In the Mouth of Madness was recommended to me by a close friend with the assumption being that I enjoy smart horror films and therefore I should enjoy this. I had no knowledge of this movie before turning it on short of it was an homage to H.P. Lovecraft, starred Sam Neill post-Jurassic Park, and was incredibly weird. Oddly enough those are all words to describe the film itself but that doesn’t equate to emphasizing the film’s quality. In the Mouth of Madness tries hard to be a classic so much it screams it alongside its characters, yet the plot becomes too grandiose and falls under its own weight. In the end I was left to say “well, that was odd” and didn’t even want to think about what the ending meant. A good psychological horror movie should make you question its ending, this just made me think of how many other movies director John Carpenter “borrowed” from.
Insurance investigator John Trent (Neill) is tasked with investigating the disappearance of successful horror writer Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), a writer whose work is able to compel readers to insanity. With the aid of Cane’s editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), Trent ends up in the bizarre town of Hobb’s End, a town that holds the secret to Cane’s disappearance and might open the door to the end of the world!
I had no idea this was a John Carpenter film before the opening credits, and considering the time period that knowledge could have influenced my checking this out in the first place. See the 90s were not particularly kind to Carpenter, in fact the last 15 years haven’t been kind. Carpenter has created some iconic films in the horror genre including Halloween and The Thing. The problem is those were all in the 80s and by the 90s Carpenter didn’t really know where to go so he entered the world of homages and remakes. In the Mouth of the Madness is meant to be Carpenter’s love letter to author H.P. Lovecraft and it moves from homage to rip-off at times. Interesting considering the next year Carpenter would put out the atrocious remake of Children of the Damned (renamed Village of the Damned) and it’s been a steep decline ever since.
That’s not to say this movie is on par with Carpenter’s more recent efforts, but it’s obvious to see the once-considered Master of Horror was running on fumes. The film opens introducing John Trent entering a mental institution. Carpenter creates a suitably creepy air with the vaulted ceilings and all-white of the asylum complete with the radio playing the Carpenters‘ song “We’ve Only Just Begun.” The double meaning of the song’s title alone tells the audience that things haven’t even started to get weird and seriously…we all know the Carpenters songs are used as torture devices. Trent has a great one-liners at this moment saying “Not the Carpenters!” The rest of the movie is told in flashback as Trent tells Dr. Wrenn (David Warner…this is the third film I’ve seen Warner in recently and the second I’ve reviewed for this blog – the first being In the Company of Wolves) how he ended up in the institution.
The set-up’s pretty good although nothing particularly scary considering we don’t know the plot at this point. Trent is sent out to find Sutter Cane whose latest book has caused mass hysteria. Cane himself is considered “more frightening than Stephen King” although since Cane was modeled on Stephen King what is that saying? The plotline of Cane’s work creating madness immediately brought to mind that SNL sketch Everyone’s a Critic where a painting drives people to kill themselves (there’s a lot more going on in the sketch that has nothing to do with this movie but it’s hilarious so click the link). Anyway, the scares start when Trent is threatened by a man with an axe for no reason. I was especially creeped out over this scene (which I’ve included above). You see the people fleeing in the background as this guy shambles out with an axe while in the foreground Trent is oblivious to what’s going on. The man eventually gets right up to the glass of the window, all that separates him from Trent, and simply stares at him. Scares like these always get me because I have big windows in my house and I always stop to make sure some weirdo isn’t staring at me.
The first hour seems pretty dull because there’s so much exposition to get through. Not only do we need to introduce Trent and his connection to the story but there’s introduction of our leading lady Linda and the mystery of finding Hobb’s End. Once we get there the story seems to pick up. For the most part Carpenter keeps the horror subtle like the sequence above. There are characters moving out of the corner of people’s eyes, a general disturbing atmosphere and tone, and a heavy dose of the grotesque. The make-up effects are nice but feel really out-of-place with the rest of the horror and story and just seem to be added in to give people a gory horror film. Speaking of those horror effects, it’s really hard to appreciate make-up when you can’t see anything! I double-checked my television’s color effects (this was an HD version of the film) and whenever there’s a make-up intense moment everything is incredibly dark. On the back of Cane’s head is this bizarre creature that looked oddly like Kuato from Total Recall (that’s NEVER explained in the film) and another scene involving an old woman who sprouts tentacles. You can make out the outlines of these creatures but the scene is so dark you can’t tell what they’re doing or discern any detail! All this money for special effects and the audience can’t even see it. It’s only in these moments because when the actors are walking throughout the rest of the locations you can see fine! It came off like the effects were right so the director hid them with low lighting. Not to mention the scenes are so rapid you don’t even have time to adjust to what you’re seeing.
