Thursday, October 23, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 22 - In the Mouth of Madness

#6 (Tie) - 8 Votes

John Carpenter's filmography from his debut, Dark Star in 1974 to They Live in 1988 has to rank among the best filmmaking hot streaks. The eleven features he directed in that time range from good two great, with three - Halloween, The Fog and The Thing - that belong on any shortlist of the best horror movies, and several others that have devoted cult followings and continue to provide inspiration to today's genre filmmakers. The '90s saw a decline in the quality of Carpenter's work, however; while Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A. and Vampires all have their moments, they're not nearly as focused or well-crafted as his previous films. After directing several high-profile commercial failures, Carpenter no longer had the same choice of material (he took over Memoirs after Ivan Reitman and other directors passed), and Carpenter has been quite frank about the fact that he began to lose interest in filmmaking around this time (after 2001's Ghosts of Mars, he wouldn't direct another feature for nine years).

Carpenter did direct one movie during the decade, In the Mouth of Madness, that ranks among his best. Written by then-New Line exec Michael De Luca, it's a Lovecraft-inspired story about an insurance investigator named John Trent (Sam Neill), who is tasked with investigating the disappearance of best-selling horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), whose books may be literally driving his fans insane. Early on, a character notes that Cane outsells Stephen King; it's not subtle, and neither is the rest of the movie, but that's actually something of a positive. As Trent travels to a tiny New Hampshire town that was the setting of many of Cane's stories, he encounters a collection of monsters and weird characters straight out of the author's work, and the tone of the movie is all over the place as it jumps between evil children, tentacled beasts and an axe-murdering Frances Bay. It works, though, because Carpenter finds a thread of wry, even self-deprecating humor; at one point, the skeptical Trent exclaims "God is not a hack horror writer!" and Carpenter has a lot of fun imagining what reality might be like if he was.

While the movie features effects work by KNB and Industrial Light and Magic, some of its most effective scenes rely on old-school sleight-of-hand techniques, with a simple blue filter providing the most memorable (and funniest scene). Part of this is likely a function of the movie's budget, but Carpenter feels looser and more inspired than with his bigger-budgeted movies of the decade. Admittedly, In the Mouth of Madness sometimes feels like it's going in circles (which Neill's character literally is at points, to be fair). Carpenter pulls it off in the end, though, ingeniously tying together the story and his own feelings about the genre with a final scene that plays like the funniest unused Twilight Zone ending ever. While Carpenter has made a few more horror movies, the ending feels like a final statement or, at the very least, a Bronx cheer in the general direction of the genre that he helped define.

U.S. Release Date: February 3, 1995 (Also released that day: Boys on the Side, The Jerky Boys, The Secret of Roan Inish, Martha and Ethel)

What critics said at the time:

"'In the Mouth of Madness' takes a whack at a Lovecraft-like doomsday scenario. A prehuman form of consciousness, acting through Cane's writings, introduces a new and brutal reality for the sake of destroying humankind. Nice try, but the film plays much sillier than that -- for example, when the woman embraces Cane, little knowing that the back of his skull is gone and that his brains are churning and oozing in some very menacing ways. In the end, the most interesting thing about 'In the Mouth of Madness' is its relationship with itself - its cheesy horror celebrating the power of cheesy horror, while pretending to be appalled." - Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
"'In the Mouth of Madness' is a thinking person's horror picture that dares to be as cerebral as it is visceral. An homage to the master of the macabre, novelist H.P. Lovecraft, on the part of its writer Michael De Luca, this handsome, intelligent New Line Cinema production also finds its director, John Carpenter, in top form and provides Sam Neill with one of the most challenging roles of his career--which is saying a lot." - Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

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