Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #549
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: February 3, 1995
Sub-Genre: Psychological Horror
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $8,900,000 (USA)
Running Time: 95 minutes
Director: John Carpenter
Producer: Sandy King
Screenplay: Michael De Luca
Special Effects: Howard Berger, Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero
Cinematography: Gary B. Kibbe
Score: John Carpenter, Jim Lang
Editing: Edward A. Warschilka
Studio: New Line Cinema
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Stars: Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jürgen Prochnow, David Warner, Charlton Heston, John Glover, Bernie Casey, Peter Jason, Frances Bay, Wilhelm von Homburg, Conrad Bergschneider, Dennis O’Connor
Suggested Audio Candy
 John Carpenter & Jim Lang “The Old Ones Return”
 John Carpenter & Jim Lang “Axe Man”
 John Carpenter & Jim Lang “In the Mouth of Madness”
Madness happens to be an old friend of mine. You see, three years back I was pretty much ready to be fitted up for my straitjacket. Family and friends were convinced that I was going squirrelly and, even though I felt pretty damn lucid myself, all the speculation was beginning to make me question my own sanity. Thus, I agreed to a psychological check-up and headed off to the nearest infirmary for evaluation. By the time I vacated the premises ten minutes later, by my own accord I might add, I couldn’t help but feel just a little smug. You see, turns out there was absolutely no call for alarm and I received a clean bill of mental health from the resident headshrinker. Of course, I know full well that not all the cuckoos are in the nest, but there are enough of them present to run a tight ship while the others are away gallivanting. No need for a padded cell just yet then.
Alas, things aren’t quite so encouraging for John Trent (Sam Neill). He’s already been committed and, moreover, it appears to be an astute decision. Institutionalized and loving it, he’s well in character, and has no intention whatsoever of pleading for release. So what could drive such an eloquent speaker to madness? Turns out that reading too much pulp fiction has a tendency to loosen those screws. John clearly had too much time on his hands and a particularly overactive imagination, rather a potent combination it appears and it sent him doolally as a result. I guess, to comprehend his mental illness, we will be required to do a little digging into his past and find out what pushed him over the edge. Goggles on Grueheads, it’s time we get knee-deep in cerebral fluids.
Like any story worth its salt, the best approach would be to start from page one. John is a freelance insurance investigator and able to sniff out a fraudster like Justin Bieber can unearth new ways to make people desire to punch his kidneys. His most recent success involves exposing an arson-fraud scam and, feeling buoyant, he engages in a spot of lunch with a colleague who briefs him on his next assignment. This one will require his head to be on a swivel and regards a claim made by a New York publishing house by the name of Arcane.
Their beef is with their number one son, horror novelist Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) who appears to have vanished into thin air while working on his latest fable, In The Mouth of Madness. All John will be required to do is to track down the slippery Cane and recover the similarly elusive manuscript. All in a day’s work for John Trent.
However, before they can shake hands and part ways, something inexplicable occurs. A disheveled man wielding an axe introduces himself in no uncertain terms and, after asking John whether he is an avid reader of Cane’s fiction, prepares to chop him up into iddy biddy pieces. Thankfully for Trent, he is shot dead before the axe can fall, and crisis seems to have been averted. But something about this man has him ruffled, the eyes in particular, and he can’t shake a feeling of uneasiness. With the neurons now soundly in overdrive, he heads off to Arcane Publishing’s headquarters and breaks bread with company director Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), who fills in any blanks for him. The only person who has read his latest work is Cane’s agent who happens to be the fruitcake responsible for making him spill his Latte. The plot is beginning to thicken.
Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), is also on hand and explains that his fiction has a tendency to provoke bizarre responses from his readership. These include disorientation, memory loss and, in more susceptible minds, severe paranoia. This sounds like a crock of shit to John, a mere publicity stunt, and he feels justified in his skepticism. However, work is work, and the only way to crack this nut is to do some legwork. In the name of good old-fashioned research, it will be necessary to swat up on his hard target and, curious as all hell, he decides it is high time he familiarize himself further with his subject and read between some lines, something he prides himself on given his line of work.
This is where it all starts to get a little outré. As he peruses Cane’s literature, it inexplicably manages to find a way of burrowing inside his subconscious and this manifests through some reasonably outlandish, but worryingly authentic, nightmares. One such phantasm involves a member of the constabulary beating a vagrant in a darkened alleyway and it doesn’t stop there either. He is approached by another undesirable in the street, albeit one not grasping an axe, and informed that “he sees you”. How does one process such vague information? Chalk it down to neurosis? A logical thinker like John does although, even one as incredulous as he can’t discuss such strange coincidence. Thus he examines Cane’s work further, only this time in a more literal sense, and makes his very first breakthrough.
Being rather adept at spotting abnormality, he soon discovers that the covers of Cane’s numerous literary works are a clue in themselves. By cutting them out and realigning them, they form a treasure map of sorts. New Hampshire is the destination and, in particular, a small town by the name of Hobb’s End, a fictional setting which also happens to figure in many of the author’s novels. After revealing his findings to Harglow and Linda, he suggests a little road trip may be in order. Harglow’s only stipulation is that Linda accompanies him on his expedition and, considering the long drive ahead of him, the terms seem agreeable enough so they set off on their little voyage of discovery post-haste. Curiously, it is she who begins to experience some peculiar phenomena as she takes the wheel for her nocturnal stint and John catches up on some shut-eye. Downright freakish would be a more accurate description and, before she can piss through her panty liner, they arrive at their whimsical destination…in broad fucking daylight. Is it just her or was it the dead of night before that last wheel spin?
