Monday, June 10, 2013

John Carpenter: In the Mouth of Madness

There is a general belief among fans of John Carpenter’s work that In the Mouth of Madness is the American auteur’s last movie worth a damn. Allow me to get this out of the way: that’s so, so wrong. But before I get too far ahead of myself, let me finish my thought: There also seems to be a general belief that In the Mouth of Madness is the best horror film Carpenter made since The Thing. A few things: the first issue raised here saddens me because it seems that even many of Carpenter’s most ardent fans dismiss Carpenter’s 1987 Prince of Darkness, a film that is vastly superior to In the Mouth of Madness, when mentioning the best horror films of Carpenter’s career. The second issue: I think that not just fans of Carpenter but the fans of the horror genre really, really overrate In the Mouth of Madness. Oh, that’s not to say it isn’t a good horror film — and sometimes an even great horror film — it's just that the film doesn’t live up to the reputation given to it by its supporters. It’s a self-aware, postmodern horror film that isn’t even the best self-aware, postmodern horror film of the mid-90s (that would be New Nightmare). But, it does show Carpenter, just as he did with Prince of Darkness, dabbling in the outré and making a horror film that, good or bad, goes for something different and certainly stands out as a stark contrast to his earlier horror films.

The film is jarring from the get-go as it opens with one of Carpenter’s most truly awful opening credit compositions, a butt-rocky little number that feels like a bad attempt at Metallica. This should be a sign to anyone that follows Carpenter that something might be up (whether this is intentional or not I’m not sure) because almost all of Carpenter’s scores—especially in regards to the opening credits—have some kind of musical hook (usually in the form of a synthesizer) that gives the viewer something to grab onto. This, though, just feels so off. Anyway, the plot…

Insurance fraud investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) is visited in the psych ward by Dr. Wrenn (David Warner) in hopes that he’ll recount his tale — a nightmarish odyssey, really — of how he ended up in a straight jacket. The film unfolds in flashback (the first time that Carpenter went with a non-linear narrative arc) as we’re introduced to Trent (and see why he’s so good at his job) proudly exposing an arson scam. While Trent and his co-worker eat at a diner, Trent learns about the New York-based Arcane Publishing, which is his next assignment. As he learns about the publisher, we see a figure outside slowly approach the window Trent and his co-worker are sitting next to. As the two continue on with their banal talk of insurance fraud, the stranger on the outside raises an axe and smashes the window. He jumps onto the table and looks down at Trent asking, “have you ever read Sutter Cane?” He is then shot and killed by the police before he has a chance to place the axe in Trent’s skull.

This set-up is shot in the classic Carpenter style where a subject or subjects sit in the foreground (almost always in medium shot) while the static observes in a non-threatening way. However, the real horror develops in the background. The most famous Carpenter example of this shot is, obviously, from Halloween where Laurie, after thinking she’s killed The Shape, catches her breathe in the foreground while the thought-to-be dead The Shape does a zombie sit up in the background. This particular shot with the axe wielding maniac isn’t as effective as that iconic shot (a lofty task), but it’s quite brilliant in execution and sets things up nicely. It gives the film a simultaneously grounded feel (if it weren’t for the opening in the psych ward, this would feel like a set up for your average horror film) while also letting us know that things are going to be pretty damn wild as we follow Trent along his journey.

And about that journey: it’s a doozy. Trent meets up with Arcane Publishing director Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) and is tasked with finding their bestselling author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) who has just up and vanished with the transcript of his highly anticipated new novel In the Mouth of Madness. Cane’s editor Linda Styles (Julia Carmen) is assigned to tag along with Trent on his search. Trent is wary about this task, thinking that this all a promotional stunt by the publisher to sell even more books, and so he sets out to debunk the disappearance of the famed horror writer. He first wants to start by asking Cane’s agent questions, but he learns that’s impossible since his agent was the man with the axe. Woops. So, yeah, things get kind of weird from this point on.

