There’s a difference of opinion on what exactly John Carpenter’s last great movie was. Some believe that it was class-based, sci-fi satire They Live while others step one film back and nominate the conceptually bonkers Prince Of Darkness but most agree that the auteur’s last interesting movie is the flawed but vastly entertaining In The Mouth Of Madness. Anyone who mentions Escape From LA is usually asked to leave the room…
While ITMOM could hardly be classed as “great” Carpenter, it IS very, very FUN Carpenter as he tackles a story strongly inspired by the reality perverting works of H.P. Lovecraft and produces a loosely plotted but energetic headfuck that seems less preoccupied with eliciting scares and more on the cantankerous cinema legend having a bit of a giggle.
Sam Neill – a man renowned for playing stoic and centred men – plays the stoic and centred John Trent, an insurance investigator hired to look into the disappearance of wildly popular but notoriously reclusive horror author Sutter Cane – think Lovecraft with the readership twice that of Stephen King but whose stories can cause disorientation and paranoia in more susceptible readers (just like the Daily Mail, then…). Alongside Cane’s editor Linda Styles, they head off to the mysterious town of Hobb’s End to find either the writer or his manuscript for his latest novel and fairly quickly things start to get weird. A teenage boy with the face of an old man, trapped in a time loop is the first sight to greet them as they get ever closer to their destination but the ever rational Trent dismisses it out of hand but Styles seems to recognize various townsfolk from the enigmatic Cane’s various books, including an old woman who has a rather novel way of keeping her husband close and various creepy faced children but soon a disturbing question arises: what came first, the town or Sutter Cane? Has his writing really conjured this place and everything in it out of thin air and if so, how far has his influence reached. As reality gradually collapses and the denizens of Hobb’s End start getting monstrous make-overs, Trent starts to suspect that he himself could possibly be one of Cane’s character’s written into being by powers gifted to the author by hungry, unfathomable beasts that make their summer home on the edge of our plane of existence. Attempting to get a foothold as the barriers between what is real and what is not are literally torn apart like paper and all of mankind is driven insane, Trent frantically tries to make sure Cane’s manuscript never reaches publication but as one of the characters cynically states before blowing his braind out: “Reality isn’t what it used to be.”
I love anything that even remotely references Lovecraft, be it elder gods or mutating townsfolk, and In The Mouth Of Madness is somewhat of an unofficial greatest hits package – never directly adapting his works but referencing them shamelessly (even the framing technique of the film being a flashback as Trent tells his tale from the relative safety of an asylum cell while unseen chaos reigns outside is the author pure and undiluted).
The cast is impressively highbrow with Neill (faring worse against multi-dimensional monsters than he did against Velociraptors) joined by such heavy hitters in the character actor world as David Warner, John Glover, Jurgen Prochnow and even Charlton fucking Heston – I’ll say it again… CHARLTON FUCKING HESTON.
If seeing Moses himself being directed by John Carpenter in a movie where an old lady grows tentacles and chops up her husband with an axe simply isn’t trippy enough, special effects wizards KNB finish the job with a clutch of gloopy monsters and surreal makeups as the good people of Hobb’s End lose more than their minds. However, true monster enthusiasts may be disappointed that the man who made The Thing chooses this time to keep his monsters under wraps, revealing them in mere flickers and flashes in order to maintain that most Lovecraftian of concepts: that of the indescribable horror emerging from the dark that human words simply cannot do justice to.
Full of arresting images such as an incarcerated Trent decorating both his cell and face with crosses in a sort of Crazy Eye For The Sane Guy type deal or the frenzied dash to safety as a broiling mass of writhing, barely seen creatures emerge from another dimension and rolls after Trent like a tidal wave with teeth, In The Mouth Of Madness still holds the attention despite admittedly being half-strength Carpenter (I know it sounds like I’m being harsh but the guy made Halloween for fuck’s sake) and the plot (scripted looser than a jezebel’s g-string by ex-New Line bigwig Michael De Luca) never tries to rise above it’s weird trappings to be anything more than an admittedly rocking carnival ride.
The third part of Carpenter’s unconnected “Apocalypse Trilogy” (which will give you a clue as whether there’s a happy ending or not) which sits in third place with The Thing and Prince Of Darkness both in filming order and quality, ITMOM is on the positive end of the filmmakers filmography and really just seems like the director is having a mischievously good time simply making a goodnatured movie about the end of the world while chucking in some tentacles and slime for good measure.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s debate about whether the film should be considered as Carpenter’s last great work, but what is certain is that it’s definitely Carpenter’s last great score. The theme, all wailing electric guitars and sexy drums, is the filmmaker simply rocking out to magnificent effect which requires you to physically restrain yourself from head banging, air guitaring and making the devil sign with your fingers.
So give this rather underrated flick it’s due, scrawl some crosses on your face, grab some popcorn and settle down to watch a master at play.
After all, it’s only the end of reality as we know it. No biggie.