BFI Cult Season – In The Mouth Of Madness (1994)
Do you read Sutter Cane? Y’know, when I mentally audit the breadth and scope of films I’ve covered on this blog over the past tears of years I sometimes despair at the scale of the mountain I still feel compelled to climb, particularly when it comes to my all-time favourite filmmakers. You’ll know by now that one of these essentials is the legendary John Carpenter, horror and genre master par excellence, a director I always feel I’ve shortchanged given my absolute adoration of most of his work and the impact it had on me as an adolescent cinephile. But then when I audit the work thus far I realize I’ve broached more texts than anticipated, we’ve stumbled through The Fog, frozen with The Thing and screamed at Halloween, heck even in passing we’ve had a glance at Dark Star and erm, been sectioned with The Ward although like a shameful Victorian bastard offspring we don’t tend to talk about that much. To be sure there are still some essentials which have eluded my grasp, Prince Of Darkness and Escape From New York are biblical oversights (although I guarantee renewed interest in the latter given this news) and the likes of Big Trouble In Little China have evolved a fanatic cult following over the past couple of decades, then of course there is the brilliantly prophetic They Live which has been reassessed as one of his finest works, with common critical opinion asserting that this 1988 picture was his last key text. This, however, is nonsense. I’m not going to make any sort of case for Escape From LA which I can’t defend but still enjoy as a deeply guilty pleasure, and unlike most I also find elements to enjoy in Memoirs Of An Invisible Man*. No, for me 1994’s In The Mouth Of Madness is Carpenters last significant work, so when the BFI announced a special 35mm screening as part of their newly enshrined monthly cult movie strand I was flailing myself faster than a demented acolyte of some ancient satanic sect, not many would have bothered with a late night Sunday evening screening but what can I say, all hail our new octodimensional overlords from beyond the veil of dreams, that’s what I say…..
Positioned as the third spire of Carpenter’s apocalyptic triptych with The Thing and Prince Of Darkness the film maps the murderous end of the world, the sacrifice of our species and fragile world to an ancient Lovecraftian inspired host of horrors so hideous that they can only find purchase through the permeable boundaries of fiction. The catalyst of Armageddon comes from the humblest of sources, initially inscribed through the scribbling’s of cult author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow in fine brimstone belching form), a blood streaked J.D. Salinger figure whose work inspires murderous devotion to his legion of fans. But any epochal event requires an intellectual sacrifice, enter stage right arrogant and cynical insurance agent John Trent (Sam Neil) who is commissioned to track down the reclusive author at the sleepy new England town of Hobbs End, a place referenced in Kane’s eagerly awaited new novel In The Mouth Of Madness which is burning with fanatical and eldritch expectation.
Revisiting this film after a handful of small screen viewings was a repulsive revelation, In The Mouth Of Madness is meta before the concept of ‘meta’ gained as much cultural currency as it enjoys today, yes its clumsy, yes it feels rushed and frankly silly in parts but it still prefigures the genre likes of Scream and it’s masked impersonators by a good few gore drenched years. Carpenter deploys his usual Panavision frame and throws on a slightly grubby wide-angle lens to carefully distort the image, chanting an uncertain ratio between realities which is a technical touch that most movies of its ilk and era simply can’t equal. Locating Trent as a cynical unbeliever is an expert touch, divining him as a master in detonating deception and deceit as he ricochets between the supernatural events, initially believing that the increasingly urgent events are staged as some elaborate publicity stunt. The church setting of Kane’s communion is a terrific location, a real place in New Hampshire which required no optical effects to look imposing on screen, para-dimensionally more effective than the rather lame faux-shock and Carpenter special double-shock jump scares which were received with mere appreciative titters. I also can’t deny that some of the sequences simply don’t work (the Dobermann attack was really quite bad) but there are a few sequences which hold some treasures, and for my money this movie works as a small precursor to the whole panoply of pre-millennial psyche fractured film that were waiting in the shadow lengthing aisles – The Matrix, The Truman Show, Fight Club, Eyes Wide Shit, Memento and on and on and on…
Sometimes I think I wonder, and sometimes one wonders what one thinks they can wonder about, and then one experience can evade any logical purpose as overthinking can present an acute obstacle – now can we get back on the bus? Heh. This was just a fucking awesome evening with a quietly appreciative crowd, the privilege to see a lower tier John Carpenter movie on the big screen again was Menagerie mandated wonderful, warts and eldritch drenched scars and all. For all its limitations In The Mouth Of Madness is several million dimensions ahead of the last few decades of movie ‘horror’ despite some of its budgetary and casting constraints, the current Paranormal Activities, Conjuring and Annabelle and Bababdook dread seem much more parochial and simplistic in their domestic intent, a terror in the home rather than a holistic horror of a wider indiscriminate world which seems to have been neutered by a slow shift from the global to the psyche of the individual. Anyway, ahem…. Sam Neil is always good value for money isn’t he? Right? I always raise an appreciative eyebrow when I see he’s in a picture, he always does good work in genre fare and other stuff. I’ve been a fan since we all praised Damien.
Back to the ending at hand, does Carpenter and his screenwriter manage to pull together the various threads into some coherent, terrifying whole? Alas not. Is the terror and repeated revisits to earlier sequences fully form a circle of Sisyphean chills of our pointless struggle in the face of indiscriminate oblivion? Probably no. However the picture does flirt with a few potent ideas, it clumsy curls within the permeable barrier between reality and fantasy, the terrifying prospect of being a character in a novel with no agency or manifest destiny other than that dictated by ancient and malevolent forces, with maybe a few jabs at the intellectually immature who believe that horror movies and their ilk are actually a contributing force to the worlds ills rather than a catalyst and mirror to our true, occasionally savage instincts. At an economical 90 odd minutes the film abandons reality before the premise begins to grate, with a few deft lines to demonstrate that the filmmakers have their tongues firmly planned in their cheeks. When you finally approach In The Mouth Of Madness you can sense some chittering spirits howling in the distance as you absorb the in-film declarations such as ‘What about the people who don’t read?’ and the concluding ‘The film comes out next month’, a punchline that nourishes the gnawing souls that are murmuring an obvious pointer of satirical sourness, indicating a deeper drive than the images and associated arrangements manage to achieve. Some of my fellow audience members summed up the picture as being ‘drunk on a cheap beer rock soundtrack which feels like the end of an era’. I can’t immediately argue with that. But it strikes me as a surface level synopsis which doesn’t quite appreciate how fully Carpenter was once again of time, if you delve deeper this is just about a perfect summation of Carpenter’s last Lovecraftian laugh;
* Yes I understand I’ve omitted Village Of The Damned here but that film is just bad, boring and its best for all to pretend it never happened. Yes, yes, the same holds true for Ghosts Of Mars. And although it’s got its admirers as a pulpy b-movie western hybrid Vampires never really bit me….