‘In The Mouth of Madness’ Review: Love Letters to Lovecraft

Posted in The Screening Room by - October 04, 2014

Expectation: John Carpenter is one of my favorite horror directors; his works include Halloween and The Thing. As well, H.P. Lovecraft is one of my favorite horror authors with such works as The Call of Cthulu. I’m surprised it took me this long to watch Carpenter’s take on a Lovecraft tale since I’m such a fan of both. I expected that In the Mouth of Madness would be a mix of Lovecraft’s strangeness and Carpenter’s smart writing and directing.

Reality: In the Mouth of Madness did not disappoint me. It was everything I had come to expect from a Carpenter: great performances, cool creature design, and a smart plot. Also, any film that has Sam Neill as the main actor along with Jürgen Prochnow and Charlton Heston in the supporting cast is setting itself for success. Just like Eraserhead however, this film strikes me as one that would be extremely polarizing.

In the Mouth of Madness features Sam Neill as John Trent, an insurance investigator hired by Jackson Harglow (Heston) to find the missing Sutter Cane (Prochnow). Sutter Cane is the Lovecraftesque horror author who is more popular than Stephen King but has vanished just before the release of his latest work In the Mouth of Madness”. I don’t want to spoil the plot any further but the film takes a sharp left turn out of the expected about a third of the way into the film. There is little explanation throughout the film however, allowing the viewer to take the journey with Trent. Even the twist ending is not explained, but makes up for it by being very smart and quite humorous.

The word “meta” is used a lot today in the pop culture lexicon, referring to fiction that is self-referential in nature. In the Mouth of Madness was ahead of its time as metafiction. The film focuses on the novel of the same name, and the finale of the film delves even deeper into the meta aspects of the film. I enjoyed that the film seems to be winking at the audience throughout the film, always seeming to ask “Get it?”. The self-referential nature of the film was the strongest aspect in my opinion; like the rest of Carpenter’s work it was ahead of its time. 

Sam Neill is fantastic as John Trent. He plays Trent as a sarcastic skeptic that plays his cards close. Trent is portrayed as charming and charismatic in a way that only Sam Neill can be. Later in the film his performance is more akin to Kevin McCarthy in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers: paranoid, manic, and “schizophrenic”. Similar to his role in Event Horizon, Neill does a great job playing a character driven to the brink of madness. He doesn’t overact or try to act crazy; he just comes off that way. I’m a huge fan of Sam Neill and feel that he is underrated as a leading man actor, especially in the 90s.

Along with Neill, Jürgen Prochnow and Charlton Heston round out the supporting cast. Prochnow as the enigmatic Cane was fantastic; both charismatic and evil. It is unfortunate that he is only on-screen a handful of time since he steals the show every time. Prochnow torments Neill in the later half of the film and becomes the voice in his head, seemingly directing his every move. Along with Prochnow, Charlton Heston plays a mino,r but important role in the film. Even though Heston is only in three scenes, he adds a gravitas to the film that only an actor of Heston’s caliber can. I really enjoyed his inclusion as the head of Arcane Publishing even if the role was small. It’s a true testament to Carpenter’s genius that he is able cast great actors in even the smallest roles.

The physical effects in the film are also extremely well done. While many of the monsters aren’t seen on screen in full until the very end, their design is pure Lovecraft. Tentacles, mutated flesh, and sharp gaping maws are all present in the monsters that attack Trent. Carpenter uses the Jaws approach in the film, less being more, until the very end when even then not much is seen. The monsters are shown in quick cuts and flashes that plaguing Trent throughout the film. The actor’s makeup is well done, showing the slowly deteriorating characters as they give into the madness of Cane. The breadth of the makeup isn’t grand but the simple effects create a horror that is more than skin deep. 

The only issue that I had with the film was Julie Carmen, who plays Linda Styles. Of the films I’ve watched so far, there has been only one with a standout female performance. I’m surprised that Carpenter wrote a female character as weak as Styles since he is the creator of Laurie Strode from Halloween. Carmen’s character doesn’t add anything to the film, she is one-dimensional and is not fully realized. It is disappointing but it doesn’t drag the film down enough to tarnish the otherwise stellar performances.

I enjoyed In the Mouth of Madness. It was the perfect mix of Carpenter and Lovecraft with an apocalyptic undertone running throughout. The performances in the film were memorable and Neill continues to solidify himself as an underrated leading man. In the Mouth of Madness may take the place as my favorite Carpenter film since I’m such a mark for Lovecraft. Do you read Sutter Cane?

Final Say: Watch It

Who Said What?

Axe Maniac: “Do you read Sutter Cane?”

This post was written by
Chris Stachiw is the Editor-in-Chief and co-host of the Kulturecast. He's a native Californian with a penchant for sarcasm and a taste for the cinematic bizarre. You'll often find him wandering the wasteland of Nebraska searching for the meaning of life and possibly another rare Pokemon.
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