New Line // 1995 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // March 2nd, 2001
LIVED any good books lately?
John Carpenter is considered one of the most prolific horror directors in film. He rests among the ranks of Hitchcock, Craven and Romero, doing some of the best horror films of the past 50 years. And he plays a mean saxophone. In 1995 Carpenter gave us In The Mouth Of Madness, inspired by the writing of H.P. Lovecraft. Starring Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), Jurgen Prochnow (The Seventh Seal), and film legend Charlton Heston (Planet Of The Apes), Carpenter proves once again why he is a master at terror...or does he?
Stephen King, eat your heart out. It seems that there's a new pulp-horror writer in town by the name of Sutter Cane (Prochnow). However, no one seems to know exactly WHICH town he's in. Sutter Cane has disappeared. Alert the authorities, crack the walnuts, call out the dogs. Or, if that doesn't work, call in John Trent (Neill). Trent is a special investigator for insurance companies to track down fraudulent claims by people and businesses. Needless to say, Trent doesn't make friends easily ("Hi, I'm John Trent and you've just committed insurance fraud. Want to get a beer?"). He's called in by Cane's publisher (Heston) to track Cane down as he's been missing his promotional appearances, which is a big no-no in the publishing world. Trent agrees to go on the case, joining up with Cane's editor (Julie Carmen). Trent is able to piece together (literally) Cane's whereabouts by using his book covers as clues. Trent discovers that Cane is in the New England town of Hobb's End, the same town in which some of his books take place (is any of this ringing a bell, Mr. King?).
Trent and Cane's editor leave for the real (or is it?) town of Hobb's End, not knowing how to get there or what to expect when they do. Upon arrival, they discover that strange things are taking place in this quaint little New England town. They see strange images such as an old man riding a bike (who looks like he's wearing one of those old men Halloween masks you find at Walgreen's for $10.99), visions of slimy monsters, and an old innkeeper who has a few skeletons in her closet (and arms, and heads, and legs...).
Ah yes, it's business as usual in this typical Carpenter flick.
Obviously, they find Sutter Cane...but is he really just a horror writer? Or is there something more to this man-of-the-page? If you have to ask, please excuse yourself from the review. Of course there's something more to him than meets the eye. But darned if I'm going to tell you here. No, you'll just have to rent John Carpenter's In The Mouth Of Madness and find out for yourself.
I'm a fairly big John Carpenter fan. He's done some of the best horror films I can remember. There's no disputing the impact of such classics as Halloween or his remake of Howard Hughes classic The Thing. Even some of his later work like They Live reach intelligently into the genre than most horror films care to. Carpenter is well versed at creating tense terror while bringing out excellent performances in his actors (who are often A or B list talent...okay, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper in They Live is the Z-grade exception).
Which is what makes John Carpenter's In The Mouth Of Madness all the more disappointing. I can see how this film looked good on paper. There's no denying that this film takes its inspiration from the life and work of Stephen King (even referenced in the film). From the idea of the famous horror novelist to the small New England town of Hobb's End, In The Mouth Of Madness plays like a biography of King (with shades of Lovecraft thrown in for good measure). It could have been a very perceptive look at the way some authors are given a God-like status by their fans. Alas, In The Mouth Of Madness doesn't dip quite that deep. It tends to linger more on flashbacks, dream sequences and hallucinations more than plot and characterization. Ho-hum. If you've seen one dream sequence within a dream sequence...
The story has interesting things to say about horror fiction, but doesn't probe too deep for fear that it might neglect the usual gore. What a much better movie this would have been if it thoroughly dealt with the ideas behind horror novels, or what was behind that big slimy door Sutter is typing behind. Many avenues could have been explored but are cast aside for special effects (and not the best quality effects, I might add).
The performances are good, including Neill as Trent, cynical and hardened by the job he's in (for much of the movie he thinks the terror around him are promotional effects done by the publishing company). It's always nice to see character actor John Glover (Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Batman and Robin) as he chews up the scenery in this one as a demented mental doctor treating Trent. Heston, playing a variation on every other character he's ever done, is fun to watch if just as a novelty. The rest of the cast does what they can with their roles, elevating them to above average performances.
Carpenter has been quoted as saying that this is the third in his "apocalyptic trilogy" (the other two being The Thing and Prince Of Darkness). It's too bad that it becomes the end of the road for this film as soon as the one-hour minute marker hits.
John Carpenter's In The Mouth Of Madness is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 and pan & scan. The picture looks excellent with only the slightest bit of grain showing though. There was no edge enhancement, no digital artifacting...nothing to really hinder the quality of the print. New Line originally had a laserdisc version of In The Mouth Of Madness but decided to redo that version into what we see on this disc. A terrific choice, as this looks fantastic. And, we of course have pan and scan, which to this reviewer is the cinematic equivalent of arsenic. Stick with the widescreen version; you'll be glad you did.
Audio is mixed well being both 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1. The 2.0 track is obviously less dynamic than the Dolby Digital track, but if you're without surround sound it will do just fine. The 5.1 track does a nice job with the sound effects, dialogue and music (music being especially important when you're watching a John Carpenter horror film). No subtitles or alternate language tracks are available on this disc.
For extras New Line has shelled out a theatrical trailer (which is anamorphic) as well as some filmographies on the cast and crew. The big extra here for fans, however, will be the commentary track by John Carpenter. Why he seems to do one for all his movies except his best, Halloween, is far beyond me. Anyhow, if you're a fan of the film or just a general Carpenter fan (not Karen) you should be happy to have this track. The bulk of it is relatively technical, as cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe joins Carpenter as well. They tend to go over a lot of ways the scenes were lighted and how they did some effects instead of witty banter or humorous stories. Hey, they can't all be Evil Dead II, folks.
Even though John Carpenter's In The Mouth Of Madness cheapens out to go for gore over story, there still is a large chunk of lengthy (and often times boring) exposition that takes place in many scenes (the Sutter Cane scenes being a point-in-case). On the whole it's a very slow moving film, which is a shame as Carpenter usually churns out exceptional movies. Although I can't really say that In The Mouth Of Madness is a very good film, it does have a few good spots in it (the scene where Sutter Cane makes his exit is pretty chilling). Another problem I had with the film was in the special effects department. Note to the studios: It's John Carpenter...give him a bigger budget. What's the deal? The monsters in this looked about as fake as breast implants, and probably cost about the same. If this were some cheap-o filmmaker trying to make some rip-off of Anaconda or something I could understand. But come on fellas...lets put a little less money into craft services and a bit more up on the screen.
Though certainly not my favorite Carpenter film, In The Mouth Of Madness does give a few good scares and gets special mention for at least trying to do something new in the horror genre. In an age of Scream knockoffs and parodies, it's nice to see one of horror's most respected directors keeping the faith with his versions of what scares us. If you want my opinion, re-watch Halloween or The Thing for some real scares. For the price of around 20 bucks you won't go too wrong with this disc, and with a few extras like a commentary track by Carpenter and the trailer, horror buffs will be more than thrilled to have this one on their bookshelf...err, I mean video shelf.
Guilty for being a snoozer of a horror film...and John Carpenter is free to go for good behavior (and making generally decent flicks).
Review content copyright © 2001 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary Track
* Filmographies of Cast and Filmmakers
* Theatrical Trailer