I’m not sure if In the Mouth of Madness is underrated, but I have never heard anyone include it among their favorite Carpenter films. In fact, I have never heard anyone mention liking it at all. But sometimes things fly under my radar, and to tell the truth I wasn’t super interested in watching horror movies in 1995 when this came out. However, after watching this today, I can tell you that when they invent the time machine, I’m going back in time to watch In the Mouth of Madness during its theatrical run. I think this movie kicks nine kinds of ass.
As the film begins, Sam Neill is being dragged literally kicking and screaming into the mental hospital as an amused John Glover watches. Neill kicks one of the guards in the balls, and as they are cramming him into a padded room, he yells out his first real line of dialogue: “I’m sorry bout the bhaaawwllls!” Now that right there is funny. A few minutes later, David Warner appears, and you know that can’t be good. He comes into the padded room to interview Sam Neill about whatever the hell has led up to his commitment, and it’s flashback time…
At some point in the past, Neill is working as an insurance fraud investigator catching bad guys for a company owned by Bernie Casey, when none other than Charlton Heston as some kind of big time publisher is accused of fraud because one of his authors has disappeared. And Bernie Casey doesn’t believe the author has disappeared. This author, named Sutter Cane, writes horror books that have a tendency to make people lose their minds, and Sam Neill starts seeing a bunch of shit that may or may not be there; also, Cane’s agent attacks Casey and Neill with an axe because he has lost his damn mind.
So Sam Neill and a hot chick who is Cane’s editor set off into the middle of some New England state looking for a fictional town using a map Neill constructed using cut up covers of this guy Sutter Cane’s paperback books. Act II begins and the car, with the chick driving and Neill asleep in the passenger seat, flies through the night air and through a magically appearing covered bridge. On the other side of the bridge, they find themselves in daytime in the fictional town, and something is very wrong.
I don’t want to say a lot more because what happens in Act II and III is so awesome, but I will say that the entire tone of this film is that of intentional comedy, which as we have discussed before is common to 90s horror, and is something that seems to throw people off. I mean, the first thing gleeful John Glover does after Neill is locked up is to turn on “We’ve Only Just Begun” on a loudspeaker, all the mental patients start singing along, and Neill complains about The Carpenters. Get it? Carpenter? I think Neill is purposely playing his role as very smarmy, and that all subtlety in every performance is in fact thrown out in favor of theater style ACTING as if the cast was not on a screen, but on a stage playing to folks up in the balcony. (Except for Jürgen Prochnow as Cane; he is unaccountably underplaying it as the character who is probably the villain, but that just adds to the weirdness.) And at the end of the film, which has become by that time some kind of fictional metafiction, the credits don’t include any of the names of the leading actors in the film, as if they were their characters. And then there’s the matter of the following disclaimer at the end of the credits: “Human interaction was monitored by the Inter Planetary Psychiatric Association. The body count was high, the casualties are heavy.”
On a more serious note, I think In the Mouth of Madness is meant to be a comment by Carpenter on the bullshit claim many people like to make that horror films and fiction cause violence, only he was a bit late to make such a comment. Argento was commenting on criticism of his work in 1982 with Tenebre, and I’m sure there are other examples of such a response in film form by a director. Not only that, but Carpenter has demonstrated a running theme throughout his work of an end-of-the-world scenario via people’s bodies being taken over (The Thing, Prince of Darkness), but this movie is unique in that it is literally horror fiction that takes them over; it should be noted that the people this happens to first are intellectually vulnerable in some way. I really don’t know what this body invasion as the end of the world theme is symbolic of, especially coming from a horror auteur. If you have an idea, please tell me in the comments. But no matter what Carpenter was trying to say, this movie is the kind of thing that pleases me, as there is a handsome lead actor and everything is very surreal and trippy.
I also think it is significant that this is essentially a detective story, but instead of the main character being a regular detective, he works for an insurance company. This is because nobody likes to see an insurance company win. Neill’s character at the beginning of the flashback is sleazy and paranoid, with a mocking, overconfident air, and there is little to distinguish him from the fraudsters he is trying to catch, morally speaking; this leads naturally into the part of the story when things really go to la la land, where we are not sure if he is a good guy or a bad guy, and whether he is crazy or telling the truth.
It’s not often that we see a surreal horror film like this as a major release, what with the Old Ones and the town in another dimension. I thought while watching this that if this was a b-movie starring Ron Palillo or someone like that, people would have been more forgiving of its perceived flaws (I could find none, but there is some reason I’m not seeing this on any best-of lists), but A list horror films are expected to be Oscar material. What this comes off as is a John Carpenter version of a Stuart Gordon film, with Lovecraft source material and Industrial Light and Magic sound effects. I don’t have a problem with that, but I get the idea that some people did when it came out. What do you think of In the Mouth of Madness, if you have seen it? Do you think that horror works better when it is independent, and if so, why? Personally, I love this movie, and found it to be one hell of a pleasant surprise, especially since I had expected it to be mediocre.