Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Keep Those Fingers Out of That Mouth of Madness

John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness has somehow eluded both my VCR and DVD player for 14 years. I missed it in the theaters, possibly because my teenage friends were so battle scarred from being dragged to Species that they boycotted seeing horror movies with me throughout the seventh grade (plus my bringing Mothers Day to a slumber party, which seemed like a good idea at the time). Perhaps I felt that if I could only own film from 1995, it would have to be the special edition of Se7en (because I love few things more than replaying and re-acting "What's in the box???" in my perfect Brad Pitt impression) and if I could have two, I couldn’t NOT choose the Oscar snubbed Clint Howard in The Ice Cream Man. Third choice? What a no brainer: Showgirls (believe me, in the words of Nomi Malone, “It doesn’t suck!”). Hm. 1995 was apparently a far better year for cinema than anyone realized.

Back to the decent, if pastie-less horror of Carpenter, made just before what became a semi-tragic descent into Sci-Fi channel quality. In the Mouth of Madness stars Sam Neill as John Trent, an insurance investigator who proves that movie characters named Trent are always arrogant jerks. The head of a publishing company played by an unarmed Charlton Heston hires the dapper Aussie to investigate the mysterious disappearance of superstar horror novelist Sutter Cane, a man more celebrated than Stephen King and more disturbed than Jack Ketchum. In addition to vanishing before a deadline (a nice trick all writers have considered/tried), Cane is under a bit of hellfire for writing books that, when read by ‘less stable’ minds, are known to cause a mild case of axe-wielding homicide.

The search begins. Trent and Cane’s sassily named editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) take a road trip to Hobbs End, the kind of two worded New England town--always a sign of evil--where real estate is probably deceptively well-priced. While there, our leads visit a Russian cathedral, escape an angry gang of champion bred Dobermans, and meet a creepy but resilient bicyclist that looks oddly like John Carpenter himself (but without the signature cigarette) on the same road once driven on by Pee-Wee Herman and Large Marge. As Trent and Styles bicker over whether the eerie hamlet is a haunted piece of fiction come to life or a grand publicity stunt on a Joaquim-as-Rap-Star scale, the strangeness increases and Carpenter’s makeup department gets busy.

In the Mouth of Madness is a hard film to classify, which makes it slightly great and more than a little messy. Sure, Carpenter flexes his latex to fit squishy monsters, but the most interesting aspect is a story that raises some rather deep questions about the nature of faith. Can something or someone become God if enough people people believe in it? How much control do we give the men and women who create what we covet? Does anyone know Oprah’s favorite color?

 Unfortunately, there isn’t quite enough substance behind Carpenter’s execution to make any of the themes stick strongly enough. Most viewers will probably remember the film for Styles’ post-Excorcist, pre-Unborn spider walk instead.

High Points:
Hobbs End’s demonic children are sufficiently creepy and should have been rehired for Carpenter’s Village of the Damned over those terribly bland wig wearing tots

Yes, that’s Seinfeld’s Marble Rye victim and no, you do not want to mess with her

The relationship between Neill and Carmen doesn’t take the typical direction you’d expect, which is refreshing

Low Points:
As much as I want to use any opportunity possible to champion old school and insult CGI, the climactic demons guarding hell feel a tad too much like bottom shelf leftovers from The Thing.

It takes a little too long to actually develop audience concern for Neill’s off-putting Trent

Lessons Learned:
The best way to prove you’re sane in a mental institution is probably not to shout “I’m not insane” while headbutting the orderlies

A screwdriver is just as convenient as a backup set of car keys

Insurance investigators keep bike horns in glove compartments and are generally more annoying road companions than a family that insists on finishing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall

Repeat Offender:
Like many a film, every character seems to punch with the same exact force (or at least the same sound effect button)

Winning Line:
Trent: I’m not a piece of fiction.
Cane: I think, therefore you are.

Stray Observations:
The door to hell was made by the same art department that did Labyrinth’s glittery ivy clad walls

Anybody else waiting for the Mormon funded remake centering around a thinly veiled Stephanie Meyer and axe happy 15 year olds? If so, are you as frightened as I am?

Buy at a discount. Intellectually, this is one of Carpenter’s more ambitious films that I believe will grow on repeat viewings. The lines between reality and hell are skewed in a fairly unique style and the finale is simultaneously thoughtful and manic. While it’s not the mind-blowing fearfest some fans claim, this is a unique and dense ride that’s sadly becoming harder and harder to come by in modern theaters.


  1. careful, i might end up one of those axe-wielding twilight-addicts.

  2. I'm actually starting to think that a movie about mass homicidal hysteria plaguing tweenage girls needs to be made. Oh, the horror!