Looking Back: In The Mouth of Madness (1995)

Movie buffs can be an intense crowd, particularly when they’re camping out in line for tickets, waiting hours (or days) to get into the theater and grab the best seat in the house. There is no getting in the way of a fan who is living for the next installment of a series or artist they can’t get enough of.

It’s no different in the literary world. Proof of this came to me years ago, when I once attended a Harry Potter book release event at a Barnes and Nobles. It was midnight but there were children everywhere, many in costume, all waiting in a long line, tickets in hand to exchange for the latest, hefty volume of J.K. Rowling storytelling. An image I’ve never forgotten was a little girl, dressed like Hermoine, who got her book and pressed it lovingly against her chest, sort of hugging it. She then walked across the room, sat down in an unattended aisle and furiously began reading. It was like watching a junkie ravenously dig into their stash, only…this was the innocent, “cuter” version. Still, it was quite the spectacle, seeing dozens and dozens of kids, obsessed with the unveiling of a new book.

Being a lifelong reader of Stephen King and present at a few bookstore releases of his work, I’ve been a part of that kind of fandom, too. I can’t say I ever literally embraced a brand new copy of “It” but when the desire to read a new book is like the burning need to scratch a fuzzy itch on your back, bookworms can become ravenous.

John Carpenter’s “In The Mouth of Madness” takes this even further, as fans of novelist Sutter Cane become Darwinian monsters after reading his latest novel. Sam Neill plays a professional skeptic who investigates Cane’s sudden disappearance, which is noted to coincide with the author’s new book hitting the shelves. Cane’s publisher (played with charm and a wink by Charlton Heston) reveals that Cane’s vanishing isn’t a stunt, while the author’s publicist (Julie Carmen, star of “Fright Night Part II”) reminds everyone that Cane is the real deal, as he “outsells Stephen King.” The opening credits are of a printing press, piecing together paperbacks of Cane’s latest, while theme music that very badly wants to be Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blasts over the soundtrack.

Carpenter’s film explores the way the Horror genre, either in print or on film, affects its audience. Call it John Carpenter’s New Nightmare. Like Wes Craven’s brilliant satire/fright fest from the year before, this offers a satirical, self-reflective commentary on horror artists and their work. Just as important is how “In The Mouth of Madness” is one of Carpenter’s most frightening, containing some of the scariest imagery of his career.

Only Carpenter would select such a colorful, seemingly mismatched but cleverly assembled ensemble, which includes John Glover, David Warner, Jurgen Prochnow (as Cane) and, again, Heston! Frances Bay is especially unsettling as the seemingly innocent Mrs. Pickman, Prochnow (with a mop of hair) makes Cane genuinely spooky and, in the lead, Neill conveys the fear of a cynic who becomes a believer.

The screenplay by Michael De Luca (who, at one point, became the head of New Line Cinema, the company that distributed this film) is witty and fiendishly imaginative. Cane appears to be an unholy combo of Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker and, among the many titles in his catalog, a few that stand out are “The Basement’ and “The Feeding.” While Cane’s origins are never fully revealed, a sci-fi explanation is teased.

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DeLuca’s screenplay has a wicked sense of humor (note Neill’s intro line: “Sorry about the balls! It was a lucky shot, that’s all!”) but not every audacious touch works. On occasion, Carpenter’s low budget background hurts him: gun fire squibs are cheaply replaced by flashes of light, some of the monsters are barely visible and Carmen is too B-movie ready, when someone of Jamie Lee Curtis’ caliber was needed for the pivotal female lead. The last scene is a clever but failed attempt to break the fourth wall. It might have been kind of fun in movie theaters but the closing scene is the lone moment where De Luca and Carpenter think big but can’t quite reach as high as they want.

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Some of the visuals reminded me of “The Thing,” and the comparison is favorable. There’s also thematic ties to Carpenter’s later “The Ward,” which also questions the point of view of the protagonist’s sanity. This is one of several Carpenter films depicting horror in small, very American town. Carpenter has stated this is the third in his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” coming after “The Thing” and “Prince of Darkness.” There’s no missing the connective threads, as well as noting that Neill, in his second Carpenter film after the under-looked “Memoirs of an Invisible Man,” appears to be having a grand ole’ time.

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The film cheekily comments on the publishing mania that still exists between the publishing house and the readers. Everything from “The Hunger Games,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Twilight” and anything from Rowling, and the way their distributors turn their works into bestseller frenzy events, applies to the notion that Cane is enabled by his handlers as well as his readers.

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The best, most disturbing scenes play on a demented loop, repeating a cycle of events until the fear is maximized. Neill’s initial reading of Cane’s novel, a night drive to Cane’s fabled Hobb’s End and the failed escape attempt that winds up in the same spot are among Carpenter’s most brilliant set pieces. While the creator of “Halloween” has made better movies, this is his scariest.

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