In the Mouth of Madness

(John Carpenter, USA, 1995)


Like most genres, the horror movie goes through cycles of popularity and unpopularity. It had a boom period in the '70s that lasted to the mid '80s, taking in films from The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) and the Omen series through to Nightmare on Elm St (Wes Craven, 1984) and The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986). But then it fell on hard times, and became an unfashionable, uncommercial genre again – purely a B movie, video-store genre. But the mid '90s signalled a moment of resurgence, happily involving some grand old names, like Wes Craven and John Carpenter.

I am a fan of modern horror movies – and I stress the word modern, because so many people wax nostalgic about the horror movies of the good old days before 1960, movies where the horror was atmosphere, suggestion, off-screen stuff. Many people (including some famous horror fiction writers) define this kind of screen horror as pure and real, and consider all the gory stuff post-'60 as an abomination, a corruption of the genre.

Personally, I don't think we should have to make such snobby judgments about a popular art form. I love the quietly chilling horror classics of yesteryear, like I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur [1943]) but I also love the Evil Dead-style shockers of the '80s and beyond, horror movies that assault the audience in all kinds of ways and really rub our noses in the grossness of things.

Horror cinema is in a strange, paradoxical position these days. For many casual moviegoers, horror films will remain at best a sidebar attraction, something that's never really part of the mainstream. But for buffs and students of the horror genre – and believe me, there are plenty of them – horror movies are virtually an art form in themselves. Those filmmakers who have made their name in this genre since the '60s – people like George Romero, Dario Argento and Wes Craven – are revered as artists, auteurs, poets of horror. The lordly status accorded to such figures in some quarters is well indicated by the fact that the official title of the film I'm reviewing is John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness – and putting your name into the title of a film is the kind of stunt that only the likes of Federico Fellini used to get away with.

Carpenter is a key figure in the development of the modern horror film, with movies including Halloween (1978), Christine (1983) and Prince of Darkness (1987) to his credit. His distinctive style has been imitated and customised in hundreds of subsequent horror-thrillers. An episode of that great television series The X Files was a virtual précis of Carpenter's version of The Thing (1982), with a team of scientists locked together in an Arctic station, being infected and transformed one by one by an invisible alien life form.

Carpenter's brand of screen horror is not particularly deep and meaningful – whatever that means. However, its surface is very intricately worked out. Carpenter is always playing on what you can see but can't exactly make out; what you can hear but not immediately locate. He is a master at using patches of starkly contrasted light and dark in the frame, and he turns every plot into a frightening drama of space – people in enclosed spaces trying to make their way out of one room, down a corridor, into an attic or cellar. The trouble for the characters is that these spaces and places are often mutating as much as their own bodies and psyches.

In the Mouth of Madness is a completely captivating and invigorating film, in its mildly sadistic and slightly adolescent way. Carpenter's own lurid rock music over the opening credits lets you know that he's trying to connect with the energy of contemporary youth culture, of Heavy Metal music and the whole Gothic craze. The story centres on a hard-nosed rationalist, John Trent (Sam Neill). He's an investigator of suspicious insurance claims and he's on the trail of a doozy. A best-selling horror author named Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) has mysteriously disappeared, and so has the manuscript of his much-awaited novel, In the Mouth of Madness. Trent keeps walking into weird people having violent, psychotic episodes, and starts having disturbing, apocalyptic visions himself. It seems that there is mass delirium in the air, and it also seems that it's being triggered by Sutter Cane's pernicious horror fiction.

As our hapless hero gets deeper and deeper into this hallucinatory mire, he starts to intuit that the world represented in Cane's books is actually replacing the real world. When, for about the hundredth time, Trent waves his arms, rolls his eyes and protests, "But this is not reality!", a redneck in a bar finally sets him straight: "Reality ain't what it used to be."

As this shot at a synopsis suggests, In the Mouth of Madness is a playful, self-conscious, extremely modern horror film. With its situation of fiction overtaking reality, it recalls David Cronenberg's classic film Videodrome (1983), and its vision of a horde of primordial dark demons waiting to enter our world through some surreal doorway echoes contemporary Japanese horror manga/animes like Wicked City (1987). It's a film which jokes a lot too, about itself, its genre, and its target audience. But even these clever games and in-jokes become part of the horrific effect of the piece.

All throughout we get allusions to a plot – the plot of Sutter Cane's lost book – which we only ever see in fragmented glimpses, and in vertiginous montages that flash-forward through every nightmare yet to come. So the film becomes more like an extended trailer than one, coherent story, a dizzy succession of clips, detours, and apparitions. This put me as a viewer in a state both of childlike delight and sheer terror. Carpenter is a filmmaker who deeply understands how, in a modern, sophisticated horror movie, the real thrill comes from making us lost, a bit dazed and confused, and in steering the film just this side of total incoherence.

In the Mouth of Madness is a masterly exercise in modern horror, and unquestionably Carpenter's best film in a long time. Special mention should be made of his extraordinary work with sound design: totally blurring the conventional divisions between music, atmospheric noises and sounds coming from within the story. This is truly a film to hear in a cinema. And also to see on a big screen, because its set pieces – such as the scenes of Trent driving at night in and out of different imaginary worlds – are breathtakingly executed. This is a horror film that needs, and uses, the pitch darkness of a movie theatre. I didn't want to watch any new horror movies on video for quite a while after this.

MORE Carpenter: Ghosts of Mars, Vampires, Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A.

© Adrian Martin February 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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