Trent and Styles head towards Hobb’s End, the location of one of Sutter’s novels. How do they get there? Trent seems to think that when one combines the covers of Cane’s books, there’s a map of New Hampshire that leads one to Hobb’s End. As the two get closer and closer to Hobb’s End, events get crazier and crazier, and once they arrive, they not only encounter Cane, but they also come across a bizarre, monstrous, ancient race of people known as the Old Ones. The connecting theme between In the Mouth of Madness and the other films in the “apocalypse” trilogy is possession of the body and mind by some kind of hostile alien entity (Carpenter re-introduces this in Ghosts of Mars, too). In The Thing, it took on the appearance of its host creating an unbearable tension and paranoia in an isolated setting. In Prince of Darkness it was Satan in a liquid form as well as manifesting itself as some kind of shrouded figure that haunts the dreams of the characters, and In the Mouth of Madness we have the Old Ones, the aforementioned ancient race that is captured in another dimension and just waiting to break into our world and destroy humanity.

Let’s get what I don’t like out of the way: there are only so many canted angles and scenes of Sam Neill screaming that I can take to represent the psychological breakdown of a character before I just throw my hands up in exasperation. With In the Mouth of Madness, everything is turned up to 11, so it kind of takes its toll on you. As is the case with most of his other horror films, Carpenter usually focused on silence (which Carpenter turned into a kind of uncomfortable sound effect in something like The Thing) and a more languid pace. In Prince of Darkness, we have a much more deliberate, grounded setting and build up whereas with In the Mouth of Madness, he just throws everything at you at such a clip that it almost is unrecognizable as a Carpenter horror film. There aren’t really those trademark Carpenter moments where the film deliberately slows down so that those truly bizarre or shocking moments can really resonate. I think the reason for that is the aimless script — by then New Line Cinema president Michael De Luca, who as a producer had an eye for finding talent at the right time, right before they got big, but is a horrible screenwriter — which really lets Carpenter down here.

I get that the aesthetic is trying to match the psychological breakdown of the protagonist, but it gets really grating after about 30 minutes. It’s one of the reasons why I prefer Prince of Darkness to In the Mouth of Madness; the former is, more or less, filmed in the classic Carpenter style, yet it has all of these insane, Lovecraftian events happening in a very grounded world. I don’t mean to suggest that Prince of Darkness takes itself more seriously than In the Mouth of Madness (neither film takes itself seriously), but there’s just something refreshing and displacing about how the former juxtaposes those more outré elements (its premise and setpieces) with an aesthetic, setting, and performances that keep the film grounded in reality. It's a goofy reality, sure, but it's still meant to be seen as a very real place filled with real people being confronted with (and trying to deal with) something otherworldly.

I think another reason In the Mouth of Madness fails to make all of those moments resonate is the film’s setting. When I wrote about Prince of Darkness, I talked about how it reminded me of the films in Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy, and that wasn’t just because of the otherworldly visuals — the tone, too, was otherworldly because it all seemed to be happening in a very recognizable setting. When Fulci made  The Beyond, he grounded the film in its New Orleans setting even though he played fast and loose in regard to narrative structure (this dichotomy only makes the film more of a mindfuck). In the Mouth of Madness is a film that takes its characters to a fictional place, and so we kind expect batshit crazy stuff in the same way we do when we watch the nightmare sequences from A Nightmare on Elm Street film. It can look neat, and it can be eerie at times, but it also runs the risk of being repetitive.

So the setting is a problem here in the sense that I never really felt displaced because it was made very clear from the beginning that we’re in the mind of a madman — and not only that, but we’re in the mind of a madman who is experiencing things in the fictional town created by a horror author. And on top of that, the film is punctuated with a self-reflexive moment (which is great by the way, especially Neill’s performance during that moment before the film fades to black) that calls attention to how unreal this whole thing is. So, yeah, I can appreciate it, and there are even times when I’m impressed by it — but I wasn’t all that effected by it, and I certainly don’t see the film as one of Carpenter’s best. 

