Classic Movie Review: "In the Mouth of Madness" (1994)
Can we all just take a moment to stop and appreciate all of the greatness that the living legend himself, John Carpenter, has given us? We really should. If you're a true fan of horror then you ABSOLUTELY should. It's a required show of respect. Where do you even start? There's Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing (greatest remake ever), Christine, Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, They Live, Body Bags, Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A., and Masters of Horror (Pro-Life and Cigarette Burns). Add to that the fact that he was the writer as well as the director of practically all of those classic films and you're pretty much looking at one of the faces on the Mount Rushmore of Directors. How many other directors can you think of that put out that much respected and powerful fare during the course of their careers? I'll wait.
Right in the middle of all that greatness lies one of the all-time most underrated movies of all-time, regardless of genre: In the Mouth of Madness. 1994 gave us some seriously game-changing films in the form of Forrest Gump, The Lion King, Dumb and Dumber, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Clerks, Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, The Shawshank Redemption, and Interview With the Vampire. In the midst of all that awesome, a lot of folks overlooked a living, breathing nightmare of a film in a genre that is often overlooked anyways (if we're being honest).
In the Mouth of Madness is the story of John Trent (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park franchise), a freelance insurance fraud investigator who is hired to track down the missing horror novelist, Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow, Dune). Cane's books are literally driving people mad, but Trent believes it to be a grandiose publicity stunt dreamed up in order to sell more books and defraud the agency. The only problem is that Cane has legitimately disappeared, and his fans are clamoring violently for the next installment. Trent believes he has figured out where Cane is hiding, and he is sent to to New Hampshire with Cane's editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen, Fright Night Part 2) at the behest of Cane's publisher, Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston, Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments). What follows is enough to make H.P. Lovecraft blush and turn away.
Speaking of the Bastard Uncle of Horror (whom I prefer to Poe), this movie drips and crawls with homage to H.P. Lovecraft. The Great Old Ones and The Elder Gods are peeking out from every ichor-covered corner. The only thing that keeps it from going straight to outer space and the edges of creation is the looming shadow of Stephen King anchoring it in the reality of the popularity of horror fiction. In the Mouth of Madness is a movie written at the peak of "Stephen King-mania". I was 9 at the time, and literally everyone was reading one King novel or another. Ask anyone who lived through the late 80's / early 90’s. They'll tell you.
John Carpenter has created a cubic fuck-ton of classics, but this is his criminally underrated piece de resistance. It's equal parts nightmare fuel, psychological horror, visceral splatter, creature feature, and small-town creeper. The pacing is breakneck, and there's no wasted motion. The cast is first-rate. The scoring is subtle but (as is the case with all Carpenter flicks) impressive. The SFX are gooey and disgusting. It checks off every box that the horror fan needs checked. It's one literal nightmare sequence after another that doesn't give you a chance to breathe.
There's so much to love in this one that I find it a personal shame that more folks haven't seen it. For the record, I am aware that this is more of a love-letter than an objective review, but when I feel strongly about something that strengthens the horror community I shout it loud and proud. In my four years at Blockbuster Video (the last days, it turns out) this was my "go-to" for those people who said "what's a good horror movie that I haven't seen?" I never had someone come back unsatisfied from this little gem.
Not only is it top-tier horror fare, but it throws lines and themes at you that actually have something to say and make you think. For example:
John Trent: "Sane and insane could easily switch places if insane were to become the majority."
Sutter Cane: "I think, therefore you are!"
John Trent: "Every species can smell its own extinction. The last ones left won't have a pretty time with it. In ten years, maybe less, the human race will just be a bedtime story for their children. A myth, nothing more."
Simon: "Reality is not what it used to be!"
John Trent: "God's not supposed to be a hack horror writer."
Sutter Cane (to Trent, while in a confessional inside the black church) "Do you want to know the problem with places like this? With religion, in general? It's never known how to convey the anatomy of horror. Religion seeks discipline through fear... yet doesn't understand the true nature of creation. No one's ever believed it enough to make it real. The same cannot be said of my work.
I don't know about you, but I think there is a hell of a lot that there that rings true in this (and every other) age of mankind. That's the point, too. Carpenter is trying to drive home the point that H.P. Lovecraft was trying to drive home in the early part of the century, the point that King has shouted from the rooftops to great acclaim:
"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
As metaphors go, you can't beat the truth in that one. Who says horror has nothing relevant to say? How comfortable are you with the unknown?