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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