Friday, February 19, 2010

Film Review: IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994, John Carpenter)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Sam Neill (THE PIANO, JURASSIC PARK), Julie Carmen (THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR, Tarantino's epiosde of ER), Frances Bay (BLUE VELVET, TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME), John Glover (52 PICK-UP, THE EVIL THAT MEN DO), Jürgen Prochnow (DAS BOOT, BODY OF EVIDENCE), Bernie Casey (REVENGE OF THE NERDS, SHARKY'S MACHINE), Peter Jason (PRINCE OF DARKNESS, THEY LIVE), Charlton Heston, David Warner (MY BEST FRIEND IS A VAMPIRE, TRON).
Tag-line: "Lived Any Good Books Lately?"
Best one-liner: "You're my mommy. Know what today is? Today is Mommy's Day!"

"What about the people who don't read?" –"There's a movie." IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is the last great horror movie of the 1980's (yes, I’m aware it was made in 1994). It's the sort of film that deserves a rightful place in the critical canon, yet was perhaps too intricate, too esoteric, or too labyrinthine for mass consumption. The visuals are sharp, glossy, and atmospheric, whether depicting an unearthly New England town on the cusp of autumn:

or a foreboding, black Byzantine church rising from the earth like a Stygian fist.

H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos are a point of departure (and the source of many a reference), but the film bursts with tropes from film noir (an insurance investigator, interrogational storytelling, and plenty of smoking), Philip K. Dick (mindfucks and illusions within delusions abound- "Reality isn't what it used to be"), and Stephen King (maybe it took a film with no concrete relation to any King story to perfectly nail the man's vibe!).

Most of the film's success rests upon Sam Neill's capable shoulders, and he remains entirely connected to the role whether he’s a debonair contrarian or a deranged head case.


We're afforded bold glimpses of the monsters Lovecraft deemed "indescribable," and Neill captures the ineffable dread of one's mind recoiling in terror at the sight of said monsters.

Jürgen "Did I ever tell you my favorite color was blue?" Prochnow IS Sutter Cane- bringing the ideal balance to a character who is equal parts bestsellin' hack and Judas to the human race.

The supporting roles are quite vivid, as well: an incomparable, twitchy John Glover:

Talk about the lunatics running the asylum! One of the greats.

a stately, grim David Warner:

David Warner- always a class act.

a likable, bewildered Bernie Casey; a gruffly fraudulent Peter Jason; and a charmingly off-kilter Frances Bay.

Frances Bay- she's the terrifying Grandma you always secretly wished you had.

This film takes us deep into the abyss- an endless, repeating chain of psychosis and decay- and forces us to look again and again, as if we were a playing card trapped in a bicycle wheel or a blade fused to a creaky, rusty windmill.

And the end- if we can call it that- strikes the perfect note of senseless absurdity. We’re left with no alternative other than to sit in the darkness, cackling at our own foolishness.


Five stars.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

Ahhh, this a great film! The last really good one Carpenter did (alto, VAMPIRES is a guilty pleasure) for all the reasons you stated above. Along with Wes Craven's A NEW NIGHTMARE, it also probably one of the best meta-films about the horror genre with all sorts of cheeky jabs at Stephen King and fantastic tributes to Lovecraft's creepy crawlies.

And you're so right about Sam Neill. I always liked him and I really hope he and Carpenter do another film together. Their work on MADNESS more than makes up for the crap-fest that was MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN. I'm sorry but even as a card-carrying Carpenter fanboy, even I CAN'T defend that one.

Sean Gill said...

Yeah, I really love this movie, and I find myself returning to it just about once a year (along with a handful of my other Carpenter faves). And probably my favorite depiction of Lovecraftian monsters (alongside THE RESURRECTED by O'Bannon).

Sam Neill: always solid. Even in INVISIBLE MAN. While I would never really defend that film, I still would not say it was objectively 'bad,' it's just doesn't make much of an impression either way. I guess the invisibility FX and Neill are 'pretty good.' Does that constitute a kind word?

J.D. said...

To be honest, I haven't watched INVISIBLE MAN in ages so I really should give it another go. I actually watched VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED again and it didn't totally suck... at least not nearly as bad as I remember.

Sean Gill said...

Surprisingly, I think the thing I like best about VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED is the Carpy/Dave Davies soundtrack. Again, not a bad movie, just bad by Carpenter standards.