The last time I mentioned In the Mouth of Madness on this here site, I said something like "It's about time we recognize this as one of Carpenter's classics." I'm not sure I wasn't talking myself there. Carpenter's always been my favorite post-Hitchcock topic when it comes to genre cinema, and I've never denied the fact that this film is a fascinating piece of horror. But there's always been something about the film that's kept me from listing it alongside my favorite films by the director - and I have no idea what that something is or if that something should exist. So, since it was freakin' John Carpenter's BIRTHDAY(!) this week, let's investigate.
Released in 1994, In the Mouth of Madness was only Carpenter's second film of the 1990s (following the studio misfire Memoirs of an Invisible Man) and is probably the last pure horror film Carpenter made until 2010's The Ward sixteen years later. And pure horror might be an understatement when it comes to In the Mouth of Madness, because the film manages to pay heed to the two most loved horror writers of all-time - H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King - while creating an apocalyptic world that's all Carpenter's own.
Sam Neill stars as a skeptical insurance investigator who's hired (by Charlton Heston, BTW) to look into the disappearance of horror author Sutter Cane, an enigmatic writer whose fiction has caused a bit of psychosis in his "less stable readers." His job leads him to the fictional small town Hobb's End, in which strange things like mutant killer children and tentacled beasts are only some of the tricks that Cane - played by Jurgen Prochnow - has up his sleeve. What follows is a lot of Neill screaming and a lot of bizarre special effects. And that sounds like it could be a bad thing, but it is completely not.
This is one of the rare Carpenter films that doesn't have the director (or one of his pseudonyms) given a writing credit, but unlike Memoirs of an Invisible Man before it you can still feel the stamp of the director throughout the story. In fact, many have labeled this as the third installment in Carpenter's 'Apocalypse Trilogy' - following influence of The Thing and Prince of Darkness - thanks to the increasingly pessimistic tone of each film. Like the other two films, In the Mouth of Madness unleashes an evil force that can not easily be seen or classified; which is also a force of evil that has the power to take over the human mind. Many of Carpenter's earlier/great films hide their evils behind "things" - a gang, a shape, some fog, a car, etc. - but you could probably argue that this is his most abstract representation of evil outside of The Thing.
In fact, it's the film's willingness to shift through different visions of evil that is most fascinating to me. The first major madness in the film comes from an ax toting maniac (who we later find out was Cane's agent), but the film then seems to allow terror to seep into all areas if the main character's life. Throughout his wonderfully hammy performance, we see Neill deal with everything from zomified nightmares to visual and auditory hallucinations, consistently blurring the line between reality and what can only be described as Hell. There are some truly random moments - like one involving the color blue - that wouldn't work in a lesser film. But Carpenter's ability to tell a story and Neill's approach to the skeptic-driven-crazy role go a long way toward making the film feel so full of evil.
There's a comic undertone throughout the film - supported by Neill's grandiose performance and the increasingly uncommon series of twists - that makes it hard to see In the Mouth of Madness as a truly "scary" piece of horror. If anything, the film's tone probably endears the film more to horror fans than anyone else because, like many other horror successes of the 1990s, the film is a horror movie about horror stories. I think the tone might be a big part of why I've never loved this film as much as I do The Thing (which never stops being serious for a second) or Prince of Darkness (which compliments its own wacky plot with a straight face that never wavers). And yet, every time I see the final scenes of In the Mouth of Madness I am reminded just how vast and terrible the film's idea would be in a real world society. No one will ever mistake this film for a cautionary tale about human horror, but a more open minded viewer who loves to speculate in "what if"s as much as the characters here do - should have a lot of fun with one of Carpenter's unsung successes.