‘Lived any good books lately?’
Cited by director John Carpenter as being the final installment of his ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’ (following on from The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987)), In the Mouth of Madness (1995) is also the most faithful representation of the work of horror legend H.P. Lovecraft to have graced mainstream cinema to date. Now, there are quite a few Carpenter afficionados who really don’t rate this at all – but I do.
We are taken straight into the madhouse – former insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) is dragged kicking and screaming to his padded cell. ‘Oh not The Carpenters,’ (geddit?) he groans, as We’ve Only Just Begun is piped over the tannoy, and he is then visited by Dr. Wrenn (David Warner), who wants him to recount how he arrived at this lowly state.
Trent: Things must really be turning to shit out there, huh?
Wrenn: Let’s talk about you.
Trent: It’s your nickel.
And so his story begins (in flashback, very much after the fashion of Lovecraft’s original tales, and even the title itself references two of Lovecraft’s classics, The Shadow over Innsmouth and At the Mountains of Madness) – Trent was placed on the trail of mega-selling horror novelist Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) by Arcane Publishing Director Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) after the author disappeared just before delivering what was supposed to be his be-all and end-all horror masterpiece, In the Mouth of Madness. Initially sceptical, and believing the ‘disappearance’ to be a mere publicity stunt, Trent nevertheless sets off with Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) to seek out the town of Hobb’s End, Cane’s fictional locale which is seemingly in fact real and which the artwork of Cane’s previous bestsellers provides a map to. Once they are en route, however, things get weird and weirder still, very quickly…
I think what makes this so enjoyable is the casting of Sam Neill, in his first out-and-out horror since Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981) – a great actor, Neill nails the role of a cynical investigator who slowly comes to realise that he may not be pulling his own strings, stumbling into a scenario that has reality-threatening implications. ‘Reality’s not what it used to be’, as the film’s tagline puts it, and never were truer words spoken.
Carmen is not so impressive as the female lead, and some may feel that the acting overall veers dangerously close to camp at times, but there is no doubting the mounting sense of unease that Michael De Luca’s script and Carpenter’s direction develops, culminating in an ending that is witty, scary and entirely appropriate. Not Carpenter’s best film but, at the time it was made, a comforting reminder that one of cinema’s scream greats could still deliver.