Friday, 22 August 2014

John Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy Review (Part Three) - In the Mouth of Madness

"You'd have to be insane to pay cinema popcorn prices."

In the Mouth of Madness
Directed by: Yog-Sothoth
Written by: Michael De Luca
Distributed: New Line Cinema
Released: 16th June 1995
Genre: Cosmic Horror, Psychological Horror

Rating: 15

From the perspective of 2014, it's difficult to imagine that during his lifetime Howard Philip Lovecraft was an oft-derided and rarely successful writer: he died in poverty having only been published in amateur magazines. These days he is practically required reading for all weird-horror fans serious about their sub-genre; celebrated for his ground-breaking approach to the genre and inadvertently camp style of writing. Just about every medium from video games to music has been influenced by his body of work. His posthumous ability to continually captivate audiences can largely be attributed to his vivid imagination and fixation on the fascinating themes of cosmicism, insanity, and the human psyche.

One of the first films to portray an authentic (yet original) Lovecraftian tale was Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness, film three in the Apocalypse Trilogy. Whilst Lovecraft's abominations (the Old Ones) have since achieved mainstream recognition- to the point where I imagine fifteen year old girls are writing: "mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn, 1 like = 1 prayer," on their Facebook pages, or including Nyarlathotep on their things with swag Tumblr lists - back in the early nineties this was not necessarily the case. Shades of Lovecraftian horror had seeped into films since the late seventies onwards (Alien, The Evil Dead, The Thing); but a full blown film with Cosmicism, creepy alien towns and mind-warping secrets? Hardly.

Which is why, I presume, In the Mouth of Madness has always held a special place in my heart. Let us delve deeper.

Lovecraft: second only to psychedelic drugs for influencing European metal bands.

Despite being named like a dodgy sequel to Deep Throat, In the Mouth of Madness is arguably Carpenter's greatest work. It tells the story of John Trent (Sam Neil), an insurance investigator sent by Arcane Publishing to find their missing cash cow - Stephen King  Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Trent delves into the dark world of Cane's novels, which seem to hold a strange, maddening power over the masses who read them, eventually discovering that the covers form a map showcasing Hobb's End - the location of many of Cane's stories. Trent travels to Hobb's End, and there things get It should come as no surprise how it ends given that the tale is told through flashback via a mental asylum, and inspired by the work of a man who probably thought a happy ending was some dirty foreign practice. 

Like the other two films in the trilogy, In the Mouth of Madness deals with the concepts of alien knowledge and paranoia. The big theme this time around is the blurring of the line between reality and fiction; specifically the power of the written word in the creation of some form of existence. Carpenter pulls it off well; like the architecture in Deadpool's house, the fourth wall is non-existent. It's a movie within a book within a movie. Forget that darling of the internet, Inception, Carpenter's going to screw with your mind like Insane Clown Posse attempting to figure out how magnets work.

It's very much a different beast to much of Carpenter's prior work. A riff on Hard Boiled Detective tropes and small town horror. Neil plays the snarky investigative type rather well, adopting his inner Nicolas Cage and taking an inconsiderate approach to the ensuing bedlam. He's the quintessential fifties protagonist in a nineties' world. A sleazy, flawed low-rent private investigator, Trent is an anti-hero: ultimately on the side of the right, yet not afraid of punching out those who get in his way. He's a smooth operator yet flawed and, at times, out of his depth. A fast talker, but capable of the odd bit of laconic wit. And though he never goes through with it, he's even able to get into the female love interest's knickers faster than a hypnotist gynaecologist. Trent is Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, tightly wound and determined to delve to the bottom of the mystery.

The Re-editor: Ending pretentious screenplays written in Starbucks one at a time

The Thing and Prince of Darkness were very much firmly rooted in horror and the macabre, but Carpenter plays this one light hearted. Sure Sutter Cane is the be all and end all of existence, but Trent's not afraid to tell him to blow it out of his ass. It's an inspired approach: Lovecraft, whilst influential, was largely heavy handed and his work could be cheesier than Frodo's feet at the end of Return of the King. So it makes sense that Carpenter would attempt to emulate that vibe. The change in tone is most glaringly reflected in the music. The Thing opens with a slow burning, atmospheric piece which sets the tone for the rest of the film; by comparison In the Mouth of Madness bursts on stage with a Metallica-esque (Black Album era 'natch) instrumental. No, really.

