Some of Balladeer’s Blog’s readers have let me know that they feel I did not do as many blog posts about horror as I usually do during October. I’m all about you readers, so here’s a horror film review to help make up for it.
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994) – Directed by John Carpenter and written by Michael De Luca, this movie was an unabashed valentine to H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King’s imitations of Lovecraft, and The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers. The King in Yellow, of course, is the 1895 book previously reviewed here at Balladeer’s Blog, and which Lovecraft admitted was an influence on his own works.
The story is about the title “king”, or more precisely about a stage play about that monarch. Everyone who reads the play The King in Yellow goes insane, causing worldwide chaos. Some of the King’s minions enter into our dimension to do his evil bidding, but unlike Lovecraft’s tentacled, enormous Old Ones, the monstrous servitors of the King in Yellow are humanoid in size and form.
That out of the way, let’s take it from the top. My LEAST favorite element of this otherwise excellent movie is the way it opens up. We are shown a crazed John Trent (Sam Neill) being committed to an insane asylum. Dialogue makes it clear that he’s just one of many people going mad in a worldwide epidemic of violent insanity. Even some of the staff at the insane asylum seem like they’re not all there anymore.
Soon, Trent is visited in his padded cell, where he has used a black crayon to cover his body and the padded walls with crucifixes for protection. His visitor is Dr Wrenn, played by David Warner, the panicked, crucifix-surrounded man from The Omen, now talking to the panicked, crucifix-surrounded Sam Neill in this film. (I admit that’s a sly touch in keeping with the style of the movie. It even has echoes of the victim in Equinox fixating on his protective crucifix.)
Dr Wrenn records his conversation with John Trent as the latter relates his descent into madness. My only complaint with such an opening is the way it robs most of Sam Neill’s scenes in the movie of any true tension. Since we viewers know he survives to talk to David Warner, we know nothing fatal or worse can happen to him until the loooong flashback is over.
From there we learn that John Trent is a free-lance insurance investigator who thrives on smoking out fraudulent claims against the insurance companies he works for. He gets hired to investigate the disappearance of a phenomenally popular horror author named Sutter Kane (Jurgen Prochnow).
The initials aren’t the only similarities that Kane has to Stephen King and King’s Lovecraft imitations. Sutter Kane centers most of his tales around the fictional New England town of Hobb’s End like King used Castle Rock and Lovecraft used his fictional Arkham.
To save his client (Bernie Casey) from having to pay out a huge claim if neither Kane nor the manuscript for his latest, unpublished novel In the Mouth of Madness can be found, Trent accepts the case. Our protagonist’s initial take is that Sutter Kane’s publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) and agent Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) have concocted a publicity stunt in which Kane seems to have disappeared just to generate a lot of press coverage in time for the publication of In the Mouth of Madness.
Eventually, Trent gets Styles, with whom he develops a bantering, flirty relationship, to admit that yes, all of this STARTED as a publicity stunt, but now Sutter Kane has genuinely disappeared. The site of his disappearance was Hobb’s End, the supposedly fictional town from his own novels, now sprung to life in the real world.
Trent and Styles locate the town and the real horror begins. As with The King in Yellow, everyone who reads the manuscript for Sutter Kane’s In the Mouth of Madness goes insane and becomes violent. Kane himself has become an instrument for the inevitable demonoids from another dimension who used to rule the Earth and are longing to launch another reign of terror.
I don’t want to provide too many spoilers, but suffice it to say that under Carpenter’s direction and De Luca’s clever script, In the Mouth of Madness rises above the type of trite story that the premise may make you think you’re in store for.
If you’re familiar with H.P. Lovecraft’s monumental Cthulhu Mythos then you’ll get extra enjoyment from the sly nods and Easter Eggs regarding his stories. If not, then this movie will have even greater appeal thanks to the way it splendidly recreates everything that made Lovecraft’s tales the iconic horror stories that they are.
But make no mistake, this is a genuine horror movie, not a jokey, horror version of what High Anxiety was to Alfred Hitchcock’s works. Part of the ending of In the Mouth of Madness is reminiscent of the opening of the book The King in Yellow, but Carpenter and De Luca have their own kind of madness on tap to finish off the tale.
P.S. Look for a VERY young Hayden Christensen as a paper boy on a bicycle.