R | | Drama, Horror, Mystery | 10 Dec. 1994 (Italy) | 3 Feb. 1995 (USA)
Direction: John Carpenter | Cinematography: G. B. Kibbe | Music: J. Carpenter, Jim Lang
Screenplay: Michael De Luca
Cast: Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jürgen Prochnow, Charlton Heston
Summary: Horror novels by a reclusive writer begin driving its readers to madness. The author of the novels, Sutter Cane, vanishes. To find him, Cane’s publisher, Harglow, hires insurance fraud investigator, John Trent and partners him with Cane’s editor, Linda Styles. Trent believes that the bizarre happenings are all a set-up by the novelist, Styles and Harglow to generate publicity for the books. Yet when Trent sees things described in Sutter’s novels, he begins to question his sanity.
John Carpenter’s In The Mouth Of Madness opens with rock music blaring over scenes of a printing press churning out copies of a book with the same name as the title of the film. Near the end of the film, the book from the beginning becomes a movie itself.
Metanarrative runs throughout, as does the theme of penitential madness, which finds a host in the clever and cynical John Trent, portrayed wonderfully by Sam Neill who, in the 80s and 90s, was partial to playing smart lads who go mad under harrowing circumstances. [There should be a triple-threat boxset featuring: Possession (1981), In The Mouth Of Madness and Event Horizon (1997)]
The film has some tense, unnerving moments (such as the early axeman/coffee shop scene) but fails to maintain atmospheric consistency, partly as a consequence of the outlandish extra-dimensional creatures which populate it and the ineffective jumpscares which they are party to.
In one particularly bad scene (it was my least favorite in the entire film) Trent sees a grotesque policeman with inhuman eyes. He then wakes up to see the monster leering at him from his couch (the shot hangs far too long). Then Trent wakes up again and this time for good. Fake-out scenes are common in horror films (as when a protagonist discovers someone standing behind them and they think its the antagonist but its merely a harmless side character) but double fake out scenes are pretty rare. One likely reason as to why is that they are 1. lazy (uncreative) and 2. inherently difficult to execute properly since the scene builds up tension for the first jump-scare (the first fake-out) but then has no time to build up tension for the second (since jump-scares must happen fast to have any hope of being effective). That being said, the supernatural author, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) was properly threatening (certainly more so than the fish-squid-dogs and bloody-faced children at whose appearance the viewer is supposed to recoil) and his scene with Styles (Julie Carmen) is nerve rattling, until, that is, the screen pans to a small, prosthetic monster that gurgles and twitches. Its supposed to be menacing but it comes off as cartoonish.
I note the scene mentioned above as the addition of a ridiculous element to an otherwise effective scene is a persistent problem within the film. A further example of this can be found in the scene towards the end of the film wherein Sutter Cane becomes a void into which Trent peers as Styles monologues ominously in the background. Its a terrific scene, one of the best in the film, until, that is, the monsters (once more) show up, looking like the subterranean cannibals from C.H.U.D. (1984).
A pity there was not more exploration of the film’s themes — such as popular fiction becoming religion and the fear of the loss of identity (a theme that runs throughout much of Carpenter’s work) — monsters, however terrifying, can be killed, a shotgun to the head, a knife to the heart, but ideas appealing to the basest of human impulses, are another matter entirely, for an idea cannot be bruntly eradicated without likewise eradicating all who hold it. There is in that a kernel of terror, unfortunately, the film chooses to overlook that kernel for rubbery stumble-grumbling spooks.