This is not to say that the horror elements are lacking, because In the Mouth of Madness has some fantastic sequences. One that particularly comes to mind is the occurrence in Mrs. Pickman's (Frances Bay) hotel where the various creepy images (slowly transforming paintings, the old man chained to Pickman) cumulate in an unholy orgy of writhing tentacles and bloody axes. The horror elements increase in frequency and intensity as the film progresses and sanity begins to lose its grip on the protagonist. Towards the end, regular people are twisted beyond all recognition, and Lovecraftian monsters begin to doss about like it's Cosmic Monstrosity day at the local job centre. Which includes a scene in the final act involving one of the few on-screen depictions of Cthulhu.  

"This will teach you for not calling your poor mother!"

All these squicky monsters simply showing up is at odds with what makes Lovecraftian horror work, and is one of the primary reasons why the genre works better in the written format. It's done purely to translate the psychological nuances onto film, but comes across as Hollywood rot - the executive big wigs were obviously determined to have something other than big ideas on screen. I can appreciate the rationale behind that decision; Prince of Darkness became something of a drag when Carpenter spent his time exploring pseudo-scientific concepts. The problem is having a creature that looks like Octodad jump out of the closet is not Lovecraftian, but merely a poor man's imitation of it. Depicting Lovecraftian horror is difficult when it mostly deals with the philosophical and psychological; the eventual appearance of the gelatinous monstrosity usually marks a 'despair event horizon' of sorts from the perspective of the protagonist.

Before we progress further, I will attempt to briefly define Lovecraftian horror. Hold on to your hats though, because things are going to get as confusing as walking in on your dad naked wrestling with Uncle Jerry.

Lovecraftian horror is known for its anti-anthropocentrism and cosmicism; essentially stipulating that man's place in the universe is minuscule and existence is actually way beyond our comprehension. Alien geologies, concepts, cultures and even forms are encountered that are so different to life on Earth the protagonist usually goes insane simply by acknowledging them. As you may expect, Lovecraftian horror goes hand in hand with nihilism and misanthropy. There is more to his work than cosmicism, but it's the linchpin of Lovecraft's style. In the hands of a competent writer, it can be a very useful trope to utilize: this trilogy, The Mist, and even Cabin in the Woods capture the whole 'pulling back the veneer of faux reality' concept remarkably.

I also made a little movie to highlight this.

Sam Neil is very much centre-stage here, no one else is provided with much to work with. For example, Charlton Heston is in this film - but I don't think even he knew it, so marginalised is his role. He plays Jackson Harglow, director of Arcane Publishing - responsible for publishing the works of Sutter Cane. The thing is, his part in proceedings is tantamount to that of the father figure in an 80's teen comedy - a throw away character portrayed by a veteran actor whose primary function is to provide a more relatable figure for the older crowd, and rationalisations for situations he is never even a part of. Worst of all, Heston's only in it for two scenes. 

Unfortunately, this also true of Cane. Despite being only individual of geunine significance in the film (the premise revolves around finding him, and he is ultimate creator of this particular world) he only appears on screen for an approximate total of fifteen minutes. This quite frankly is a diabolical decision on part of the film makers. Prochnow shows his worth by making the most of his limited screentime, and leaving an everlasting impression. The man irradiates creepy every second he's in our presence. He proves to be a sinister, calculating monster hiding behind by the demeanour of a self-effacing writer. Disregarding his sedulous loyalty to his eldritch masters and prodigious ability to fashion up realities, Cane is an intimidating figure. Part of his menace stems from the idea of an every day bloke somehow managing to become involved in sacrilegious sectarian matters. With all the insane cults operating in the world, the basic idea of Cane seems eerily plausible. 

