Film Reviews:

In The Mouth of Madness

(John Carpenter, US, 1994)

In The Mouth of Madness is the title of the novel that will be the summit of the career of horror novelist Sutter Cane, a book so terrifyingly powerful that it will drive readers mad with fear. But, just as Arcane Publishing is expecting the manuscript to be delivered, Cane abruptly disappears. As a result the head of the company sends Cane's editor, Linda Styles, off in search of the author accompanied by a cynical insurance investigator called John Trent. Trent thinks he's been roped into a publicity stunt by the publishers in an attempt to garner even more attention for the release of Cane's new work. However, Trent finds it increasingly difficult to rationally explain the strange events that surround them once they end up in a place which does not appear on any map: a small New England town called Hobb's End. The two find themselves on the edge of insanity as they are drawn into another world which previously everyone had thought to be a mere fantasy created by Sutter Cane.

John Carpenter's sixteenth film as director received it's world première, closing a retrospective season of his films at London's prestigious National Film Theatre, on 29th July 1994. As soon as the opening credits begin to an opening score (by Carpenter and Jim Levy), that sounds more like Metallica than the usual Carpenter compositions we have come to expect over the years, you get a sense that this may signify a departure for the director. And how it does. This film is likely to split his fans right down the middle: half disliking it because they see it as radically different to his oeuvre so far and those who like it for the same reason. I count myself among those who like it. I'd go further to say that it is his best film for years, possibly even since Halloween. In The Mouth of Madness is a long, literary title that reflects the films content. This is more psychological thriller than traditional horror and that may distance some pure horror fans but deserves a mainstream audience.

The literary connections go back to H.P. Lovecraft, the writer which Carpenter acknowledges the film owes much to. Indeed, Madness is chock-full of not just Lovecraft, but all kinds, of literary and filmic references. Combining his strongest narrative for some time, drawing the very best from Michael De Luca's great screenplay, Carpenter mixes in the zombie-like masses and other elements from his previous work, along with some terrific images (and dark visions) into an intelligent and though-provoking tale. It's easily his scariest film since Halloween and offers genuine chills even for horror-hardened audiences - his and Jim Levy's sinister, brilliant score aiding the creepy atmosphere no end. The actors are well-cast. Sam Neill acts as the audiences sounding board as the investigating Trent, Julie Carmen provides a strong female editor and Charlton Heston is perfect as the head of Arcane Publishing. Jürgen Prochnow is ideal as the writer who believes his life has a much greater calling than that of a mere author of horror novels.

Brimming over with great lines of dialogue, often delivered by Cane: "Reality is not what it used to be" and as the world in his novel overturns reality, "I think, therefore you are", this has more in common with the horror/thriller hits of the 70s such as The Omen than any recent film. It all builds relentlessly and those familiar with the director's view of the universe will not be surprised by the great ending. In The Mouth of Madness will repay repeated viewing where the extraordinary locations, unsettling atmosphere, genuine scares and clever narrative will reward again and again. It's great to be able to hold you head up again and say, without any doubts, that a John Carpenter film is excellent.

Rob Dyer

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