In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

September 24, 2009 § Leave a comment

John Carpenter has made some impressive films. Halloween (1978) is simply a flawless chiller, still remembered and emulated. I’ve already reviewed The Thing (1982), which is both suspenseful and has an alien that’s truly alien — a rarity for film and TV, which generally prefers putting a bumpy forehead on an actor. Starman (1984) is a warm-hearted and inventive science-fiction film, and Big Trouble in Little China (1986) an unpredictable, tremendously fun popcorn action film, provided you don’t want it to meet many expectations — it’s a bit of a unique mix.

That last film took a beating from critics who declined to get caught up in the fun. It did fairly poorly at the box office, and reportedly resulted in Carpenter deciding he’d no longer make films for Hollywood studios.  They Live (1988) takes a somewhat bitter but pointed stab at the money-hungry, suggesting that the greedy capitalists out to put profit ahead of the planet are in fact heartless aliens in disguise, and you can find them out simply by looking around with specially treated sunglasses. The main character puts a monkey wrench in the works but is shot in the process and lies back to relish giving the aliens the finger as he dies. The film would be heavy-handed, but it manages to be a lot of fun along the way.

In the Mouth of Madness suffers from taking itself a little too seriously, by contrast, as well as not deciding what it wants to be about. Sam Neill plays John Trent, an insurance fraud investigator hired by a publisher to find out what happened to Sutter Kane, an immensely popular horror author — he disappeared and so did his latest manuscript. It’s an intriguing beginning. And there’s no need to spell out the comparison to Stephen King, though unfortunately one character does. A flashback to Trent making a man squirm because of a fraudulent claim has little connection to anything, and feels oddly situated in the film. There’s one (that’s one, folks) effective scene, as Trent drives to the obscure New England town where he might find Cane — we see a young man on a bicycle ahead in the middle of the road, but at first can only make out the flash of the headlights on his reflectors. The car passes the man, and Carpenter captures the second that the man and car are next to each other, the boy looking over with a strange, disconnected expression before fading into the darkness and glow of the tail-lights.

Not long after this, the madness presented begins to have only one form: seeing everyone as a demon, from police officers to charming little old ladies.  A demon with an axe (they’re oh-so fond of the axes) runs out into the street to stop, look at Trent and say “Fuck you!” It’s hard to imagine who wrote that and then sat back to say excellent, good dialogue. Trent finds Cane (sort-of) as the madness and chaos increase, and it’s either that Cane has written a new manuscript that drives people mad, or Cane now writes the entire world through the sheer force of fandom and popular belief, or demons have possessed Cane and are using him as a doorway, or… something. Maybe the demons just wanted access to this dimension for all the axes lying around. Trent tries to drive out of town but suddenly finds himself driving back into town, and we’re treated to this about four times. There are a few lines of pseudo-intellectual dialogue, such as the suggestion that if many more people were mad, sane people would be in the minority. Well, yes — sure. Finally, in the last few moments the film seems to throw out everything done up to that point, in favour of something that maybe kind of supports one theory, but could also be a whole new one.

In a way, it’s a film loaded with ideas, but given the jerky nature of the narrative, it feels like the film simply can’t decide which one it wants to pursue. In subtler moments there’s a lot of potential, but it’s thrown away in favour of someone trying to get through a doorway with an axe, or something meant to be similarly alarming. And a flashback to something more than Trent making another man squirm might have helped me care about the character. I really don’t think I’m declining to be caught up in the fun, as some critics have done with Carpenter (and by fun I mean suspense, the development of an idea), it’s more that there simply isn’t that much fun in this particular runaround.

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The Thing (1982) and Pontypool (2009)

September 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

John Carpenter’s The Thing was inspired by both a film and a novella: as a youth he saw The Thing from Another World (1951), a film inspired by Who Goes There, a science fiction novella by John W. Campbell. In telling the story of an isolated outpost in Antarctica that discovers a buried alien organism, the 1951 film opted for a guy in a suit as the monster, and it’s perhaps fair to say they had no other options available at that time. Carpenter apparently loved the film, but wanted to return to the original idea about a shape-changing organism that, given time, could imitate any living creature through a hideous process of absorption — and even the smallest particle of it could strike out. If the organism were to succeed in getting away from the outpost to infect a city, the rest of the world would follow from there. Needless to say, this heightens the tension considerably, compared to a tall guy in a suit lumbering around smashing things.

Beginning with a heartbeat-imitation score by Ennio Morricone, the 1982 film is an excellent production: tightly written, with good performances from both the supporting cast, and lead actor Kurt Russell. Years before CGI effects, the wildly imaginative stuff invented for the film scared the living daylights out of me as a child, and remains etched in my brain. Time has dated the film a little, in terms of how shocking it is, and it’s fair to say the film puts little or no time aside for characterisation, but a solid supporting cast helps immensely here, and insures a certain level of believability. Quite simply, audiences had never seen anything like it in 1982, and it remains a solid and chilling suspense film. The imaginative and shocking effects may have threatened to become the centrepiece of the film decades ago, but today viewers are more likely to notice other details, like the careful shots set up by Carpenter that imply someone else might be watching the character on display.

The Canadian film Pontypool may have arrived decades later, and after dozens of films have made it increasingly difficult to shock audiences, but it neatly sidesteps the entire issue — what’s wildly original here isn’t the effects, but the ideas behind this psychologically gripping film. And again, solid performances give the whole thing a credibility it would not otherwise have. Tony Burgess adapted his original and hugely enjoyable novel Pontypool Changes Everything into a screenplay for director Bruce McDonald, who handles it in a skillful, understated way. At a radio station in Pontypool, Ontario, DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and assistant Laurel (Georgina Reilly) begin getting conflicted, increasingly strange and horrific reports about local disturbances.

There’s enough left to the imagination here that it could be theatre, or radio drama, but as a film it also works remarkably well. I don’t want to give away the original and utterly creepy directions the film eventually goes, but I’ll say that it’s another epidemic film, and though it’s something of a zombie film, it doesn’t even really need the z-word. Highly recommended, but avoid online reviews that gleefully give away far too much. I only hope more Canadian films will be produced that make budget nearly irrelevant, in favour of  highly original scripts.

Watch a teaser clip here.

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