Naturally there's a token love interest, who arrives in the form of Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), Cane's editor and companion to Trent his journey to Hobb's End. However, this example proves to be something of a subversion, as they never actually get to experience the sweet pleasures of sticky carnal embrace together. It is extremely evident that they want to go at it like the Bubonic Plague and Europe, what with all the overtly smarmy sexual tension, but their situation never progresses further than some feverish lip action. I'm grateful that we aren't forced to endure yet another gratuitous nude tryst, even if it does leave a lingering question mark over Linda's entire character. Denying her true agency, or even an auxiliary function as love toy, therefore, reduces her role to one which merely provides exposition, needless unresolvable sexual tension, and hilarious lines of dialogue such as "I'm losing me John."

You just know Cane's keeping his mother's rotting corpse handy.

Throughout his career Lovecraft himself was disinterested in characterisation, consistently denying the reader unequivocal details regarding the protagonist's basic physical appearance and background. This was keeping in the anti-human and, frankly, misanthropic sentiment behind his stories - the characters are forbidden from being identified because they are little more than pawns. In a way the same can be said to apply here. Every single character is essentially little more than words etched onto a page. Why should they be granted distinct personalties and a purpose? They are the creations of a pulp horror author, this is how he imagined them - warts and all. Of course, I could be overreaching. Michael De Luca could simply be a mediocre screenwriter. But the beauty of In the Mouth of Madness is that its premise allows for wild speculation.

The intrinsic power of fiction is at the forefront of the movie's ideology. Characters in a piece of prose are, after all, purely functionary; serving as conduits in which the author is able to put forth their ideas and beliefs. Every action we see, no matter how peculiar or out of place, is all part of the author's intricate world system. So when Trent sarcastically knocks on the wall and proclaims that it is indeed "reality!", he is serving his designated function. Cane has written him to be the disaffected snark who refuses to take even eldritch abominations seriously; he presents the audience's natural cynical viewpoint. The job of a writer is, after all, to present their world and setting to their captive readership and make them believe in it. This actually leads to a plethora of ingenious fringe logic. John's 'black outs' are merely moments when he is not on camera and thus has no sentient aspect. His ongoing 'awareness' is emphatically tied in with his involvement in the story. But the kicker? He was specifically penned down to experience such soul crushing terror. Talk about your existential crisis.

But it's not all flowers and impossible entities. I found the pacing feels somewhat erratic - shifting from the beginning straight to the endgame without anything that remotely resembles a middle. Isn't the whole point of the three act system to provide the basics of story telling? De Luca seeming focuses his attention on planting the seeds of the mystery: Cane's books are instilling rapture in the book-reading masses, and people want to know why. This is followed by Trent and Linda actually journeying to Hobb's End, and then snooping around town as though they're starring in a more Orwellian edition of Through the Keyhole. A scene later and they're stood outside the Black Church where Cane has holed himself up and shit's beginning to hit the fan, and it's like we are in third act gearing towards the final confrontation. It puts across the impression of being unbalanced. The set-up before Hobb's End unfolds meagrely, but we aren't really granted time to explore the town before the tentacles slide out of the depths like it's getting paid to star in a Zdzislaw Beksinski drawn hentai. 

The way the concepts are presented also differ throughout. In the first act, there's a lot of playing with the ideas of reality and unreality. Carpenter makes excellent use of multi-layered dreams and hallucinations to create a sense of unease and displacement. Trent's visions of the police officer brutalising the street thug become increasingly warped with each iteration, to the extent that it becomes difficult to identify what is actually real. Did Trent even actually witness the violence in the first place? This pushes the general atmosphere of a world slowly drowning in its insanity, helped along by the secret agenda of Cane. I suppose capricious is the word, humanity is on the cusp of unimaginable dread and it's hard to tell where the situation is going to lead.

But once the story reaches Hobb's End, In the Mouth of Madness begins to feel lacking in that ambiguity. Eschewing it's deliriously multi-layered structure in favour of a more conventional approach. When the chaos actually kicks in it is pretty clear cut what De Luca and Carpenter are trying to achieve - the notion of reality being fictional - and it becomes more blatant about distorting the lines. Cane goes on tirades about how he is so easily able to manipulate and change reality, even providing flashy examples to hammer the point home. Personally I feel this is far more frightening when we are provided only the slightest of hints of something dark bubbling away beneath the surface of society. It's like a revolutionary new government which starts off idealistic and ignoble, but then makes increasingly less effort in hiding the bodies - starting with secret burials under golf courses before simply stringing them up outside ornate public buildings.