But I’m a glass half-full kind of guy, so let’s focus on what does work. Like Prince of Darkness, it’s fun watching Carpenter delve into something that is so dissimilar to his other horror works. Sam Neill’s performance is really good. He plays Trent as a man devolving before our eyes extremely well. Sure he screams and yells a lot to make sure we really know that he’s breaking down before our eyes, but it’s still a fun performance to watch most of the way through. There are great little setpieces like the aforementioned journey to Hobb’s End, the moment when Styles’ body contorts into an unnatural position on the highway, the “blue bus” scene where Trent snaps back and forth from reality and nightmare like a rubber band (it’s really one of the film’s standout scenes), and the moment where Trent tries multiple times to leave Hobb’s End but just as he gets to the edge of the town keeps ending up where he started. Moments like these give the film an appropriate tone where the viewer isn’t able to get their bearings.


This is getting way too long, but before I wrap this up I do want to make mention of the continuing collaboration between Carpenter and his cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe. Kibbe’s cinematography is very good, but, again, not as memorable as it was in Prince of Darkness. There is one shot in particular that I just absolutely love: the shot (above) is of Trent and Styles approaching an old church. The empty sky above the church, the characters dwarfed by the church, the dead-looking tree filling up the left side of the frame, the sloping knoll on the right, and just the overall sense of emptiness one feels looking at that image even though there is quite a bit filling up the frame (there’s also something eerie about those street lamps that surround the area). There’s just so much to look at there, and even though I don’t think the Kibbe/Carpenter collaboration is anywhere close to as good as the Cundey/Carpenter partnership, the last two films of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse” trilogy showcase Kibbe’s skills as a DP (and you can tell he has a lot of fun creating these crazy visuals once the characters get to Hobb’s End). But the surface-level execution really isn’t the problem with In the Mouth of Madness, it’s almost all conceptual.

Postmodern horror doesn’t strike one as innovative these days, but in the mid-90s — when the horror genre was all about dead — it was quite amusing and exciting to see American horror masters like Wes Craven and John Carpenter riffing on the very genre that made them famous. I have always preferred New Nightmare because I like the idea much more of Craven using the iconic character of Freddy Kreuger and copping to the fact that the numerous sequels turned the once-scary bogeyman into nothing more than a pull-string quipster. Both films look at what horror does to the people that create it. Again, the edge (clearly, I think) goes to Craven’s film because I think he gets more out of the material he mines than Carpenter does while being more effective as a pure, scary movie because it takes itself seriously as a horror film.

But that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy those self-reflexive moments in Carpenter’s film. I got a kick out of Trent reading Cane’s horror novels in order to better understand the missing author, calling them “predictable crap” but then admitting that “they do get to you.” Trent then talks about how Cane’s books (and horror in general) is all just monsters and scares in the dark—and then Carpenter immediately pans over for a classic horror false scare where a “monster” appears, sitting next to Trent (with cliché music sting and all). It’s a cheeky bit of self-reflexivity (as is the moment where Trent, trying to drive away from the madness of Hobb’s End, asks Styles for help, but she can’t help him because, “Cane is writing me this way!”) that predates Scream by two years. And in it’s that final point where I think people claim In the Mouth of Madness to be an underrated masterpiece. “True” horror fans possibly have something against the popularity of Scream and the credit it gets for being the first postmodern horror film (no, it’s not, but it is the film that resuscitated a dying genre), so they go over-the-top in trying to point people who like Scream to Carpenter’s film as the ‘90s postmodern horror film.

I like a lot of the elements of In the Mouth of Madness, but there’s just something off about the pacing. The film—like all horror films at that time—performed poorly at the box office but has gained a cult following since its release. Carpenter would release one more film in 1995, a baffling decision if there ever was one: a prosaic remake of the ‘60s sci-fi/horror film Village of the Damned.


  1. Agree wholeheartedly with your views on this film, it´s uneven but contains some of the best and eeriest moments of Carpenter´s career. For me the journey to Hobb´s End and the passing biker is just brilliant, the same goes for the scene with the painting in the reception.
    Very impressed that you didn´t mention Lovecraft one single time:)

    1. Uneven--that's a good word for it. Overrated sounds a tad harsher than I probably intended, but uneven sounds better. Yeah, the journey to Hobb's End is great stuff, and a nice example of Carpenter going outside of his comfort zone (like he did with Prince of Darkness).

