In the Mouth of Madness

Year 1994

Sam Neill   as  John Trent
Jürgen Prochnow   as Sutter Cane
Julie Carmen as Linda Styles  
Charlton Heston   as Jackson Harglow
Director   - John Carpenter  
Screenwriter - Michael De Luca   

From the feel and approach of the 1987 movie Prince of Darkness, John Carpenter wanted to try his hand at an H.P. Lovecraft sort of story. Although Prince of Darkness isn't shabby, it's no Lovecraftian vision either. This movie, In the Mouth of Madness is the closest Carpenter has come to "nailing it"

What makes an H.P. Lovecraft movie and H.P. Lovecraft movie? Well, there's got to be an asylum. Almost every Lovecraft movie has somebody going crazy in it. Not so in the stories, but in the movies it's a tautology. It also needs Elder Gods or Ancient Ones or something from another space/time continuum trying to bring chaos back to our dimension. It needs to take place in New England, preferably Rhode Island. The name Arkham has to be there somewhere too, either as a town or a university. I've always been a little warmer around my cockles knowing that Batman writers purloined the name from H.P. Lovecraft to give to their insane asylum.

Oh, and there's the book. I mean there's THE book, the dreaded Necronimicon written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazrad. You know, the one that will rip your sanity from you and use it as a doorstop if you so much as act like you're going to crack open the human flesh cover. That book.

Any mention of Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth, or Pickman (I even know how to spell this stuff without looking it up!) is a plus.

Warning! If you're not a Lovecraft fan, this movie will seem a little cheesy. If you are a Lovecraft fan, each paen to the master (Lovecraft) is enough to keep you watching until the next one to comes along.

So, what've we got here In the Mouth of Madness? We've got jaded fraud investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) looking for missing author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) at the behest of Arcane Publishing Company president Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston). Why? Cane is a horror writer whose books not only sell, they warp their readers. Cane's next book, In the Mouth of Madness, will bring millions of dollars in to the publishing house even if it does cause mayhem. But those are the breaks of the publishing biz, I guess. Plus, there's an added benefit that the book will be turned into a movie for some extra folding money.

Trent suspects that the author isn't really missing at all and that the his job is really that of a pawn in some advertising campaign. Still, he does his job and tracks Cane to a small city in New Hampshire called Hobb's End. The city isn't on any map and it took a token for a covered bridge to Hell to get there. Trent is more convinced than ever that there's something fishy going on. (No, Dagon doesn't make an appearance.)

If you like Lovecraft, then what I've written so far has jangled a few memory bells. New England? Check. A bad book that leads to madness? Check. Arkham/Arcane? Check. Skeptical protagonist? Check. Portals to other realities? Check.

Once in Hobb's End, it's like a trip down Lovecraft Lane. They stay at Pickman's Hotel where there's a painting of ghouls on the lobby wall. Think Lovecraft's "Pickman's Model". The name of the town comes from a book in the movie called The Horror at Hobb's End. This sounds a lot like Lovecraft's "Horror at Red Hook". With Lovecraft, police track down a bunch of Cthulhu worshippers. With Carpenter, it's a private investigator running down a tool of the Ancient Ones. In fact, most of movie plays out like a game of "Guess what Lovecraft scene/character I'm alluding to now?"

In the Mouth of Madness tries to mix in some horror with its hero worship of Lovecraft. The freaky scary bits that work are straight out of Lovecraft. The more chilling scary bits, that are hit and miss, are signature Carpenter. The weak not really scary bits are probably the writer De Luca.

For one that hits, there's a scene at what appears to be an abandoned church. The church is Eastern Orthodox looking with gold minarets. But it has black towers that are more Gothic than Middle Eastern. To this structure come men in pick-up trucks to rescue a child. They are easily repulsed. But the scene and imagery are foreboding.

Based upon what I've written and the tag line of the movie being "Lived any good books lately?" I guess it's not a spoiler to tell you that these are all characters in a book. The twist is that the book isn't fiction. The premise that something will become reality if enough people believe in it is the driving explanation behind how an author's work can cause chaos, open the gates of hell, etc.

There's a lot that's right with this movie. The world that Carpenter creates is believable and mostly consistent. The concepts are clever at times. The effects of exposure to evil are creative. It's a watchable movie.

There's also a lot wrong with this movie. Primarily, it doesn't make you care. The world is going to go crazy if the book is published? Big deal. Linda Styles no longer exits? So what? There's a man with an ax standing on your restaurant table? Yawn.

There's also Sam Neill. The first time I saw this movie, I thought that Sam Neill gained credibility by picking such a vehicle to star in. But now I think that he's a poor Philip Marlowe clone. His one liners are amusing, but he's not world weary enough. In fact, he's almost jaunty. I bought Heston as the book publisher. I bought Prochnow as the author. I even bought Julie Carmen as the publisher's executive assistant. But I couldn't completely buy Sam Neill as the hardboiled film-noir detective.

Then there are the special effects. Sometimes they work and sometimes they look cheesy and are a detraction. The make-up for an old man on a bicycle looked like a rubber Halloween mask. Mrs. Pickman's cellar transformation looked like bad CGI. The car that was supposed to have just arrived from a long trip looked like it had been driven a couple of feet.

Maybe that last requires a bit of an explanation. If you pull a car into a parking lot and stop, it takes a while to stop. You don't just stop immediately and hop out of the car. (Although I have one friend who can't wait for a car to stop before he's gotten the door open and he's making a break for it...or maybe it's my driving.) My point is that you can tell the difference between a car that was moving and is now stopped and a car that has been stopped for a while and people are acting as if the car had been moving a few seconds ago. When you're watching the scene your mind goes "Huh?" but doesn't know why. Then you think about it until you understand your confusion. In other words this corner-cutting "effect" takes you out of the movie.

Some blood looks like blood, and some blood looks like red jelly. It's cheesy. Or peanut buttery to go with the jelly.

More often than not, if the characters aren't in a horror scene, the words or actions of the characters are pretty lame. For example, in one scene Trent and Styles are alone in a hotel room. Without warning or any build up of sexual tension, they're kissing. Why? I dunno. Maybe Cane "wrote" them that way, But why would he if he's such a great author? It's something a hormone fueled teenage boy might pen on a bathroom toilet stall right after, "Here I sit, broken hearted."

And in conclusion, it's not bad popcorn fare for a midnight movie but you really won't like it unless you've got a yen or two for some Lovecraft exposure. There's no nudity and it's not so unnerving that a date would be put off by the horror, so it might make a good movie to watch with a date if she's into sort of scary, but not too scary, movies.

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