"Why yes, my office furniture is made from the bodies of my enemies."

At times, there even seems to be confusion as to what kind of horror film In the Mouth of Madness wants to be. It's mostly a Stephen King/Dean Koontz style eerie backwater community affair, with generous dollops of Lovecraft thrown in. There are creepy psychic children, feral monster dogs, grotesque inbreds and eccentric townsfolk. Most of the imagery used is about as subtle as the fate of Oliver Cromwell's head. This is the King influence creeping in like the insidious right hand of the sex offender babysitter reaching under the bedspread. All that is really excluded are the stereotypical greaser bullies with little motion other than acting in a manner befiting the exhibits of the Iceland Phallological Museum. Admittedly this style of horror isn't mutually exclusive with Lovecraft, he did utilize many of these same elements - The Shadow Over Innsmouth is a prime example. The thing is Carpenter and De Luca take the extreme aspects of both, and, as a result, it sometimes feels like bad fanfiction. Though as the film is a meta example of the work of pulp horror fiction, the tone set at the right level.

I feel I must pay tribute to the special effects team. They portray the primordial aspects of Lovecraftian horror remarkably. There is a heavy focus on visceral substances, the dark and damp, slimy textures, and even gangly limbs. While In the Mouth of Madness arguably looks worse than its two predecessors - mostly owing to the rather lame make-up effects - it would be remiss of me not the highlight the outstanding (if rather brief) representation of the Great Old Ones, as the best moment in the trilogy. There's something grungy about puppet animation that helps to heighten the disturbing effect of the monsters. It was the same with The Thing's titular entity. Lovecraft is all about the familiar and commonplace being warped beyond recognition to reveal a secret unholy truth, and the special effects team absolutely nail it.

If the last half of the review made In the Mouth of Madness sound like a bad movie, then I must point out that this was not my intent. It's truly a fantastic experience. All I'm doing is pointing out legitimate, honest flaws as to avoid going into full fellatio mode towards what I consider to be a criminally unappreciated movie. Much like that one Bond line everyone remembers from The World is Not Enough, it received a cold reception and accomplished little more than a stupendous 'meh' at the box office. By which I mean it made around a million dollars profit. Studios, eh? Throughout the years since my first viewing (on TV sometime in 2001) I've relentlessly recommended it to friends, family, work colleagues and even Jehovah's Witnesses. Considering that until last year it wasn't available on home release outside of the US, this proved difficult. And even that was only on the primitive DVD format - I might as well have suggested you spend your evening observing a cave painting.

The nineties proved to be disagreeable for Carpenter. Not only did this fail - pushed aside to languish in the forgotten realms until those times it comes up in conversation between two people, forever cementing their budding friendship - but his other big releases (Escape From LA, Village of the Damned, and Memoirs of an Invisible Man) also proved to be colossal misfires. The main problem with those three is that they're pedestrian, lacking any traces of Carpenter's signature style. In the Mouth of Madness, however, is a wild ride, a fun film with ludicrous moments and riveting horror imagery. It shows a level of imagination lacking in the modern film industry and Carpenter's not afraid of breaking conventions - the 'blue scene' demonstrates this well. And I bet Vampires looked pretty damn good after that Tommy Lee Wallace car wreck which attempted to convince us Jon Bon Jovi would make a competent vampire hunter; so Carpenter's vindicated for that one.

"Go back to making music. No, wait. Stop that too."

So, should you watch it? 
Yes. Or you'll be sacrificed to an Old One. At any rate, it's my favourite film in the trilogy and my second favourite Carpenter movie (after Escape From New York). If you like your horror unconventional and weird, then you really should check it out. It's got a great surrealist atmosphere, mind-bending twists and turns and is honestly as close as you'll get to a proper (but original) Lovecraftian movie. Even if cosmic horror isn't your cup of tea, the film is still infinitely preferable to starring in a fetishistic porno with a particularly tentacled Old One.

Once you go Ghatanothoa, you never go back...
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