Bloody October: In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)


Leave it to horror master John Carpenter to make a film that is part loving homage to H.P. Lovecraft, part parodic social commentary, and part meta-narrational horror. Seriously. While Wes Craven would attempt a similarly themed narrative with his own meta-horror Scream, Carpenter arguably accomplished something weirder, more genre-defying, and more gleefully enjoyable than anything starring Neve Campbell.

Sam Neill is John Trent, an insurance investigator who starts the film being locked in an asylum as he raves about the end of the world. Interviewed by Dr. Wrenn (David Warner), Trent recounts his story. He was hired by a publishing house (run by Charlton Heston, no less) to find the author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), a best-selling horror writer whose latest novel In the Mouth of Madness promises to be a ground-breaking work of horror fiction. Accompanied by Cane’s editor Linda (Julie Carmen), Trent embarks on a journey to find Hobb’s End, the supposedly fictional town in New Hampshire where Cane may or may not have disappeared.

Anyone who has read Lovecraft will immediately recognize certain knowing nods and references, from the asylum opening to “Pickman’s Hotel,” from the titles of Sutter Cane’s novel to certain – ahem – old ones. Still, In the Mouth of Madness is by no means strictly for the fans. The story encompasses what it means to love horror, and to indulge in its dark plots of madness and apocalypse. It does this with a strong parodic edge, aware of itself even as it indulges the grotesque and the dark, serious underpinnings of fear. Cane’s novels supposedly drive “susceptible” readers to near frenzy, and Trent is a perfect candidate – a man who doesn’t believe in such things, yet stays up to all hours reading the books. Is the entire story a product of Trent’s madness (remember: he’s telling this from within an insane asylum), or has Cane’s work opened a facet of the human mind and the universe better left closed? As the film develops, layers of fictional and nonfictional worlds begin to overlap, and Trent’s experiences become more and more convoluted.

Neill is an excellent protagonist here: not quite likable, but not inherently unlikable either. Carmen has less to do, and actually gives the impression of being a bit more gone on Cane than she should be. But as with many horror films, the people are really just there to be enacted upon – the real star is horror, and how the film unravels that horror. Making a movie with a Lovecraftian setting is a difficult venture; Lovecraft’s horror usually lies in the unseen and the barely glimpsed. Carpenter manages it, though, giving us just enough fear beyond the realm of conscious thought, interspersed with ghoulish body horror. It’s an effective approximation of Lovecraft’s prose, and a powerful cinematic technique in its own right.

In the Mouth of Madness is like a fever dream, starting out with a certain element of realism and quickly descending into the realms of, well, madness. The conclusion is both chilling and just a little funny, its terror punctuated by a low-level of humor that brings out that fine line between the terrifying and the ridiculous. Carpenter has done right by Lovecraft, and that’s a feat unto itself.


Bloody October: The Fog (1980)

The Fog (1980)


There are certain gaps in my horror film education that I have struggled to fill. While I’m very good on Roger Corman, James Whale and Tod Browning, I have missed out on the major works of directors like Wes Craven, Dario Argento and, I realize, John Carpenter. Some of this is due to a total lack of interest in slasher films or most body horror, but as a horror fan I cannot run forever. Some films I simply have to see.

The Fog is one of those Carpenter films that I heard good things about and never got around to watching until now. I’m pleased that I did so. It all begins with Mr. Machen (John Houseman) telling a scary story to kids at a campfire. The story sets up the rest of the film, which plays like an urban legend. The town of Antonio Bay suddenly goes crazy one night, with car alarms going off, pieces of stone falling out of walls, and the ground rattling with an unmeasured earthquake. Meanwhile, a glowing fog rolls in across the water, traveling against the wind. The fog, as Mr. Machen tells us, once caused the deaths of ship full of people, crashing them against the rocks in the Bay 100 years ago on that very night. Now it has returned to Antonio Bay, and it brings with it a strange and terrible vengeance.

The Fog really could have gone either way. The notion is a good one – a traveling fog that envelops and murders – but it could easily have slipped into hokey special effects and people running away from a cloud. Carpenter is a better filmmaker than that, thank God. He instills a sense of otherworldly terror in the fog – there are ghosts that come with it, but for the most part they are glimpsed in shadow and profile, announced by a pounding on the door or wall, proceeded by fog and haze. The horror lies in the build-up, not the execution, and there are few filmmakers from the 1980s so capable of building suspense as John Carpenter.

The cast helps too. Jamie Lee Curtis is on hand as a sweet young hitch-hiker who just happens to wind up in Antonio Bay. Her mother Janet Leigh puts in an amusing appearance as one of the town pillars. Adrienne Barbeau is the local radio DJ and as close to a final girl type as we’re going to get. There’s also Hal Holbrook playing a drunken priest who discovers the true story of the founding of Antonio Bay, and the reason why the fog is … really pissed off.

It’s a simple but effective story told in a simple but effective way, which is what good horror filmmaking is all about. Elaborate backstories, big CGI effects and convoluted character development be damned. Horror is about good scares, and The Fog has that in abundance.