In the Mouth of Madness sneaks under the radar as one of John Carpenter’s lesser known exploits but it has Sam Neill going crazy, something that’s always fun, so it definitely warrants your attention if you’re looking for a rental these few days before Halloween. It’s a horror-comedy-mystery mash-up with plenty of nods to Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. The title itself is based on one of Lovecraft’s works, “At the Mountain of Madness.”
Sam Neill plays an insurance investigator looking for Sutter Cane, a popular Stephen King-like author who hermits himself away in a creepy New England town. His readers across the world take his novels so seriously they go on murderous rampages while extolling Cane’s apocalyptic prose about long-dead monster gods coming to life. Sam Neill, peculiarly accented when no one else is, refuses to believe the written word can have such an impact on people so he ventures off to see whether it’s all a huge publicity stunt or the real deal. And things just get crazier and crazier from there.
The movie’s filmed in 1995 though you wouldn’t guess that at all. The hair, the costumes, the sets, the special effects, who’s in it – it’s all straight out of the 80s. It’s like Carpenter never left the decade behind. The woman who tags along with Sam Neill has a bird’s nest style typical of the era and everything looks cheap as hell. True budget filmmaking, made even more evident by the bizarro cameos. Charleton Heston shows up as Sutter Cane’s publisher, reading cue cards off-camera in an office he never leaves, and David Warner – star of Quest of the Delta Knights, Time After Time and Titanic – appears far too briefly as a psychiatrist. The most disappointing thing about the movie is there’s not enough David Warner. John Carpenter had a chance to use him and he barely does. Augh.
But Sam Neill going crazy is enough to entertain, especially when he arrives at Cane’s town and meets the residents. The suspense piles up as the town’s oddities slowly reveal themselves. It’s hilarious how Sam brushes off the more grotesque and unexplainable mysteries as elaborate hoaxes, and even funnier when he tries to leave but can’t no matter how hard he tries, and still insists on some sort of logical explanation. When Cane himself shows up, played by Jurgen Prochnow of all people, and rubbery beasts in the fashion of The Thing and Possession appear, the writing’s on the wall. Quite literally. Then the wall bursts open and unleashes unspeakable horror, and the fourth wall takes a hit or two. I see how the winking, self-deprecating humor could betray viewers looking for a more serious horror outing in In the Mouth of Madness, but it’s the kind of surreal, playful shot in the arm the genre needs every once in a while. By poking fun at authorship, creativity, suspension of disbelief and the effect fiction has on people Carpenter almost reaches They Live levels of his own goofy, brand of brilliance.
So, like, check it out.