Directed by John Carpenter
Line that stays with me: “Things are turning to shit out there aren’t they”
Essay Warning: There are no spoilers or story details. I want to offer the emotion that a film can access within us. Plus I think the best way to watch a film is by not knowing anything about it. Just Go In…So if you haven’t watched this film yet please don’t read this essay. Read it afterwards so we can enjoy the “feeling” together.
I remember renting “In the Mouth of Madness” at my local mom and pop video store when I was around 10 years old. That was in 1994, boy was I excited. I caught the trailer plenty of times in the previews of previous horror film rentals like the “The Mangler”. When I got home, I raced towards my VCR, popped in the VHS, turned the lights off, shut and locked the door. About 100 minutes later I was left dumbfounded trying to figure what the hell I had just watch, I wasn’t even left afraid. To say this movie went over my head is an understatement; it soared, and then vanished. I didn’t catch up until last year when I started to study John Carpenter’s work. I reflected on my initial viewing before I watched it again, this time on DVD and realized quickly that this second viewing was going to be special. I suppose my gut feelings were being guided by strong images that never disappeared.
A piece of artwork remains the same but over time you change, a very important fundamental truth to remember when you become introspective on films and their effects on your life. We have all had that experience; you get nostalgia hungry, and get the bad idea to watch one of your childhood movies, (in my case "Rookie of the year”) and, ten minutes in you start saying things like “I used to think this was good?” I truly believe that strong works (not Good or Bad) of art affect us all the time. From drawings to products of the printed word, music, and video games, they all have a profound impact on our lives. Some people know this outright and don’t assume. Others have no idea, but are literally living their entire life as some concoction of the content they receive. That sort of life usually doesn’t lend much room for self-discovery or self-awareness. “In the Mouth of Madness” has somehow managed to speak about this strange conundrum through a horror film. Sutter Cane tells John Trent outright “You are what I write”, which begs for us to question the effects of all popular content that we receive. I get it now, I can understand and I am very scared NOW. This film was very much ahead of its time, 19 years later, we have arrived inside the mouth of madness.
It's hard to put into words the feelings I get when I read some of the news headlines today. “Mom kills baby using a microwave” “Coach sexually molests players” “Serial killer on the loose”. These are 3 from about 300 terrible headlines you could read each day. The fact that now in defeat we assume “that’s the way things are” might be one of saddest acts of neglect in universal history. Many believe no one is at fault, that there is no culprit, which of course is not true. It just takes a long look at history to arrive at some basic truths of where we went wrong. The main character in John Carpenter’s film, John Trent, wonderfully performed by Sam Neil gets into a similar journey, to discover if something told to him is true or false. He says it loud and clear, “I bust fraud and phonies”. You got to love that anti-authoritarian attitude which is displayed all throughout the film. What makes the attack even sweeter, is the fact that John is actually searching for an author.
John Carpenter is up there as one of the best film directors with an anti-authoritarian attitude, his only rival is Brian De Palma, who’s “Blow-Out” is a masterpiece that also deals with uncovering the truth. Before I type up some more love words about this film, I want to make it clear that I do not think these films are great because they have a “message”. No, I believe these films are great because they have something to say and achieved it in a highly entertaining fashion. I love how “In the Mouth of Madness” begins with the montage of the Sutter Cane book being printed, which in a confusing essence is the birth of the movie itself. Always surprising us with exciting, haunting scores John Carpenter opens the film with some very “Motley Crue” inspired music, which does not let you settle on any idea of what might happen next. Though the screenplay was not written by John Carpenter, I’m sure when he read it, he felt right at home. The screenplay was written by Michael De Luca, which proves to me that working successfully with anyone has more to do with matters of taste than anything else.
