Thursday, October 11, 2012

Halloween Holocaust: In the Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter,1994)

For today's post we're gonna hang out some more with our buddy Sam Neill, for some ontologically destabalising, meta-fictional, H.P Lovecraft inspired skull-fuckery, courtesy of Master of Horror John Carpenter. The final chapter of the director's Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness), In the Mouth of Madness functions simultaneously as an exploration of issues surrounding the subversive, perceptual paradigm shifting potential of fiction, and also, perhaps, as one the most genuinely Lovecraftian films yet produced, in the sense of convincingly showing what it might be like to be trapped within a whirling, reality-raping, whirlwind of unfathomable cosmic horror. 

Neill's character, John Trent, is an expert insurance investigator, hired by Arcane Publishing boss Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), to hunt down vanished horror author (and - in the film's universe - King eclipsing superstar) Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Initially an arch cynic/sceptic and generally dismissive of what he considers pulp horror hokum, Trent starts to read the author's work for possible leads. Predictably, he's soon having vivid nightmares, that represent the initial cracks in his previously stable sense of reality. Eventually, he notices a pattern hidden within the covers of Cane's books, that when properly assembled forms a map, leading to the supposedly imaginary town of Hobb's End. Accompanied by Cane's editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), he sets off to this place of dubious existence.

Lost on the open road late at night, with Trent asleep beside her in the passenger seat, Styles starts to experience some seriously freaky phenomena while driving, signalling their passage through the looking glass, and then subsequent arrival in the fictional burg. Based on the rapidly proliferating and ominous portents that seem to surround them from the outset, Styles is soon convinced that life is starting to imitate art and that they have actually somehow journeyed through the membrane of the text into a Sutter Cane novel. Trent however, is having none of it, convinced it's all an elaborately staged charade, designed to drum up publicity for the writer's latest book. This being a horror movie, there's no prizes for guessing who's right.  

Like most vintage Carpenter (an apt adjective considering how they get seemingly better with age) the film contains trademark, unobtrusive Panavision cinematography from regular collaborator Gary B. Kibbe and a reliably kick-ass score from J.C. and Jim Lang. Also, the script, from former New Line head Michael De Luca, supplies the sly wit we've come to expect in a Carpenter film. Furthermore, it makes some intriguing philosophical suggestions, the most startling of which begs the question, if an author of fiction is more widely read than the Bible, could their work begin to have as cataclysmic an effect upon reality as religion often has? The central performance from Neill is committed as always and presents a convincing portrayal of creeping paranoia and gradual mental disintegration. Highly underrated and consistently unsettling, In the Mouth of Madness (like many of the director's later works) currently falls in the shadow of Carpenter's more lauded efforts. However, as the spirit of critical revisionism and reevaluation has generally been kind to previously maligned classics such as The Thing, we can hopefully anticipate its reputation will only grow with time.


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