(1994) Directed by John Carpenter; Written by Michael De Luca; Starring: Sam Neill, Jürgen Prochnow, Julie Carmen, David Warner, Charlton Heston;
Available formats: DVD and Netflix Streaming
Rating: *** ½
When does fiction end and reality begin? This is the basic premise of John Carpenter’s twisted little tale, In the Mouth of Madness. When I think of the films of Mr. Carpenter, I usually think of his output from the 70s through the 80s, when it seemed that he could practically do no wrong. Few filmmakers could boast such an impressive resume of unique and diverse works, starting with the DIY sci-fi/horror approach of Dark Star in 1974, and running to the paranoia-fueled They Live in 1988. In the 90s, Carpenter experienced a bit of a creative slump, when the bulk of his output seemed to be carried aloft by his name alone. While not quite up to the standards of his best work, In the Mouth of Madness was a return to form, with a story that’s high on atmosphere and overall “creep factor,” but low on logic.
Sam Neill plays John Trent, an insurance investigator with a reputation for being able to sniff out fraudulent claims with ease. He’s hired by a mega-publisher to track down their cash cow, the reclusive horror novelist Sutter Cane. We first see Trent committed to an insane asylum, the sort of stereotypical institution that only seems to exist in movies -- a dank, gothic setting, populated by lost souls. He recounts the events that led to the disintegration of his mental state to a visiting doctor (David Warner), and we soon learn about what drove him to lose his grip with reality.
Trent’s initial research leads him to follow clues laid out by Cane, which eventually point to a secluded New England town called Hobb’s End. The publishing company’s senior editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) accompanies him on his investigation. Trent is initially skeptical of the publisher’s motives for sending him on this chase, but as he learns more about Cane and his writings, a mystery unfolds. Trent’s skepticism is rapidly eroding as his confusion builds.
Jürgen Prochnow (Das Boot, Dune) plays Sutter Cane, a Stephen King-esque novelist with Lovecraftian overtones. His books create an unquenchable mania amongst his rabid fan base, resulting in a wake of riots, violence and destruction in book stores across the country. Kane views himself as a prophet of sorts, chronicling the machinations of otherworldly evil forces, who threaten to take over the Earth. His latest, as-yet-unpublished opus has already provoked widespread chaos in the streets. In the Mouth of Madness takes a dim perspective of fandom in general, with its portrayal of horror fans as a mindless, soulless horde that feeds on the output of the writer, drooling over the literary scraps that are thrown their way. Later in the film, Trent questions the publishing company’s president (played by Charlton Heston) about how this mania surrounding the new book will affect those that don’t read, he assures him that there’s also a movie on the way.
One of the recurrent themes that the movie posits is whether reality is a fixed state, or if we actively create our own reality. As Trent gradually changes from a passive observer to an active participant in the strange events that take place, we are left to wonder how things are intertwined. In the Mouth of Madness has an impressive cast and raises intriguing questions, but it’s never completely satisfying. The third act seems rushed and muddled, cobbled together from parts of other Carpenter films. The end-of-the-world motif is very similar to Carpenter’s earlier, and no-less-confounding film, Prince of Darkness. While certainly atmospheric, it’s more unnerving than genuinely scary. Apparently, this film was third in Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy,” which included The Thing and Prince of Darkness, but none of these films seemed more than loosely connected. At best, In the Mouth of Madness is more of a thematic continuation, rather than a conclusion to a saga. All faults aside, it’s still filled with enough twists and surprises to keep things entertaining, and the ending is quite effective.
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