John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness
*½/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras C
starring Sam Neill, Jurgen Prochnow, Julie Carmen, Charlton Heston
screenplay by Michael DeLuca, from stories by H. P. Lovecraft
directed by John Carpenter
by Vincent Suarez John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness opens as John Trent (Sam Neill) is being dragged into an insane asylum, with characters making vague references to a seemingly-widespread epidemic of madness. After Trent covers his padded cell, face, and clothing with black crosses (an image featured in the trailer and which hooked me, proving that while a picture may be worth a thousand words, it may not be worth 95 minutes of one's time), he recounts the events leading to his current state, and the film proceeds in flashback.
Trent is an insurance investigator hired by publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston, in an inspired bit of casting considering his roles in the apocalyptic films Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and The Omega Man) to explore the disappearance of horror novelist Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Cane is Harglow's crown jewel, with a ravenous readership that riots at bookstores when copies of his books are in short supply, and the publisher desperately wants his latest manuscript, "In the Mouth of Madness." Trent, who had earlier been attacked by Cane's axe-weilding agent (supposedly driven insane by reading advance chapters of the new novel), smells a publicity hoax and eagerly accepts the job. What follows is a convoluted, pseudo-philosophic tale in which Trent slowly finds himself trapped in one of Cane's novels ("I think, therefore you are," Prochnow proudly proclaims at one point), only to unwittingly deliver the insanity-inducing manuscript back to the "real world."
Though clever in concept, the film is done in by Carpenter's execution. In the Mouth of Madness never builds towards anything (anything satisfying, at least), never achieves the suspenseful pacing of Carpenter's finer films like The Thing. Rather, it lurches forward in fits and starts, propelled either by moments of montage depicting the violence to come, or by sudden instances of incongruity that suggest Trent now resides in Cane's fictional world. While initially intriguing, these moments become so repetitive, and contribute so little to Trent's stubborn refusal to believe what is happening, that they ultimately become trite and insufferable.
It doesn't help that the script, despite its interesting ideas, provides some truly lame bits of dialogue between Trent and Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), Cane's editor, and by whom Trent is accompanied. (Neill, an inconsistent actor, and Carmen deliver awkward and unconvincing performances, with Neill acting all the while as if he's in on the secret of Trent's predicament, making his eventual madness unlikely.) Perhaps most disappointingly, Carpenter never fluidly juggles the shifts between the worlds of reality and fiction-cum-reality, resorting to cheap tricks like dream-within-a-dream sequences and ever-changing paintings on walls.
Finally, the movie defies even its own sketchy logic when Trent makes it back to Harglow to demand that the novel not be published, only to learn it had been published months earlier and that the film rights (!) have already been sold. If this were the case, why was Trent even necessary? Trent's fantasy might make sense if he was a Cane fan at the outset, and therefore predisposed to the poisonous literature, but he is depicted as being oblivious to Cane and his writings.
Perhaps the only level on which In the Mouth of Madness works (and just barely) is as a self-reflexive horror film, before Scream turned the concept into a genre and made it hip. All the while I questioned the extent of Cane's impact on readers (obvious references to bestseller-extraordinaire Stephen King notwithstanding), because, let's face it, who the hell really reads so passionately these days? Well, the movie addresses this by asserting that "In the Mouth of Madness" is being filmed for those who don't read, and, in its final moments, Trent stumbles into a theater to view the picture we have just seen. If not a dramatically satisfactory ending, it's at least good for a chuckle.
New Line Home Video has released a rather adequate DVD edition of In the Mouth of Madness. I viewed the 2.35:1, anamorphically-enhanced transfer on a 16x9 set, and the image was somewhat inconsistent. The more brightly-lit scenes looked stunning, while the darker scenes lacked the kind of detail exhibited in the best recent transfers. The transfer is occasionally plagued by slight "shimmering" near objects with strong horizontal lines, such as venetian blinds, and is at times somewhat soft. Still, it boasts excellent color reproduction and stability, and it nicely handles the abrupt shifts in visual tone during the montage sequences. (The disc also includes a fullscreen transfer, which, out of respect for Carpenter's stated allegiance to Panavision, I did not even sample.)
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack fares better, and is responsible for most of the film's few scares. The musical track, one of Carpenter's lesser scoring efforts (co-composed by Jim Lang), really kicks in during the opening and closing credits. There is little bass response in the LFE channel, and the surround channels are not extremely active, but on the whole the mix is enveloping and nicely detailed.
While not a full-blown Platinum Series disc, In the Mouth of Madness contains slightly more than the bare-bones extras common among other studios' releases; unfortunately, they're not very good. The static menus enable one to view the movie's rather effective trailer (also 16x9 enhanced and 5.1), as well as filmographies for Neill, Prochnow, Heston, Carmen, John Glover (who appears briefly as Dr. Saperstein in the asylum sequences), and Carpenter. While exhaustive (the Internet Movie Database is credited as the source), the filmographies lack any accompanying biographical information or career insights, a feature I tend to enjoy. (On a thoroughly pleasing note, Prochnow's filmography branches to a magnificent, 16x9, 5.1 trailer for David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me; I can't wait for the upcoming New Line disc!)
Rounding out the package is a full-length commentary by Carpenter and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe, which might just as well have been scrapped in the planning. Carpenter once did extremely insightful and enjoyable commentaries for the LaserDisc editions of Halloween (The Criterion Collection), Assault on Precinct 13, and Escape From New York. Here, however, he seems bored and content to merely describe the onscreen action, frequently imploring Kibbe (a less then engaging speaker) to explain how the images were lit.
Although instructive to aspiring cinematographers, and mildly interesting to those with a knowledge of the craft of filmmaking, I suspect most fans of the film would rather learn how Carpenter came to be involved with the project (one of the few he's directed which he didn't also write), how and which tales by Lovecraft were woven to comprise the premise, or even how Carpenter goes about scoring his films. Just about the only revealing comment Carpenter makes is to declare In the Mouth of Madness one of a "trilogy" he'd refer to as his "apocalypse trilogy," along with The Thing and John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness. (Let me say that I find it tiresome for filmmakers to review their body of work and conjure "trilogies," out of entries never obviously planned as one of a larger body of thematically-linked material.) All in all, New Line has done better by films, but this disc and its extras should please Carpenter completists. Originally published: February 15, 2001.