It's been awhile since a movie has taken such a dramatic nosedive off the quality cliff. In the Mouth of Madness begins as an eerie story about a vanished horror author and the insurance investigator dispatched to retrieve him, and ends as an unnofficial attempt to shoehorn the most horror clichés into a single motion picture.
From stray dogs to creepy kids to a small, off-the-map New England town where secrets are as prevalent the looming, Gothic church, director John Carpenter and screenwriter Michael De Luca hit every mile-marker on the Stephen King Highway. Frequent detours into H.P. Lovecraft territory only serve to highlight their de minimis ambition and inept execution.
Book publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) hires professional truth-sniffer John Trent (Sam Neill) to find the company's star author before the release of his new novel. Harglow sends one of his editors, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), along for the trip. As they leave town, news reports trickle in of people going crazy after having read the work of Sutter Cane, this universe's most prolific horror writer. Too bad for Trent and Linda, they've recently consumed a large amount of Cane's work, and their journey becomes fraught with bad dreams, waking nightmares, and a perception of reality that's as fluid as the drool creeping down my slack mouth as I write this.
Is it possible to spoil this movie? Do you, my trusted reader--for whom I have all the respect in the world--have any doubt about Cane's secret? As film lovers, or at least as people who have seen more than three horror movies in our lifetime, we know that the author has channeled the powers of dark forces older than time; forces so grotesque as to be beyond mankind's ability to even understand how horribly slimy and tentacle-y they are. We know that Trent will go insane (partially thanks to the bookends in which he's interviewed by a cop in an asylum), and that the nature of reality itself will be unreliable.
It takes a deft touch to pull off a movie like this. Unfortunately, John Carpenter lost whatever chops he had well before the 90s. Earlier, I said that the movie takes a nosedive, meaning that at some point I thought the story had promise. The first twenty minutes are pretty good, but very quickly it becomes apparent that Carpenter and De Luca aren't commenting on King's and Lovecraft's tropes--they're relying on them as shorthand to make a cheap thriller. We see oozing, alien monsters on the painted covers of Sutter Cane's novels, but when the "unnamable, unfathomable creatures" manifest in real life, they're clumsy, generic puppets who might easily be imagined by anyone (a shame, too, because they were created by Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, widely considered the masters of modern practical effects). The filmmakers also underscore every creepy moment through needless repetition: we get at least five shots of a painting in which the figures keep shifting, as if Carpenter wanted to make sure anyone who might've gotten up for a bathroom break would have ample chances to be scared shitless.
Had the filmmakers decided to follow the great mystery they'd set up in the beginning to its most effective conclusion, In the Mouth of Madness might have been something special. Trent and Linda should never have found Sutter Cane. But they do, and it turns out to be Jurgen Prochnow, who phones in a calm-lunatic performance while looking an awful lot like Neil Gaiman (I should clarify: the way Neil Gaiman looks today). Once Cane shows up, the suspense and the ride are over, and the rest of the movie becomes about melting faces and melodrama (Carmen is unbelievably bad here--there's nothing left of the awesome, aloof actress who rocked as Fright Night Part 2's vampire queen).
Only Sam Neill makes it out of the movie with dignity intact (okay, Heston fares well, too, benefiting from limited screen time and leftover Moses cred). He has so much fun with the Trent character that he'd go on to play a similar version of him in Event Horizon a few years later (or, as I like to call it, In the Mouth of Madness...in Space!). But everyone else is wasted here. John Glover, David Warner, Bernie Casey--they all show up for a few minutes each, doing glorified Featured Player work before slinking back off the screen. If the names in the opening credits get you as excited as they did me, please re-calibrate your expectations.
(The biggest surprise is a brief appearance by a very young Hayden Christensen as a not-so-creepy kid; surprising because there's no indication of the franchise-wrecking awfulness that he'd grow into at puberty.)
The only way to call In the Mouth of Madness a success is to take the view that Carpenter and De Luca have created a ninety-minute meta-commentary on crappy Stephen King adaptations. If that's the case, then I stand up and salute both men on a job more-than-well-done. But I suspect that, like Sutter Cane, they were driven by darker forces--ancient, evil spirits whose goal is not to enrich peoples' minds, but to drain both their wallets and collective imagination.