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IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (John Carpenter, 95 min, color, 1994)

What's Happening: Horror writer's fans become an evil cult intent on destroying the world

Famous For: Greatest Lovecraft movie to date


Maybe it was the four-year gap between They Live and Memoirs of an Invisible Man.  Maybe it was the change from the 80s into the 90s.  Whatever the case, sometime around 1990, genre fans turned away from John Carpenter.  If you check the IMDb, not only are Carpenter's 90s movies rated far lower than his 80s movies, they also receive far less attention, garnering half or perhaps only a quarter as many ratings votes.


But as I've said elsewhere, I think fans are missing out.  Though he no longer made one masterpiece after the next, Carpenter's 90s movies are still very good.  And one of them - In the Mouth of Madness - is almost as good as anything that the B-movie master has ever done.

The story is a crescendo of weirdness, steadily paced but marked with episodes and cycles.  Carpenter is known for precision construction, and Madness might be the most expertly constructed of them all.  Every scene builds on the previous scene but also brings something new and strange.


There's some gore, some sexuality, but nothing exploitative or overplayed.  For a movie about a Cthulu-type cult of homicidal maniacs, it's uncommonly subtle and restrained.  Hellraiser this ain't.

There are a few perfectly placed moments of humor (such as The Carpenters at the beginning, the popcorn at the end, or "you drive" in the middle), and there are one or two "boo" scares to shock you, but it's mostly strange and serious with some of the most compact and literate dialogue (by Michael De Luca who's most famous as a producer) that Carpenter has ever worked with.


The cast could not have been better.  Sam Neill (who has a short but impressive horror resume) makes our investigator-protagonist smug and cynical but brave and honest.  Julie Carmen (Fright Night 2) is the harried but sensible heroine.  Jurgen Prochnow (Duke Leo from Dune) is the frightening Sutter Cane.  Bernie Casey (Gargoyles) has a good small role as an insurer CEO.  Charlton Heston (in his only Carpenter film) has a good small role as a publisher CEO.

Like Videodrome before it, Madness depicts a descent into insanity where reality, fiction, illusion, and nightmare have become indistinguishable.  The two films make a nice comparison, with Videodrome more scientific or biological and Madness more spiritual and cosmic.  Videodrome is also explicit where Madness is intellectual.

Now let's discuss Madness as an H.P. Lovecraft movie.


Its predecessor in the Carpenter oeuvre, Prince of Darkness, was also Lovecraftian with secretive cults, forbidden knowledge, bodily transformations, "supernatural" beings akin to aliens, and more, including a tendency to tell more than show, and an atmospheric crescendo plot structure.


But Madness is the real Lovecraft movie, and perhaps the greatest Lovecraft movie ever made.  Here's why.

First, the title refers frankly to Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness."


Next, the town of Hobb's End, where half the film takes place, is clearly based on Lovecraft's fictional towns of Arkham, Dunwich, and Innsmouth, with the monster in the greenhouse referencing the monster in the barn (among elsewhere) from "Dunwich Horror" and the mob of mutated townsfolk chasing our protagonist as in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."


Also as in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," Hobb's End has a "black church" that once was Christian but has since been appropriated by a monstrous cult.


While "Sutter Cane" sounds like "Stephen King," the publisher "Arcane" clearly sounds like "Arkham" - i.e. not just the town of Arkham but Arkham House, the publishing company founded by Lovecraft's disciple August Derleth back in 1939.


Next, the octopoid monsters, some of whom sport multiple eyes and whipping tentacles, are clearly based on Cthulu, shoggoths, various Old Ones, and other Lovecraftian beasts.

Speaking of beasts, the film also depicts people mutating into monstrous forms as in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," "The Dunwich Horror," and elsewhere.


Next, like Lovecraft's most celebrated tales ("Dunwich Horror" being a rare exception), the movie has a first person structure - not with narration per se but with a frame tale that shows the protagonist relating his story to an interlocutor.


It's a middle aged bachelor protagonist, the norm for Lovecraft.  And the protagonist follows the Lovecraftian hero's pattern of doggedly investigating something forbidden and sinister, step by step, at first merely skeptical or curious, but eventually subsumed by his new knowledge and (perhaps?) driven insane by it.  By the end, the protagonist is driven toward violence and scarcely knows who he is (as in "The Shadow Out of Time" or "The Rats in the Walls").


Next, the villain specifically mentions the Old Ones as his masters, and he uses a Necronomicon-like book to revive them.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Madness evokes cosmic horror better than any other Lovecraft picture.  It's not just a few people or a single town that lies in peril, it's the entire planet.  A dimensional doorway has been opened (as in "The Music of Erich Zann").  A worldwide cult (as in "The Call of Cthulu") is about to usher in the equivalent of an apocalypse where the Old Ones (from "At the Mountains of Madness" and several other Lovecraft tales) will return to (re)claim the Earth as their own.  Mankind is insignificant, with even Sutter Cane himself merely a vessel to bring the Old Ones back.

The New Line DVD includes commentary from Carpenter and his cinematographer, recorded 1995.  It's unusually technical, with lots about camera and lighting technicalities, filters, focuses, and so on.  This can be boring for some viewers but fascinating for anyone interested in the details of the filmmaking process.  Carpenter also discusses actors, locations, sets, particular shots, virtually everything you could hope for - if you're into the details.


He says little about themes, like most directors in their commentaries, but he does say one theme is "things that reoccur over and over again" and he proclaims it the culmination of his Apocalypse Trilogy after The Thing and Prince of Darkness.  He also calls it a "journey into madness."  He tried to be (somewhat) subtle when the monsters reach the tunnel because "as in Lovecraft you don't want to show that which is so horrible."  Both Carpenter and Sam Neill like the film a lot.

A few more notes: It was filmed in and around Toronto.  The "black church" with its 210-foot tower is real (it's the Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Markham, Ontario).  The scene with Linda's head upside down (64:00) was shot with a contortionist wearing a Linda mask.


Are there any flaws?  Perhaps the mutating painting in the hotel lobby was a little too obvious.  Along the same lines, perhaps the monsters at the tunnel were on screen a little too long or were too well lit (though I know Carpenter tried to be subtle).


You might also wish Madness were more spectacular toward the end.  In De Luca's original story, the whole town gets magically sucked into the book (!) before Sam returns to the "real" world.  But to reduce the budget (from 15 million to 10, as Carpenter says), they made a book/paper illusion culminating when Cane pulls open the wall at 71:30.


I still think this works well - the CGI "rip in reality" effect - especially since the real culmination of the story, including the excellent movie theater coda, is still to come.


Check out also Spock's Beard's "In the Mouth of Madness" prog rock song from 1998.


Action: 7.  Gore: 7.  Sex: 4.  Quality: 9.  Camp: 4.

Don't miss: Re-cycled

Quotable line: "Anybody's capable of anything."

Review post date February 23, 2020

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