Monday, August 1, 2011

REVIEW: In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jurgen Prochnow

As we all know, John Carpenter is a man of many wonders, and has crafted some awesome movies like Halloween, The Thing, Escape from New York and many other 1980s classics. But also worthy of praise is his 1994 surreal psychological horror film In the Mouth of Madness, which I have seen half a dozen times and it just gets more and more nuts every time.

It’s about a guy named John Trent (Sam Neill) who makes a living debunking frauds. He’s quite happy doing it, until a crazy guy with a gun attacks him in broad daylight. He’s then approached by a book publishing company who has lost their biggest cash cow, Sutter Cane, who is purportedly bigger than Stephen King – tall words indeed. They want Trent to go find Cane, which he undertakes rather reluctantly, as he thinks the man is a hack. A sentiment which I’m sure is not at all colored by the fact that the bald man who attacked him before was actually Cane’s agent. He approaches it looking for a fraud on the part of the agency. It is a classic horror movie plot of a skeptic learning to believe, through horrific and depraved means - a cautionary tale, if you will.

But eventually, he does relent, accompanied by Cane’s editor, a woman named Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) who he doesn’t quite get along with. After piecing together a ridiculous puzzle from the covers of Cane’s books, Trent is convinced that it’s a real town called Hobb’s End, after one of the ones in Cane’s books. This…is the last even remotely normal scene in the movie. After this scene, things just get nuts.

What makes this movie work is the directing, which is sort of playful, like a cat toying with a mouse. It has a very unique, darkly humorous vibe to a lot of the scenes, even though there is little, if any, actual humor in the writing. Everything feels very surreal and off-kilter in a way like whoever made this bizarre world is laughing at us for getting lost in it. I’m not trying to say this is an art-flick, or abstract in any way – it is surreal and weird solely in what happens to the characters, and the way the film bludgeons the viewer with each new situation.

I think this is sort of a potpourri of horror movie clichés jumbled up into a fine, spiced curry that is hard to call derivative, because every influence and cliché is used in a new way. And even moreso, it’s almost like the movie has intruded on the set of another movie at times. There are a lot of strange things going on in Hobb’s End, but almost none of them are actually the focus of what Trent is going through. Like there are some scenes of an old lady in a hotel who butchers her husband. And another scene of the town villagers go to the church and confront this evil dark force, or something – just cool stuff like that. This is quite a marvelous deconstruction of a lot of horror tropes, mutating them into something entirely new.

But really the meat of why this is so viscerally entertaining is the tons of shocks and thrills it throws your way, with no regard for your sanity at all. At its most base level this movie is good because it continually throws ridiculously insane and twisted imagery at you, and you will feel like you are quite literally going insane along with John Trent, the poor bastard. There’s one scene where his female companion undergoes quite an eye-popping physical transformation that's pretty much insane. This is almost hard to watch at times because of all the mind-shattering twists and turns it takes, but then, you really, really want to see what happens, so you can’t stop watching.

I won’t spoil too much of this film for you. So go see it, people! I’m doing you a favor by not spoiling any of the great scenes in this! Recommended, by the way.