The Reassessment Files:
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)
By Paul McMahon (The Distracted Critic)
John Trent: You’re waiting to hear about my “them,” aren’t you?
Dr. Wrenn: Your what?
John Trent: My “them.”Every paranoid schizophrenic has one; a “them,” a “they,” an “it”. And you want to hear about my “them,” don’t you?
Maybe that’s where this first “Reassessment Files” should begin, eh? My “them.”
John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS came out in 1994—almost two decades ago. I rented the VHS from a mom and pop place called Lake Ripple Video near where I grew up. The store itself was a bit of a sore spot with me, because before the video people moved in that shop was The Yankee Bookseller, and it’s where I spent every lawn-mowing and snow-shoveling dollar I earned. Lake Ripple Video has also long since closed. But I digress. Before I’ve even started, I digress.
The timing of the movie was such that I was on the verge of being unemployed because my job was closing. (Seeing a trend here? The mid-nineties sucked for that sort of thing.) I had a lot on my mind. The end result was that IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS came across as disjointed and incoherent, a blatant mess with logic holes and dropped plot strands. It looped endlessly and ended abruptly, leaving far more questions than answers. The kicker was, I really wanted to like it, having seen a CNN filler interview in which Carpenter promised this movie would have more and better monsters than had ever been seen on the silver screen before. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for a monster story, so naturally I took that promise to heart.
Carpenter’s movie disappointed in a huge way. For the guy who brought THE THING (1982) to the big screen, I expected a hell of a lot more. Frankly, I got a much better view of the monsters during the CNN interview. I grumbled all the way back to Lake Ripple Video and tossed the whole IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS concept onto my mental trash heap and moved on.
Over the past few years, though, I have heard repeatedly at cons and on Facebook and from friends whose opinions I trust that IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is one of the very best H.P. Lovecraft homages that exists. I’ve always used my skeptical eyebrow when dealing with these crazies. It’s a strategy that has worked well in the past, but lately there are more and more of these loonies to contend with, and my eyebrow is tiring. It seemed my best option was for me to give the film another look.
Since the movie is just shy of two decades old, I’m going to reveal spoilers if they come up. If that’s going to bug you, go watch the film before you read another word.
The movie opens with John Trent (Sam Neill, JURASSIC PARK ,1993) being thrown into a padded cell in a very busy lunatic asylum. Once his raving subsides, he’s visited by Dr. Wrenn (David Warner, THE OMEN, 1976) and is coaxed into telling his story. He reveals that he was an insurance investigator, and he was sent to investigate a claim by a big-time New York publishing house that their star author—Sutter Cain (Jurgen Prochnow, most notably DAS BOOT, 1981) —has disappeared with his latest manuscript. As Trent reads and studies Cain’s books to familiarize himself with the case, we learn he’s anti-horror, most likely anti-fantasy, and probably anti-fiction of any form. Waking from a nightmare featuring repetitive disturbing images, he discovers strange lines on the covers of Cain’s paperbacks. He cuts them out and pieces them together. They form a map of New Hampshire, revealing the exact location of Cain’s fictional town of Hobb’s End.
To him, this means that the whole “disappearing author” thing is a publicity stunt and not a real mystery. If Trent seems more than a little disappointed by this, he seems positively put-out that he’s sent to find the town with Cain’s editor, the sultry Linda Styles (Julie Carmen, FRIGHT NIGHT II, 1988). Styles insists that the only person to have read the entire manuscript, Cain’s agent, went crazy. Turns out the agent is the same nut that attacked Trent with an axe in broad daylight and was shot dead by police earlier in the movie. Eventually, Trent falls asleep in the car and Styles manages to find the town after experiencing some haunting activity on the road, including a weird sequence where the car seems to be flying. Trent wakes when they arrive and they investigate the seemingly deserted town, finally discovering that Cain is living in the town’s church.
I came to the writings of Lovecraft after I saw the film. I’d say that has a bit to do with my not ‘getting it’ the first time. This time, I was surprised to find a veritable smorgasbord of creepy Lovecraftian images and events. There were many quick, indirect images of things that could be defined as “unnamable” and “unspeakable.” A lot of the horror happened indirectly and was hard to identify. On the two occasions that Styles reads Cain’s work aloud, she actually read passages of Lovecraft’s work, most notably “The Rats In The Walls.”
Things get complicated as Styles’ personality is swallowed by the town, resulting in her becoming more of a hindrance than an ally. When she disappears one evening, Trent finds her in the dark old church, watching Cain write. Trent watches as well and with a flourish Cain finishes the last page of his manuscript. The same Cain’s agent already read, which is why he went mad in the first place. If the book wasn’t finished until now, how could that have happened?
Driving people insane is the whole point of Cain’s book, by the way. Cain wants to drive his readers mad. Once a high enough percentage of the population is crazy, the Old Ones who sleep beneath the skin of the Earth can arise and rule the world.
Ah, the Old Ones...
This brings us to my biggest complaint, and the main reason I gave the film such poor marks all those years ago. The Old Ones are loosed before Trent has delivered the manuscript, so before anyone has read the thing. They, in fact, chase him through a mystical tunnel out of Hobbs End and into reality, and at no time do we get a clear shot of the things. Yeah, there are images of parts– a few drooly teeth here, an angry looking eye there, a pair of sharp talons on a scaly, deformed foot– but never a really good look at the monsters. I realize this was in keeping with Lovecraft’s style, but it definitely bucks Carpenter’s promise of “more and better monsters than had ever been seen on the silver screen before.”
They are “onscreen”– used a stopwatch to time it– thirty seconds out of a movie 5,700 seconds long, and a lot of this segment is Trent running, falling, and screaming. Even crap movies have more monster than this. If you absolutely insist on counting Mrs. Pickman’s “reveal” and Styles’ “transformation,” the total monster-on-screen ratio is two minutes out of 195.
Hardly “more and better monsters” at all.
Watching the sequences on freeze frame, it’s obvious the “Wall of Old Ones” cost a lot of money to pull off. We’re talking a dozen to twenty puppeteers just to make the creatures seem alive. To spend that kind of money and then not show the damn things… suffice to say that it’s one of the rare instances where if I’d been producing I would’ve stepped in and enforced my will that there be more– and clearer– shots of the creatures. “Put my money on the screen,” I’d have said. “Lovecraft used the terms ‘unnamable’ and ‘unspeakable’ because he dealt with the printed word and couldn’t fully convey the unusual monstrosities he was seeing. You, John Carpenter, are a filmmaker who has hired the wildest creative imaginers in the business today (The KNB effects group of Robert Kurtzman, Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger), so you have no excuse to hide your vision from the viewer.”
Anyway… I went into the movie this time expecting to be let down. Without the pressures that were dragging me down the first time I watched it, and with having read most of Lovecraft’s body of work in the interim, I was able to get into the spirit of the movie a lot deeper and it meant a lot more to me. The homages and tributes were recognizable and fun, and I had a good time, even though the monsters are few and far between.
I still think the film would’ve rocked with a THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997)- type montage, where each monster is seen mutilating people in a different city. That would’ve been “more and better monsters.”
First viewing: 1 out of 5 stars
Reassessment: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.
Best Lovecraft homage ever? I remember one I liked better.
© Copyright 2012 by Paul McMahon