Never mind, they’re here now and that’s all that matters right? When in Rome and all that. Best just chalk it down to tiredness and, when they return to New York, report it to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. There are more pressing concerns now and Hobb’s End is simply begging to be snooped around some so they do precisely that and things go from weird to weirder fairly pronto. Spotting all manner of strangely landmarks seemingly plucked directly from his fiction is one thing, but the Hobb’s End residents are also vaguely familiar and not a solitary one of them is apparently in possession of their hinges. Elderly hotel owner Mrs. Pickman (Frances Bay) is a prime example of this theorem as it isn’t exactly kosher to shackle your downtrodden husband to your ankle beneath the front desk, while an impromptu visit to the Byzantine church on the outskirts of town reinforces their growing concerns.
Here they witness an altercation between the townsfolk and Cane himself. Finally, they have found their man and, while it would seem that he has a penchant for poaching offspring, at least he’s in their crosshairs. Needless to say, the ever pessimistic John is still not convinced with anything other than that the whole kit and caboodle is staged and his fretful companion is forced to enlighten him that he is partially accurate in his observations. That said, while Harglow’s claim was indeed fraudulent, Hobb’s End was never part of the deal. The only way to get to the bottom of this sorry mess is to catch up with Cane and, if events have been a tad queer until now, then they’re about to go into outright hyperdrive.
John Carpenter’s eighties works up to and including They Live are pretty much undebatable with regards to caliber and it is here that the drop-off in quality has been pinpointed. However, whether or not his 1992 effort Memoirs of an Invisible Man bore the hallmarks of vintage Carpenter, there can be no denying that it was a pretty decent film. The same can be said for In the Mouth of Madness as it is seldom any less than fascinating and woefully short of receiving the respect it deserves. It is my firm belief that he didn’t misplace his mojo and, instead, studio meddling and the exasperation this entailed was responsible for his partial fall from grace. Here he is telling a different tale entirely, one chock-full of reference to a certain H.P. Lovecraft and featuring numerous quotes plucked directly from the great author’s vast oeuvre. He nails the tone exquisitely as it certainly possesses a Lovecraftian flavor and I would imagine that fellow student of the macabre master, Stuart Gordon, would also attest to this.
If In the Mouth of Madness does fall short of his uppermost output, then a little more time in the kiln would have alleviated this concern. At 95 minutes, it feels a tad light on the ground, particularly given that John Trent’s character is rather cold and unfamiliar. This is not a criticism of Neill as he is perfectly cast and takes to the role with typical verve, but it feels like too fascinating a tale to condense into such a slender running time. The can of psychological worms screenwriter Michael De Luca opens is positively teeming with potential and, while skimmed across admirably, padding isn’t always necessary a bad thing. Call it a front-handed criticism if you will as, other than that, it’s a cunning tale well told and Carpenter’s deft touch is evident throughout. But it could have been, and perhaps deserved to be, more.
That said, any suggestions made that In the Mouth of Madness is a worthless venture are wholly inaccurate. It twists and turns, before opening its jaws wide and suckling our innermost fears, imparting a dash of lasting imagery to maraud our compromised minds, and thumbing through the pages of some reasonably compelling pulp fiction. Granted, it has a tendency to skim read, but then, so do I and that’s the beauty of reading between the lines. By providing us with a sniff of the cheese but no more, it challenges us to flare our nostrils further once the credits have rolled and that is never a negative in my book. One only need look at the character of John Trent, whose primary introduction takes place in a padded cell, to know that it isn’t looking to make things clear-cut. Like any piece of fabrication worth its salt, it leaves its audience to join the dots. With that in mind, I’m off to Hobb’s End to do precisely that.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 2/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: Nary a day passes when the names Howard Berger, Robert Kurtzman, and Greg Nicotero don’t feature in my findings. The likely lads of KNB EFX Group are usually up to their necks in latex and In the Mouth of Madness is no exception to that rule. While grue is hardly prominent throughout, there are all manner of bogus creatures lurking inside Trent’s cranium and the epilogue affords them the chance of running free like wild horses crossed with finger monsters. Think of The Engineer from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, then multiply him by a couple of dozen, and attach to a mobile “Wall of Monsters” and you’ll be in the right ball park. Hilariously, said partition managed to run over Nicotero’s phalanges as it gathered momentum. Those pesky monsters can’t be trusted can they?
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Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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I like the amount of detail you put in your reviews. I haven’t seen this one, but you have piqued my interest.
Thank you Vinnie. That means a lot. I recommend viewing this one, a very underrated Carpenter film.
I will be sure to check it out. I love your site and you are welcome to visit mine whenever.
As much as I love that movie, I haven’t seen it since I was a teenager. So it’s a little fuzzy but I do remember everyone who read that book went a little stark raving mad!! 😉😵 Gonna be reading this tonight!