Thursday, March 17, 2011

Madness Takes Its Toll

When it came out, John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (1994) was thought to be something of a comeback after several indifferent films. Whatever their relative merits, movies like They Live and Prince of Darkness were a sad comedown from the glories of Carpenter's golden years. The title is evocative and the prospect of Carpenter playing in Lovecraft's wheelhouse was delicious. It still is, though I doubt Carpenter is capable of doing Lovecraft justice anymore. He might not have been capable of it in 1994. The burnout was already beginning to show.

The story here follows insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) as he looks into the disappearance of best-selling horror novelist Sutter Cane. Arcane Books, his publisher, wants to recover the manuscript to Cane's latest novel, In the Mouth of Madness, and teams him with Cane's editor, Linda Styles. Cane is described as a "billion dollar franchise," the best selling writer of the century. Styles tells Trent that Cane's writing has "an effect" on his less stable readers. Together, they trace Cane to the town of Hobbs End, New Hampshire, the heretofore fictional setting of Cane's books. Meanwhile, the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket. Trent's own grasp of reality begins to slip after reading some of Cane's books. Cane's fiction, it seems, is becoming a going concern in the real world. Slowly but surely, it becomes clear to Trent that Cane's final novel represents the pending apocalypse.

This is a film over which I've had heated arguments. It's not a film that I like, and I think it represents a bullet in the brain of Carpenter's career as a horror filmmaker.

Many horror fans don't look past the visual accomplishment of its formal filmmaking. Oh, Carpenter still had the chops at the time. It's a good-looking movie, obviously well-funded, and creatively designed. For that matter, Sam Neill is one of Carpenter's best leading men (this was their second film together), managing a mixture of frantic desperation and assholery while keeping the audience on his side. The film is well stocked with interesting actors elsewhere, too. Both Jürgen Prochnow and Charleton Heston are, in their turns, delightfully sinister. Carpenter has always had an eye for creepy shot compositions, particularly when he makes films that puncture images and archetypes of America, as this one does in its portrait of an increasingly "wrong" New England. This "gets" the landscape of Lovecraft and King (who is the author Sutter Cane's career seems to most resemble). The film is replete with liberal quotations from Lovecraft. This is the kind of post-modern horror movie that Wes Craven has been trying, unsuccessfully, to make for decades. Additionally, it has a carnival of monsters that makes it a close cousin to The Thing.

I'll grant you all of these points. It's well-made. Lovingly made, no less. It has a conception of the horror movie that it pursues with a vengeance. Unfortunately, from my point of view anyway, there's a serious self-loathing at the heart of the movie. The theme the movie expounds is every bullshit indictment of horror and it's alleged effect on the people who consume it. Reading horror novels and watching horror movies, the world of the film suggests, turns people into desensitized maniacs or unhooks them from reality such that they cannot function. It's a film that despises its own audience. Carpenter encapsulates his view of his audience with shots like this one:

In the end, self-loathing turns to contempt. The end of the movie finds its hero looking at the movie he himself is in and laughs his ass off at it. In the context, horror movies--even this one--are ridiculous. The end of the film gives a cue to the audience, suggesting that the only proper response is to laugh. With all due respect to Carpenter's storied career, he can go fuck himself.

This movie represents the functional end of Carpenter's career as a horror filmmaker. Unfortunately, Carpenter is trapped by his status as one of the masters of horror. Everything that follows this film shows the director chafing at the shackles of an idiom he no longer can stomach. His long silence after the failure of Ghosts of Mars is telling. He can't make other kinds of movies anymore, and he no longer gives a damn about the kinds of movies he can make. I don't think it's an accident that his main entry in the Masters of Horror series is basically a low grade retread of In the Mouth of Madness. All he can do these days, it seems, is rail against his lot in life.


Tylerandjack said...

I am an unashamed Carpenter fanboy and have even come to like, if not love, the likes of Vampires and Ghosts Of Mars over recent years. Personally, I would take a weak Carpenter effort over an average Craven movie any time (though I also thought My Soul To Take had some very good moments in there). In The Mouth Of Madness is a film I just love for capturing perfectly that Lovecraftian feel of the "tentacle just behind the curtain" and I admire it's spiral into unrelenting madness as it reaches the point with Neill viewing the movie.
I'm very frustrated that this movie has not received a decent R2 DVD release yet.
Good points, well made as usual, but we disagree here, though I always admit my ingrained bias for the man's work as I do with Peter Jackson's stuff.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hah! If you think I'm hard on In the Mouth of Madness, you should see me go off on Vampires. Man, I HATED that movie.

Toxaemia said...

I love this movie, but I do really enjoy reading your perspective :)

Prince of Darkness is actually one of my favorite Carpenter films. The dream sequence fucked with me for weeks.

And I would have to agree Vampires was total shit. I also has the misfortune of seeing it with my dad in theaters.

cinemarchaeologist said...

Another Carpenter fan, here, though I don't think I'd call myself a full-blown fanboy.

I disagree about the end of his prime period. From ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 through THEY LIVE, he didn't have a single less-than-great feature. Some of them are better than others, but I wouldn't trade any of them. I think you've significantly underrated PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE, but they're underrated by a lot of people.

He took a long break, at that point (he'd made a movie a year for more than a decade), and his movies have never been the same since. I've found something to like in most of them, but there's no way to get around the fact that they're a huge step down from his previous work. The only one I haven't seen is the one you're reviewing!

I think you seriously misread him, though, Doc, when you talk about him coming to hate horror. I've never seen Carpenter speak of horror pictures with anything but love, and he has always railed against the kind of indictments of horror you were writing about. He just got really burned out, and decided he was tired of making movies. Craven is the one forever whining about being "trapped" in the genre (which is, of course, bullshit).

I haven't seen IN THE MOUTH..., so I'm going out on a big limb, here, but might all that laughter offered up at the end be at the expense of all those bullshit indictments of horror the movie had, until then, embraced?

Mykal said...

Dr. Morbius: Very interesting your thoughts on this movie being "self loathing," and also how Carpenter feeling trapped by the "Master of Horror" title producing this hatred for the genre and, in a way, for himself. As such, I think the movie worth seeing as an artist's attempt at a kind of freedom, free of titles and reputation. I haven't seen it myself, but am now tempted because of your post.

Carpenter is always a mystery to me. I worshipped his remake, The Thing; and still can think of very few movies that so satisfies with repeated watching. Also, I consider Halloween a masterpiece.

Other than that, so much of his stuff is like watching Mickey Mantle strike out with the bases loaded.

As usual, excellent post.

Dr. Preta said...

I disagree with you on so many points on this that I won't even start. The opening soundtrack made me cringe, beyond that it was a great film.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Dr. Preta. I'm used to people disagreeing with me on this film, so that's fine. Lots of people love it. I'm not one of them, though. Thanks for stopping by in any event.