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‘In the Mouth of Madness’

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 03, 1995


John Carpenter
Sam Neill;
Charlton Heston;
Jurgen Prochnow
Under 17 restricted

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John Carpenter's "In the Mouth of Madness" poses several intriguing questions: Can horror fiction cause social chaos? Does it help us deal with the dark side? Will Carpenter ever again make a film as scary as "Halloween"?

Like that 1978 classic, "In the Mouth of Madness" kicks off in a maximum-security mental hospital. Instead of an escaping Michael Myers, we witness the committing of John Trent (Sam Neill), who insists he's not really crazy before telling a very strange tale to a shrink (David Warner). It's that tale that makes up the bulk of the film.

Trent is a cynical insurance investigator who had been hired by a publisher (Charlton Heston) to track down Sutter Cane, the world's best-selling horror author. Cane disappeared on the eve of delivering his new book, "In the Mouth of Madness," and readers and retailers are literally going crazy with anticipation.

Trent suspects Cane's disappearance is a publicity stunt, but he dutifully embarks on the hunt, accompanied by Cane's editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen). Heading for New Hampshire, they seek out Hobb's End, a hamlet that exists on no maps but only in the imagination -- Sutter Cane's imagination.

There they find a citizenry in serious trouble -- murder, mayhem and suicide are the major civic activities. For Styles, it's deja vu: She recognizes these unfolding events from Cane's new manuscript. "It's about the end of everything, and it begins here," she warns Trent. When they finally track down Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), he confesses that "for years I thought I was making all this up, but things were telling me what to write and giving me the power to make them real." And, Cane adds, "when you lose the ability to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, you pave the way for the Old Ones to come back from the Other Side to take over."

Scriptwriter Michael De Luca has cited H.P. Lovecraft as an inspiration, particularly in the film's central conceit of exiled gods/monsters lurking in some extra-dimensional limbo waiting for an apocalyptic return to Earth. Unfortunately, this is the least convincing aspect of "In the Mouth of Madness." In Lovecraftian tradition, the monsters are barely revealed (which won't satisfy today's genre fans) and are hardly scary when they are.

Carpenter isn't necessarily dependent on literal fright: In "Halloween," for instance, there was no on-screen bloodletting, it just felt that way. But this time, terror is never palpable, and the madness is for the most part alluded to rather than shown. What's missing is a bridge between imagination and execution.

Sam Neill is a suitably cynical and disturbed Trent, but he gets no help from the vapid Carmen, and since they are the crux of the film, this is a major problem. The technical credits are solid, particularly Rob Kibbe's cinematography.

Like Carpenter's last foray into big-screen horror, 1987's "Prince of Darkness," this film eventually falls apart because of its erratic plot and gaps in logic. There are moments of humor, both broad (the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" is used to soothe the loonies) and caustic (Cane notes that those who can't read his apocalyptic last novel need wait only a month for the movie version). The final scene in Carpenter's film is, in fact, a sucker-punch line, but it simply comes too late.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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