Thursday, August 26, 2010

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

The Movie: We open up in an insane asylum where John Trent (Sam Neil, who you’ll probably recognize from Jurassic Park) is brought in kicking and screaming. Quite literally, unfortunately for one guard. A short time afterward he is visited by Dr. Wrenn (prolific actor David Warner, of the Omen and Cast a Deadly Spell), an agent of an unidentified organization. At Dr. Wrenn’s questioning, Trent tells his story.

John Trent was a freelance insurance investigator whose last case was given to him by the publishing company Arcane. Director Jackson Harlow (the infamous Charlton Heston) has lost his best author, the extremely popular horror author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Cane has disappeared, along with half of his soon to be released novel In the Mouth of Madness. As this represents an unimaginable amount of money for Arcane, Harlow wants Jackson to find either the book or the author and bring it back.

Unfortunately, there’s something not right about Cane and his work. His novels have this tendency to affect some people and cause them to become irrational, paranoid or even violent. Just before Trent heads over to Arcane to take the case, he is attacked by a man with an ax (Conrad Bergschneider), who he later finds out was Cane’s agent! Then Trent finds a potential lead to where Cane might have gone, and is teamed up with Linda Stiles (Julie Carmen, of Fright Night 2), the editor who handles Cane’s work, to go out and find him.

The town they wind up at, Hobbes End, only exists in Cane’s books. Not long after they arrive, all sorts of other things start to happen, things that also should only happen in Cane’s books. Gradually Trent is forced to realize that what he has long believed to be Reality has changed. Cane has become God, Trent is a character in his latest novel, and he and said novel are going to bring about the end of humanity.

The Review:

“Reality is not what it used to be.”

It was probably inevitable that I would be drawn to the horror genre, and to this movie in particular. There are two very important facts about the horror genre I have been able to nail down over the past few years. The first is that all horror stories center around a single theme; lack of control. Whether the horror in question comes from something as mundane as some psycho trying to poke you with something sharp (most giallo, any slasher flick you care to name), or from some or all of what you consider to be the immutable laws of Reality packing their bags and leaving you to your lonesome (Ringu, Messiah of Evil, far-Right politics), the core of the story is always the same; the characters are placed in a situation where they have little or no power, and the plot revolves around how they try to gain it back.

The second fact is that horror is a very personal genre. Just like humor, the purpose of horror is to provoke an emotional reaction in you; and what produces that reaction in one person doesn’t necessarily affect another in the same way. As an example, spiders don’t bother me all that much, like they do some people. However, whenever a movie shows people sticking themselves with or getting stuck by needles, or the amputation of body parts, I shudder no matter what the context or how many times I’ve already seen it.

For these two reasons, the “Reality takes an extended vacation” brand of horror movies are among those that affect me the most. I have been dealing with ausperger’s my entire life, even though I was only diagnosed about halfway through college. For me, ausperger’s largely manifests as a near inability to read people, and therefore a tendency to miss social cues. Most days I find myself in a world of games, rituals, shibboleths (look it up), and other required practices that at worst are destructive and at best really don’t make sense. I identify with this kind of story because it’s what I deal with in everyday life. Quite frankly, I have little, if any, belief in “Reality” because nearly all of what everybody tries to pass off to me as Reality makes no sense whatsoever.

In the Mouth of Madness has gotten very mixed reviews. Roger Ebert and the majority of the other mainstream reviewers agree that the movie starts good, but stops making sense once the heroes head for Hobbes End. I am of the opinion that these reviewers miss the point entirely. Most of the horror in this movie comes from the very fact that John Trent’s situation is absurd and impossible. The quote I begin this review with (as spoken by one of the extras, and one of my all-time favorite quotes) sums up this movie quite nicely. In the Mouth of Madness is about the question of what Reality is, and what happens when your perception of it is suddenly upended.

John Trent serves as our point of view character, and Sam Neil plays it perfectly. In a sense, he actually plays two parts. The first, throughout the main body of the film, is kind of a hard-boiled investigator. He’s good at what he does, and knows it. He’s also incredibly cynical, and convinced that he knows how things work. Most of the movie follows this Trent as he gradually faces the truth, and tries to come to terms with the fact that things are not happening like they’re supposed to. Even though his constant rationalizing in the face of the obvious does grate a little, I cannot help but feel sympathetic toward him as the world he knew comes crashing down about his ears.

The second John Trent character is the asylum inmate in the wraparound. He is still intelligent, but he’s no longer the ultra-rationalist he once was. Instead he’s rather fatalistic; knowing exactly what’s going on, and that there’s nothing he can do about it. He’s also well aware that he comes across as crazy. Among the first things Trent says to Dr. Wrenn are “You here about my ‘Them?’ Every paranoid schizophrenic has a ‘Them,’ a ‘They,’ an ‘It,’ you want to talk about my ‘Them.’”

Equally good in the other major role is Jurgen Prochnow as Sutter Cane. His Cane is a combination evil mastermind and demented deity; overflowing with confidence. His unflappable confidence is even more grating because it’s entirely warranted; he is God now, after all.

The other parts are, overall, good enough. Julie Carmen is a little wooden at times, but is adequate for the most part. I doubt John Carpenter had this consciously in mind when he made the movie, but I just love the idea of Charlton Heston (as the distributor of Cane’s books) being ignorantly responsible for unleashing apocalyptic evil upon the world. And, while I have only seen her in supporting roles, Frances Bay is always one of the best parts of whatever movie she’s in. Her turn as Mrs. Pickman, the psychotic hotel proprietor, is wonderfully creepy.

As for the movie itself, John Carpenter does a great job in building up the atmosphere of impending doom. He starts out small, but builds up, playing upon our uncertainty as Reality frays until the very end, when it breaks entirely. The last scene is a wonderful breaking down of the Fourth Wall between the movie and the audience, and even with the start of the credits it isn’t quite over. Wait to see what’s written after the part about how no animals were harmed to make the film.

In short, I love this movie. In the Mouth of Madness is one of the most effective horror movies I have come across. If you come in with an open mind, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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