Thursday, October 24, 2013

Monster Serial: IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, 1994

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!  


When asked by an old friend to write a review of a favorite horror movie, my immediate response was “I’ll write about HALLOWEEN! That is my all time favorite horror movie!" Ah, but which Halloween to write about? The original? The bizarre but beloved by me “HALLOWEEN 3: SEASON OF THE WITCH?" The 4th, 5th, and 6th installment considered as a single film using the alternate director’s footage wherein Dr. Loomis replaces Michael Meyers as the avatar of Thorn? (Look it up...I love it). Or perhaps the ultra stylish Rob Zombie remakes?

At the end of the day, several false starts, and a lot of cursing, I decided to shift focus ... I love those movies, but there I may actually be too familiar with them. Looking at the rest of Carpenter’s filmography, though, reminded me A) I love his work and B) there is one film that has shown up in my own design work in strange ways. That film, dear readers, is IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, the third installment in John Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy (THE THING and PRINCE OF DARKNESS being the prior two).

IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, at its core, is a story about belief and madness. About the transitions from one state to another, and about the lines between fiction and reality blurring until they break. Part of what I love about art and fandom and movies and storytelling at this point in history is the ever-increasing likelihood of running across real artifacts and products from movies in the real world. My own HORROR IN CLAY projects specifically create fictions and backstories and artifacts for places that never existed, and part of my fascination for that traces back to this movie.

Not to give it all away in the opening paragraphs, but a cynical insurance investigator uses clues published across an author’s body of work to locate a town that isn’t supposed to exist. Then finds out it was a staged publicity stunt. THEN finds out that the publicity stunt has gone horribly wrong and the monsters are real. Catnip for a horror junkie! At one point the movie breaks the 4th wall OF the 4th wall frame story! Breaks it like a lunatic with a fireax.

IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS tells the story of John Trent (gleefully played by Sam Neill), a freelance insurance investigator with a two-cigarette a scene habit, as he attempts to discover the truth behind a famous author’s disappearance. Neill plays it straight and dry, and the effect when he is faced with mindblowing weirdness is marvelous.

After being retained by publisher Arcane House to track down Sutter Cane (definitely not Stephen King at all ... mostly), Trent finds clues in Cane’s books which lead him to the author. Paired with Cane’s editor Linda he finds himself either trapped inside of or influenced by Cane’s books. He may in fact be a character. Hijinks ensue (but not the funny kind of befits a film from John Carpenter, there is some good visceral body horror and great shocks littered throughout the movie). Also, some of it is just weird and disturbing - parts put me in mind of ERASERHEAD, and parts reminiscent of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (well, of some Harryhausen effect vehicle, anyway).

In all its grandiose recursion, the film is about the subjective nature of reality and the power of belief to warp and change boundaries. I think there a nice implied indictment of capitalism; of its power to skew observable reality, but that might be going a little far. Nevertheless, the idea that churning out pulp novels (or political tracts, or public health pamphlets) can gradually make the environment more conducive to monsters or ideas once considered implausible and evil or malevolent forces has interesting connotations. The sleep of reason breeds monsters after all.

IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is perhaps the most Lovecraftian movie I’ve ever seen. The monsters from beyond space and time are indeed squamous (and in fact are described using actual bits of Lovecraft's writing.) The monsters are alien, unconcerned with humanity on a personal level. Everything will be destroyed, but it’s nothing personal. The investigator is hard-bitten and completely screwed. We know he’s screwed from the beginning shots of the ambulance heading to the asylum...the only question in how he got there.

Trent is a neo-noir character; cynical, rational, and fairly unprepared for the sharp left turn the movie has in store for him. He’s always looking for the angle to the fraud he’s sure lurks just behind everyone else. As an aside; the film has some great noir-ish camera work as well with lots of angular shadows, even what I will choose to believe was a conscious nod towards German Expressionist films such as the CABINET OF DR CALIGARI in the set design of Trent’s asylum cell. Some of the shots were in fact filmed by Sam Neil himself.

Julie Carmen’s character, Linda Styles, is pretty bad. So bad, in fact, that I actively started trying to tune her out. Her best moment, by far, is when she turns into a monster and punches Sam Neil through a door. Mediocre acting and a labored character didn’t detract too much from the general fun of the movie, it just introduced a strange note of shadenfreude. I was happy when bad things happened to Linda Styles.

Short appearances by Charlton Heston and J├╝rgen Prochnow (as the enigmatic Sutter Cane) were dynamic and fun additions. Don’t ask me about the thing growing from the back of Prochnow’s head…that was just odd.

Structurally, the movie is ambitious; it contains a frame story, dream sequences, narrative asides, recursive filming...true to Lovecraftian form, the audience knows Trent is doomed from the very beginning. Some of the scenes are lot of grisly, weird fun; for example a change of focus or foreground or background detail creates dramatic irony as Trent and Styles unknowingly wander through a small town straight out of CHILDREN OF THE CORN. “It came for the children first…” bemoans one creepy townsman before he does something...irrevocable. Cane’s small town, Hobb’s End, could just as easily be Stephen King’s Castle Rock or HP Lovecraft’s Dunwich.

In general, the film hasn’t aged that well (lost in New England? Where’s my GPS). Watching the movie again for this review after a number of years revealed some glorious hallmarks of 80’s film that were entertaining in and of themselves (OH those shoulder pads).

The elephant in the room is that the recursive storytelling gets grating; as many times as I’ve seen this movie there is always someone who hates it, or gets bored or hopelessly lost towards the end. All that said, I think if you accept the film’s flaws and celebrate the parts it gets right, it’s really worth seeing. The cinematography is solid, and the Lovecraft and other horror references in the movie are fun to spot. There is a faint but entertaining thread of humor throughout the movie. It has some great shocks, some great body horror, some creepy-weird bits, and some fascinating points to make about the power of belief and about consumer culture influencing belief and vice versa. Also, the movie has truly kickass '80’s music during the opening and closing credits.

Jonathan M. Chaffin is an Atlanta-based graphic designer and art director and a lifetime fan of horror stories and film. His current project is where he uses artifacts and ephemera to tell stories...he also produces horror-themed tiki mugs and barware like the Horror In Clay Cthulhu Tiki Mug. In addition, Jonathan occasionally does voice-over and podcasting work and appears on panels at sci-fi fantasy and pop culture conventions on a variety of topics.

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