A brilliantly entertaining modern-day slice of Lovecraftian hokum
Carpenter’s genius has always resided in his ability to explore the theme of external evil – the bogeyman, a street gang, alien entities etc. – invading the sanctuary of home, the established order, the human body itself or, in this case, the mind and its perception of its own self and independence and the real world outside it. For him, the delights lie in how individuals manage to rise to the challenge, to fight back, to cling onto their own individuality and identity. Normality is put through the wringer, ordinary people forced to dig deep into their resolve and find the will to survive. Whereas most similarly themed horror films of the monster-on-the-loose or the slasher picture tend to be rather obvious and black and white in their mechanics, the best of Carpenter has always been fuelled by a terrific sense of the unknown and the purely uncanny. Michael Myers just keeps on getting up and we don’t really know why he does what he does. The seaweed-smothered ghouls in The Fog act neither like ghosts nor zombies, but as something irrevocably “other” again. The alien shape-shifter from under the ice in The Thing defies all conventional analysis and association. As does the ’58 Plymouth Fury in Christine, which reveals no formulaic explanation for its malicious behavior. And, of course, this brings us round to Stephen King, who wrote the original novel Christine and forms one side of the double-edged narrative sword that cleaves through this movie.
“What if reality and fiction swapped places? You’d find yourself pretty lonely. Probably in a padded cell.”
Insurance fraud investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) is employed by a prestigious publishing house to track down their cash-cow, the world’s most popular and bestselling author, horror specialist Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), who seems to have vanished from the face of the Earth before submitting the final manuscript of his latest novel, entitled In The Mouth of Madness. With fans literally going crazy as they await the book, Trent’s canny detective brain uncovers the trail to where Cane’s secret hideaway might be – the lost town of Hobb’s End in New England. Publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) agrees to send him out there to pinch the collar of the maverick writer and get back the manuscript that is now their property, so long as his assistant Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) accompanies him.
But what they find in Hobb’s End is a haunted town, lost in its own dimension and under the full control of Cane, himself, who now has the power to manipulate life with his writing. As their world collapses around them, reality bending itself inside-out, Trent and Styles discover horrors and mutations and monsters galore. Cane is summoning the Old Ones from their slumber in a deep, dark abyss and, if his new book is read by enough people, the combined strength of their belief will bring about the end of the world. And even if a lot of people don’t bother with books in this day and age, we are ominously informed that there is a movie coming out as well. The masses will be exposed and the apocalypse will be wrought, by hook or by crook. But preferably by book.
Why Madness works so well, however, is because it is all over the place
Arguably, Carpenter had already dabbled with Lovecraft with his leprous mariner-wraiths in The Fog (although he used a quote from Edgar Allen Poe to open that ghostly tale) and with the shocking manifestations and transformations seen in The Thing – the mutating creature seen in the painting on the wall of the hotel foyer is a fine example of something we could have witnessed in that Antarctic research outpost. But this combines the popularity of a writer like Stephen King- the name Sutter Cane, itself, has the same verbal impact as Stephen King too - with the grotesquerie of EC Comics, which were often inspired by Lovecraft and, in turn, would inspire both King and Carpenter. So the cultural and genre lineage is clear to all.
“Reality is not what it used to be!”
Why Madness works so well, however, is because it is all over the place – and deliberately so. When tackling the mind-altering terrors of Lovecraft, you cannot expect things to make sense in a proper linear fashion. The paranoid author’s characters often opened gateways to other dimensions and the concept of reality was regularly turned on its head. Thus, once Trent and Styles begin their odyssey to find Hobb’s End, we experience events from both their separate points-of-view, despite later revelations that this story all seems to have been in Trent’s mind and that Styles does not actually exist. Obviously, if this was the case in a more serious film we would only have seen the things that happen to Styles as witnessed by Trent, and never from her own perspective. But this is all part of what Arnie Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall double-agent Doug Quaid would charitably call a mindf***. Cane has written the whole thing and he can write people in and write people out on a whim, as he sees fit. Whereas I think Carpenter botched the metaphysical concepts in Prince of Darkness, he largely succeeds here because he isn’t really trying to prove anything. He’s just stringing together a series of crazy set-pieces along an increasingly mysterious thread, but his basic grasp on the fragility of our perception of reality is strong and well developed, with results that are often spellbinding. When you are thrust into an environment that blends the real and the unreal, blurring conventional terms of reference … then, folks, all bets are off and anything can happen. This is where Carpenter captures that essence of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone so well. Trent getting zapped from place to place may seem like narrative convenience but this is all down to Cane’s authorship and manipulation of events and, thus, it is no conceit. Rather, all part of a malign masterplan.
I think the film works on two separate and highly valuable levels.
As a piece of creepy and luridly fantastic entertainment it offers shocks aplenty and enough bizarre situations to keep the rug almost continually hauled from beneath your feet. We are basically along for the ride in what is Carpenter’s most flamboyant entry in his enjoyably bleak Apocalypse Trilogy, which also includes The Thing and Prince of Darkness. (To be honest, Escape from New York should be included to make this a quartet, as Snake Plissken pretty much decides the fate of the human race when he rips-up that crucial Presidential tape on nuclear physics and limps off into the night.)
But there is a more considered subtext about the effects of pop culture phenomena that goes a little deeper than you might first think. Using celebrated classical fantasist H.P. Lovecraft as his foundation, the obvious target, or inspiration is very definitely Stephen King and the power he wielded over horror/fantasy literature. King once remarked about the filmmaker putting his own name before the title on his excellent adaptation of Christine, calling it John Carpenter’s Christine, saying that the audiences will decide just whose Christine it is. Do we detect in Madness, evidence of Carpenter further stamping his claim of ownership on the genre, albeit in a wittier, more self-effacing fashion? I think so.
He’s stringing together a series of crazy set-pieces along an increasingly mysterious thread
A brilliantly entertaining modern-day slice of Lovecraftian hokum, In the Mouth of Madness is strewn with inspired moments, often impressive imagery, a mood that is richly atmospheric and revels in redolence, and boasts a finely manic performance from Sam Neill. Despite being predominantly lightweight in terms of its horror quotient, several set-pieces stick in the mind, and the whole thing rattles along with plenty of incident and a deliciously colourful sense of escalating insanity. What helps immeasurably is that it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously and this only adds to its nightmarish quirkiness.
Carpenter certainly likes the idea of things not being what they seem, secrets and charades and hidden truths. Even The Ward continues this desire to explore beyond the veil. But he has a field day with the concept here, providing it with an amusingly pulpish comic-book stance. Madness may not up there with the best of his films, yet it has lots of repeat value and genuinely takes you for a macabre and mesmerizing ride.
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