I continue my recent Carpenter kick until I am shut down by the editors…
For a genre that rarely gets the respect it deserves (or gets more than it should, depending on who you ask), horror sure is populated by a lot of intellectual powerhouses. Wes Craven, true to his roots as both a trained academic and director of pornography, is among the most interesting of interviewees and made horror meta (Scream, New Nightmare) in a way that hadn’t been tested before.
Likewise, John Carpenter is no stranger to literary pursuits and postmodernism. He blended the sacred and the profane, made epics on shoestring budgets, and is always a delight to watch talking about movies while smoking a cigarette and looking like an old lesbian. His roster of films was genuinely impressive throughout the 1980s, but then something happened. The man who helped define the genre fell into a slump, directing weird, unlikable flops such as Vampires and 2001’s Ghosts of Mars. The beginning of that slump was a film called In the Mouth of Madness, a nasty confection about the end of the world and the power of literature to turn us into vampire squid monsters and make us throw axes at people who are just trying to enjoy their morning coffee/whiskey.
The film centers around an insurance investigator named John Trent, played by Sam Neill back in his “I Was In Jurassic Park!” shit eating grin days. Neill has been brought in by a publishing company whose best-selling author, a horror writer named Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) has suddenly gone missing, along with the manuscript of his latest opus. Neill’s character smells a publicity stunt rat but takes off to New England anyway, with Cane’s editor (Julie Carmen) in tow. Things start to go south when the two realize that perhaps the horrifying subjects of Cane’s books might be real and that anyone who reads his newest labor of love might be driven insane/turned into a vampire squid monster (I was never clear on which came first).
Yes, the film is a mess in terms of story and tone. Carpenter has always liked to mix his comedy with his blood, but in the context of this effort it sort of falls flat. That said, there is a lot to like, often representing what Carpenter was capable of at his best before his junk went bad. Unlike Craven, Carpenter’s style of storytelling doesn’t lend itself to solid narrative thru-lines. He’s more of “let’s just think of whatever crazy shit we can and throw it at the screen” kind of guy–a strategy that pays off beautifully in Big Trouble in Little China, for example. You want demon children? Check? A guy with one weird baby arm? Check. Sam Neill in a straightjacket kicking a guy in the balls? Check. Creepy church that somehow actually exists in real life? Check.
After extensive focus grouping, the Catholic church has decided that it just isn’t quite terrifying enough.
This is a movie that runs primarily on crazy and creepiness and to that end, it often succeeds admirably. Jurgen Prochnow as the mad author is perfectly cast and, as possibly the ugliest man ever allowed before a camera, makes for my favorite kind of villain, the kind everyone spends a lot of time talking about in ominous tones before they actually show up to wreck your shit.
“In my country of Germany, I vas hand model.”
The thing is, all the craziness decenters the narrative quite badly. Do we really need to keep lingering on a painting that tells the future when we’ve already seen the old lady hotelier turn into a medusa old lady hotelier? There are a lot of ideas here, many of which could be their own stories, but they tend to drown each other out. The film is at its best when zeroing in on its central premise: the transformative power of literature may be a literal force (capable of opening a Hell Mouth… in New Hampshire, which seems like it’s drowning in assholes anyway).
Also, quick quibble: My dad was an insurance investigator. I’m pretty sure he never investigated a Hell Mouth like Sam Neill does here. Being an insurance investigator tends to be more soul-killing than exciting. You can ask my dad about it when he returns from finding himself in Alaska.
Alaska or Bust!: featuring Sam Neill as C.T. Bland’s estranged father, C.T. Bland, Sr.
The main conceit of the film is that Cane’s newest work will turn everyone into poo-flinging cannibals being led by a horde of demonspawn, thus obliterating civilization and ruining your Bar Mitzvah. The stakes are high, but that fact never really comes through in the narrative. The final scenes in which Neill leaves his cell at the asylum, run by John Glover and David Warner in cameos, and traverses the urban wasteland to watch a film adaptation of Cane’s book (which is… SHOCK!… THE SAME FILM WE THE AUDIENCE HAVE BEEN WATCHING!) don’t feel epic enough. Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, which dealt with a very similar kind of story on a lower budget and with worse acting, handles the potential end of the world via demons in a far more interesting and desolate way.
For all its gold stars, this film still marks what may have been the end of Carpenter’s greatness as a genre director. That’s a very sad thing. I hoped that his most recent The Ward would signal a resurgence. It didn’t.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Stephen King is mentioned like he’s some kind of hayseed b-lister
Take a Drink: when John Carpenter includes a Carpenters song on the soundtrack (get it?)
Take a Drink: when the guy who played Vigo, the scourge of Carpathia, the sorrow of Moldavia in Ghostbusters II, shows up in what would count as a cameo if he were more famous
Yep, I choose to mention Vigo and not Charlton Heston, who is also in this.