Welcome back to our newly revamped “Retro Reviews” column, where we explore both the movies you know and love, as well as the oft overlooked gems you should be spending more time with. Our eighth entry is John Carpenter’s final masterwork, In the Mouth of Madness (1994)…
“Do you read Sutter Cane?”
The 90s were a woeful decade for many a 70s horror filmmaker. Wes Craven may have changed the slasher game forever with his self-reflexive Scream series, but hasn’t made a picture worthy of his (truthfully already spotty) legacy since (unless you count the aughts’ My Soul to Keep — a film so inept it almost feels like an avant garde experiment). Dario Argento’s 90s output ranges from decent (Trauma, The Stendhal Syndrome) to unwatchable (The Phantom of the Opera). Meanwhile, George A. Romero’s sole solo directorial credit (The Dark Half) is definitely one of the more entertaining Stephen King adaptations, but that’s using both dreck like The Tommyknockers and Golden Years as well as Kubrick’s The Shining or Rob Reiner’s Misery as ends of the qualitative spectrum (meaning Romero’s movie is still hanging somewhere around Pet Sematary). Outside of Joe Dante*, whose feature track record went completely unblemished with Gremlins 2, Matinee and Small Soldiers, the decade was somewhat of a nightmare for those who found their start in the gritty 70s, resulting in many horror fans closing the book on what’s viewed by some as the genre’s most auteur-driven period.
Which brings us to John Carpenter, a filmmaker whose ten year run (from 1978’s Halloween all the way up to They Live in 1988) could be considered one of the most impressive in the history of ALL cinema. Carpenter fizzled out in 1992, with the Chevy Chase-starring Memoirs of an Invisible Man marking the end of his marvelous winning streak. His anthology picture, Body Bags, was originally supposed to be a full series on Showtime (comprable to HBO’s Tales From the Crypt), until network executives suffered from cold feet and turned it into a one-off (admittedly mediocre) cable TV movie. It wouldn’t be until 1994 that Carpenter finally brushed the dust off his shoulder and produced what seemed to be, at the time, a comeback of sorts with In the Mouth of Madness, a film that could be viewed as the last true Carpenter masterpiece, as well as the beginning of the widescreen artist’s oft-decried “late period”.
From the opening credits, it’s apparent that you’re back in the steady hands of the Horror Master. Carpenter and Jim Lang’s theme to In the Mouth of Madness is a chugging guitar piece, anchored by riff a that sounds almost like an outtake from a lost Megadeath record. As Carpenter’s newfound love of metal rages, we watch as thousands of books come off of a printing press. It’s the latest from pulp horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), a scribe whose writing has been known to have a “distinct effect on his more unstable readers”. From here on out, we embark on a search for Cane, who has disappeared on the eve of release of his latest novel, In the Mouth of Madness.
Sam Neill has spent a considerable chunk of his career playing the “calm voice of reason” (just looks to paleontologist Alan Grant in Steven Spielberg’s seminal blockbuster, Jurassic Park, for the best example). As insurance investigator John Trent, Neill gets to again be the smartest, coolest guy in the room, yet also augments his unruffled demeanor with a smug swagger. Trent approaches every situation with a weary “seen it all” attitude that makes him the perfect candidate to sniff out Cane’s whereabouts. Is this all a PR stunt to jack sales up for his latest tome? Almost certainly. But he’s got to be thorough in his investigation and not leave anything to chance. It’s a very basic setup that even saddles the dick with a sexy sidekick (Julie Carmen is Cane’s editor, Julie Styles**); a twist on pulpy noir PI stage-setting, complete with a haze of cigarette smoke.
There’s a dream logic that takes over In the Mouth of Madness from its opening scene that is either going to fascinate or frustrate most viewers. The entire story is told in flashback from Trent’s point of view, having been locked up in an asylum while the outside world “gets bad”. His psychiatrist (the unflappable David Warner) listens as Trent narrates his journey to find Cane, this Lovecraftian framing device allowing for unreliability to be injected into the narrative. All the while, Carpenter never lets us forget that this tale’s teller has already covered himself in crude crosses using a “single black crayon” (his first request upon being thrown into his padded cell). So when Trent finds a map to Hobb’s End (the fictional New England town from Cane’s novels, which feels like an even more twisted version of Stephen King’s Castle Rock) hidden in the covers of a slew of paperback novels, we can’t help but wonder if his mind was broken and seeing what it wanted to from the first time he cracked Cane’s inceptive terrifying epic, Haunter Out of Time.
***CAUTION: SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT***
Trent being mad, of course, is not the case. The truth is that the mass sales of Cane’s books (he’s even outsold the Bible) have given them power and brought them to hideous life. Little old ladies sprout Old One tentacles and axe murder their husbands. Black Byzantine churches arise out of the ether, containing even more slimy beasts in their moldy cellars. Evil children roam the streets of Hobb’s End, sneering at Trent and Styles as they pass. All is as the author intended, and Carpenter brings New Line Cinema head honcho Michael De Luca’s Dunwich Horror–style screenplay to life with all of the 2.35 flair he’d mastered throughout the entirety of his career. Capping it off is the last great ending of the Horror Master’s career, as Trent sees himself looped over and over, the film adaptation of the world’s end he just traversed unspooling before his eyes while he munches on popcorn. It’s the final chapter in the director’s superlative Apocalypse Trilogy, finishing what The Thing and Prince of Darkness began.
In the Mouth of Madness also earns the distinction of being the final John Carpenter movie that actually attempts to tackle some sort of overarching “big idea”. What if religious texts like the Bible gained all of their strength from the herd who read and believed in them? And what if a horror novelist was able to tap into this hive-mind consciousness to the point that his reality became interchangeable with our own perception of physical existence? That’s bold, crazy shit to pack into a ninety-minute, low-budget horror picture. Granted, all of this is handled with the subtlety of a sledgehammer (a newscaster actually announces the film’s themes over the airways early on), to the point that one could debate whether it’s really just overt text as opposed to underlying themes. But Carpenter was never an artist known for delicacy (They Live anyone?); rather staking his claim as being a first class stylist, turning minimalist genre thrillers into full-blown craft showcases.
This attention to adroitness is really what distinguishes the latter half of John Carpenter’s career from his peers. While other 70s refugees continued to sink in this department and even wallow in ugly trends (if it weren’t for Argento’s entire post-Trauma filmography, Romero’s found footage Diary of the Dead might be the class’ most disappointing misfire), Carpenter stuck with his own brand of beautifully framed horror pictures. Though the director began to repeat himself with a sequel to one of his all-time greats (Escape From L.A.) and a return to aping the Westerns of Howard Hawks (Ghosts of Mars), he did so with the same meticulous attention to low budget construction that set “A John Carpenter Film” apart from all others. Even at his lowest point (his Village of the Damned remake), there are moments of formalist composition that showed an almost stubborn want to never change or grow with the times (those eerie classroom scenes begged to be shot in back and white). While the pictures as a whole might not have been up to snuff (though I’ll always go to bat for Vampires!), modern directors could learn a thing or two by studying even the worst-of-the-worst from the fusspot fright film creator. It’s a shame he’s seemingly abandoned cinema completely, content to simply play video games, smoke cigarettes and watch the Lakers, as modern horror could use a bit of his throw-back insanity.
*You could argue that David Cronenberg has a perfect 90s track record as well, but he also ditched genre films entirely with his woefully underrated Chinese opera drama, M. Butterfly, as well as the sex and car wrecks psychodrama, Crash.
**Weird little detail I’ve always loved: the character names in this film are PERFECT; straight out of dime store pulp.