IN THE MOUTHMOVIE REVIEW
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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
"I'm not insane!"
screams a strait-jacketed John Trent (Sam Neill: THE OMEN III, ENIGMA, DEAD CALM, JURASSIC PARK, EVENT HORIZON, JURASSIC PARK III) from a padded cell, moments after kicking an asylum orderly in the groin. Suddenly, Trent's fellow inmates echo his claim on sanity, demanding release until Saperstein (John Glover: 52 PICKUP, GREMLINS 2, BRIMSTONE [TV]) drowns them out with an instrumental version of The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun."
Thus begins director John Carpenter's (HALLOWEEN, THE FOG, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE THING , BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, GHOSTS OF MARS) finest hour as a filmmaker, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. Based on the Cthulhu mythos of legendary horror scribe H.P. Lovecraft (whose story "At the Mountains of Madness," the film derives its title from), the screenplay by Michael De Luca (JUDGE DREDD, FREDDY'S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE) is a clever mix of mystery, horror, and pop culture commentary.
Covered in crucifixes of black crayon, Trent tells his story to government official Dr. Wrenn (David Warner: THE OMEN, WAXWORK, CAST A DEADLY SPELL). A freelance insurance investigator, Trent is hired by Robinson (Bernie Casey: ...tick...tick...tick, GARGOYLES [TV], DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE, UNDER SIEGE) to locate bestselling horror novelist Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow: THE KEEP, BLITZ, DNA), who has disappeared without delivering his latest manuscript, "In the Mouth of Madness," to his publishing company, Arcane (named for Lovecraft publisher Arkham House). His readership has taken to the streets in protest, causing riots across the country, demanding Cane's newest book.
Smelling a publicity stunt, Trent nevertheless meets with publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston: PLANET OF THE APES, THE OMEGA MAN, SOYLENT GREEN, PLANET OF THE APES ), and Cane's editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen: NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER, PAINT IT BLACK, FRIGHT NIGHT II), for information on the author's possible whereabouts. To help him understand his quarry - and the phenomenon behind his success - Trent starts to read Cane's novels. Despite run-of-the-mill titles like "The Feeding" and "The Hobb's End Horror," he finds himself immersed in the stories, which start causing him nightmares.
Discovering that Hobb's End does in fact exist (in an inventive scene I'd prefer not to give away), Trent and Styles travel to the town in New Hampshire, and register at the Pickman Hotel (named for Lovecraft's story "Pickman's Model"). Although the small town resembles a Norman Rockwell scene, the absence of people - and the presence of a gothic church overlooking the town - increases Trent's suspicions that the town has been created as a horror funhouse for Cane's fans. Styles denies this, insisting that she and Trent are actually living out Cane's latest manuscript, which states that Hobb's End is the gateway for the "old ones" to return to Earth.
In a series of vignettes, Trent can no longer discern between reality and fantasy. Violent outbreaks occur among the townsfolk, people mutate into multi-limbed, tentacled creatures, and the elusive author has taken up residence within the church to finish his final novel - which will finish humanity as we know it. Cane's horrors are driving his readers insane because they believe in it, and the more who believe in it, the wider the gateway opens.
For Cane's readers, his work is reality. For anyone who's ever been to a SF, fantasy, or horror convention, there are fans who get caught up in the worlds they're either reading about, viewing on both the big screen and small, or enacting in role playing games to the point where they relate their own lives to the fantasies.
The word fan is derived from fanatic. In the film, Cane tells Trent that his books have been translated into several languages and that more people believe in his works than in the Bible. This parallels John Lennon's historical statement, at the height of the Beatles' popularity in the 60s, that they were bigger than Jesus.
When does pop culture cease being entertainment and become reality? We're a media and celebrity obsessed society (intelligently depicted in such films as To Die For, Hero, and 15 MINUTES), preferring to spend our time in Internet chat rooms, creating websites that honor the creativity of others, and standing for hours in line to get the autograph of a complete stranger, rather than be in the company of our own family and friends.
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, like Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, is a ground-breaking horror film, and in my opinion, one of the best horror films of the 90s. It's a film that takes risks, refusing to provide an explanation of the terrors witnessed by its audience. It evokes fear of the unknown - not vampires, or serial slashers who are eventually stopped by a wooden stake or a bullet. There are monstrous creatures running around, but are they real or just a figment of Trent's imagination?
With a furious editing style by Edward A. Warschilka (THE RUNNING MAN, CHILD'S PLAY, CHILD'S PLAY 3), and great creature special effects (that are reminiscent of Carpenter's THE THING), IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is essential viewing for any fan of horror literature in general (Lovecraft's writing in particular), and audiences willing to let their imaginations take over once the film has ended.
And like any great film, you'll find something new every time you watch IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. I give this film five shriek girls.