main Theme (you can listen below). The hard-rock track accompanies the opening sequence during which we see the process of creating Cane's books, and acts as the theme for the film, being reused at the end to great effect. The track fits the film very well, definitely making it even edgier, and it's a nice piece to accompany the end of the world !
The Main Theme (by John Carpenter & Jim Lang)
Watch it !
Following In the Mouth of Madness, John Carpenter went on to direct Children of the Damned (1995), Escape from L.A. (1996), Vampires (1998), and Ghosts of Mars (2001). All of them except Vampires became critical and commercial failures. I personally believe Children of the Damned is one of the most boring films I've ever seen and his worst ; I can't conceive Carpenter directed that right after my favorite film of his! Anyway, he then retired from directing and focused on music among other things. Carpenter eventually returned to directing in 2010 with The Ward.
Sam Neill kept working steadily through the years, and his best known film following his collaboration with Carpenter is probably Event Horizon (1997), another excellent horror film that is already a classic. I think both John Carpenter and Sam Neill need to make a big comeback as they are both underrated and extremely talented. Anyway, we will always have the excellent In the Mouth of Madness to go back to. It's a film I will always cherish and recommend to horror fans!
Thank you for reading!