Ultimately, In the Mouth of Madness doesn’t grasp whether it’s a psychological thinking-man’s horror movie, or just a gross-out film with religious overtones a la the work of David Cronenberg. Cronenberg’s films expertly blend the gross with the thought-provoking but here Carpenter is unable to blend anything, simply asking a lot of questions H.P. Lovecraft asked and never answering them. Carpenter said he wanted to create a tribute to H.P. Lovecraft and he does do it, borrowing elements from various Lovecraft works including At the Mountains of Madness and other elements of the Cthulhu mythos but the way characters spout out passages it seems like a rip-off of Lovecraft. In taking notes on this movie I kept finding connections to other movies that are almost lifted into this film. The creepy town is a lot like Children of the Damned and The Wicker Man. The biggest connection I saw was to the 1970s film The Sentinel (which I love) including a conspiracy theory, an unwitting non-believer forced to play a role ordained by a higher power, and religious punishment including opening the gates of Hell. I know they say there’s only four plotlines and nothing is truly original but Carpenter almost pretends to be original when he’s really just copying a lot of other, earlier films.
That’s not to say the script doesn’t present some interesting ideas, I just don’t believe Carpenter thought of them himself, nor does he really try to answer them. By far the film succeeds at presenting the idea that massively consumed pop culture will bring about our downfall. The idea that something as widely disseminated (like Twilight!) can increase people to violence or mass hysteria isn’t too far removed from our own society. With our reliance on technology and the ability to amass so much pop culture what are we really being told to want? What does that say about our perceptions of reality? There’s a moment where Dr. Wrenn asks Trent how Cane plans to convert those who don’t read his novels. Trent sadly replies “there is a movie.” If anything In the Mouth of Madness presents a sad look at our future that I wished the film had the ability to flesh out more (if anything this idea itself could turn into a good movie).
Another element that’s introduced is the citizens of the town. This sequence highlights the religious angle that I don’t feel comes off well in that it comprises such a small part of the movie and isn’t given nearly the time it needs. You’re talking about the idea of human creation, you can’t just have a character make a passing remark about that, and yet Carpenter throws it in there. One of the residents of Hobb’s End says “I cant’ remember what came first; us or the book!” It’s a beautiful line and opens up the exploration of the story within the story but Carpenter, being unable to answer it and placing it over halfway through the film, just lets it dangle and fall into the ether.
Moving away from the plot to the actors. Sam Neill had just come off Jurassic Park when he made this film and he’s sadly mediocre. The role is that of a smarmy ambulance chaser that Neill is good in but he also comes off as too polished for this film. When he’s pretending to be crazy in the asylum it’s almost like he’s unable to pull it off; he doesn’t know how to pretend to be crazy so he just acts normal. His accent is also highly distracting as it fluctuates between his native Australian, British, and some bizarre combination of the two. He’s nowhere near as painfully boring as Julie Carmen in the role of Linda Styles. She’s given the first taste of insanity while driving through Hobb’s End and her entire acting repertoire appears to be making scared faces, sad eyes, and spitting out her lines like they’re the most disgusting things in the world. Remember how serious Orlando Bloom tried to make everything sound in Lord of the Rings? She’s like that if Lord of the Rings was a B-movie! She is given a pretty sweet contortion effect scene that’s the highlight of the film.
The ending tries a bit too hard to leave the audience scratching their head and patting Carpenter on the back for giving a “downer” ending. Of course the film goes exactly where you expect and I was just left saying there goes an hour and 45 minutes. In the Mouth of Madness presents a lot of intriguing ideas and questions but tries to do too many things, never take the time to stop, explore, and answer what it throws out, and relies too heavily on other films to present horror. It’s good if you’re a Carpenter fan or want to stay in with a crazy film but I probably wouldn’t watch it again.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.