      I did use the term "Lovecraftian" to describe Prince of Darkness, so I don't know if that counts, hehe.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Great review, Kevin. This comment is a bit belated, but I'm enjoying your odyssey through Carpenter's work.

    Although I'm not entirely convinced that Prince of Darkness is the superior film, you make an excellent case. Perhaps another viewing is warranted.

    I agree that the "blue bus" scene is one of In The Mouth of Madness' standouts.

    1. And this response to your comment is really belated! Hehe. Sorry it has taken me so long to get back to these comments. I appreciate the comment, Barry, and I'm glad these are even remotely interesting enough to follow along with. I hope you do give Prince of Darkness another viewing -- if it weren't for this retrospective, I don't know that I would have ever taken the time to watch it.

  3. I am really surprised that you're not a fan of this film! I love it and really do feel, like a lot of Carpenter fans that it is last truly really good film.

    I love the opening teaser (the crap Metallica-esque music that plays over the opening credits aside) done much like the opening scene from INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, as Trent is brought into the authorities looking visibly distraught and ranting about the end of the world. Neill is excellent here, all wild-eyed and frantic, claiming that he’s not insane despite the straitjacket that says otherwise. In a nice, cheeky touch, I love how the administration drowns out the patients’ ravings with a Muzak cover of The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun.” The bit where Trent groans, “Oh no, not The Carpenters too," never fails to make me smile.

    I like how Neill plays Trent as a bit of a smart-ass. He’s a little too cocky, a little too confident for his own good and deserving of a lesson in humility which the Cane case will provide. Trent’s not the most likable protagonist but Neill’s natural charm keeps you invested in his character. His philosophy, rather succinctly summarized when he tells Stiles, “Lady, nothing surprises me. We’ve fucked up the air, the water, we’ve fucked up each other. Why don’t we finish the job by just flushing our brains down the toilet?” could so easily be Carpenter's.

    While PRINCE OF DARKNESS only scratched the surface of the blurring of reality and fantasy, MOUTH OF MADNESS takes it to the next level by constantly questioning what is real and what isn’t. I think is summed up best in the conversation Stiles has with Trent at one point where she tells him, “It’s not real from your point of view and right now reality shares your point of view. What scares me about Cane’s work is what might happen if reality shared his point of view.” Trent says, “We’re not talking about reality, here. We’re talking about fiction. That’s different,” and she counters, “Reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane were to become the majority.” his conversation is the key to understanding Carpenter’s intentions with this film – that reality is what you perceive it to be, but what happens when you can no longer trust your own perception?

    1. Wow, J.D., that's quite the comment! Hehe. Thanks for taking the time to write out such a wonderful defense of the film. I think I failed to address in my review that I totally understand why the film is so beloved, and I like it too, I just don't think it's in Carpenter's top 5 or anything. I love that opening with the Carpenter's song, too, and I'm bummed that I forgot to mention it. Looking back on my notes, I had something on it written down, but I just forgot to mention it...

      And I too liked the way Neill played Trent. I liked the little bit of self-reflexivity when he's talking about how cheap horror stories are...and then Carpenter delivers the most cliche, cheapest scare there is where the music blasts and something pops up out of nowhere to jolt the audience. I think the film has its moments like that, but I also think that it's pretty overrated (again, I want to be clear: I don't want overrated to be equated with bad) considering Prince of Darkness did a lot of these similar outre set pieces so much better.

      I think a lot of your examples defending the film show how good the script is and how good the performances are, but for me, the film just didn't coalesce into a great horror experience. I did like the narrative structure of the film quite a bit (I liked that it was so different than anything he had done before and is kind of a nice lead-in to the way he would mess with narrative in something like Ghosts of Mars), but the setting, particularly the stuff at Hobb's End, just didn't do it for me. It was too hit and miss to call one of Carpenter's truly great films. A notch below The Fog, another poplar Carpenter film that has some problems, in my opinion.

      Anyway, I like your defense of the film (especially in the last paragraph), and I'm glad you stopped by to defend the film. I knew I would be in the minority when I wrote this one. Hopefully we'll be back on track with Vanpires! Hehe.