Michael De Luca, would later become head of New Line Cinema and green light risky, beautiful, now considered untouchable classics “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” directed by the new leader of cinematic greatness, Paul Thomas Anderson. The man has great taste. His script married with John Carpenter’s efforts have made a film that could never be dismissed or devalued. This is due to the fact that the film is delivered to you in MOVIE STYLE. Not “Realism” style, which you can witness in full dull display in boring overrated films like “Babel”(I am not saying that “Realism” doesn’t work in movies, I am saying use it right, “Traffic” is a great example of “Realism“ style.) From the very first scene, you can enjoy the fun of great MOVIE DIALOG being thrown at you and of course the performances are handled in very much the same way. Why the hell do you think Charlton Heston is in the movie? I don’t know about his personal life but I’d be hard pressed to think of an actor that could deliver lines better than Charlton Heston. He has some of the most memorable scenes in film history all attached to his unique strong delivery of great dialog. Planet of the Apes: “You maniacs! You blew it up” Soylent Green:“Soylent Green is people!”. The fact that the film is open about its offbeat intentions makes you revel in them and gets you excited about what more the film has to offer beneath the surface.
Creating a film with this sort of attitude and simple approach could have been enough but somehow John Carpenter still manages to scare you or make you feel very unsettled for long periods of time. The compositions of shots in this film are breathtaking as always in John Carpenter films. Shots thought out with the location in mind, using structures on the set to enhance the frame. Pans and dolly shots timed to perfection always thinking of the overall masterful effect. John Carpenter’s film style showcases maturity, confidence and overall intellect, which is important when making a film which could easily be dismissed as “nothing serious”. His filming style almost forces you to take him seriously; you know this thing was not just pasted together. That’s very rewarding for a viewer; you know you are in good hands and it makes you want to dig. Now what you make of it all is a different story.
I will never assume exactly what any film says. I just react to what is on the screen. I gather information and probably enjoy the ideology more than the absolute truth. “In the Mouth of Madness” has plenty of that. These days I find myself thinking what the hell is going on in this country. We praise rappers who truly celebrate that crime pays, most young women look up to talentless rich whores and we continue to cut public school funding. That’s just the tip of the iceberg that could sink this Titanic and somehow most people want you to be OK with this. You either give in or they will call you a “Hater” when you try to explain that nothing makes sense. One phone call later you are in a padded cell. The very notion that the film commits to probe America’s problem (which pretty much makes it a universal problem.) with the written word and its various outlets, excites me.
The film lays it plain and simple when suggesting that the content we praise and champion has overwhelming impact on our day to day lives. Sometimes the impact is hard to measure as the truth usually creeps up behind you when it’s too late. The Bible is referenced in the film quite often, as it should. What better comparison is there, all types of profiteers, politicians, pastors, and priests have used the Lord’s name in vain to raise capital, gain favor or kill “evil” people. All because people believe the words in a book, and they can use its power to further their careers or stature. The Bush family knows all about that. I mean no disrespect to anyone’s religion; I only desire to illustrate the power of the written word.
Now that less people read, music a quicker way to express the written word is rapidly turning things upside down. Most music today has no purpose or life lessons to offer, just party, party, and party. Rap is a perfect example of this. The black community has been forever tarnished by the latest incarnation of rap music. How the hell did it go from “Public Enemy” (a positive movement.) to the nonsense of Lil Wayne’s Cash Money which is pretty much telling black youth, look at me “I’m a successful drug dealer, you could be too”. This is truth now; it’s in the papers, on the television and on the internet. You cannot fight the fact that people around you are enjoying it. From Mob Wives, Atlanta Housewives and Jersey Shore, it seems everyone is along for the ride of celebrating vile, pathetic declarations of success. They see nothing wrong or anything at stake; sooner or later that truth will put you in the same situation that John Trent is in near the end of the film. He’s ready to run for cover in a mental institution or at the very least a comfortable room, away from the madness. At the end of the film John Trent cannot believe his own eyes because what he has witnessed does not make any sense to him at all. In one scene near the end Charlton Heston asks him, “You don’t believe it do you?” John Trent is trying to come to terms with his reality. In this day and age coming to terms with our reality is a nonstop wrestling match for me. This film offers many mind boggling scenes, images and emotions to entertain, offer advice or gracefully scare you through the madness. Especially when you find yourself feeling like, as the “imaginary” character in the film Linda Styles puts it, “the last one left”.
ABOUT RCM: Rutz Classic Movies is dedicated on writing film essays for films that in Rutz's opinion, have not gotten the credit they deserve. Next Essay: Terry Gilliam's BrazilTweet to @RealRutz