The “what if” of “In the Mouth of Madness” posits that a famous spinner of horror novels can incite the populace to strange and hideous acts through his prose. Reality and fantasy flip-flop in random fashion and the level of disorientation drives its characters to the brink of the abyss.
It’s a nifty idea and director John Carpenter keeps it moving a step ahead of the preposterous almost to the bitter end. But then it flags, uncertain of how to attain a reasonable conclusion where there is no consistent logic. While that’s a bit of a letdown, the picture’s level of invention is so far superior to any recent horror outing that fans will likely embrace this mock-Stephen King tale to upbeat theatrical returns.
The film has a nice balance of popular and cult appeal. The way is certainly open for a sequel and it will be a tough call, based on OK theatrical potency, to venture into this mayhem again.
Crack insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) has lapsed into dementia as the curtain rises. He relates the wild tale that brought him to the padded cell as an attentive, if befuddled, psychiatrist listens. The doctor is already aware of the chaos in the streets that’s spawned a global wave of violence and a reign of unstoppable anarchy.
Trent’s seemingly insane explanation is that the work of bestselling author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) is the key to the bloody phenomena. He stumbled onto the truth when the author’s publisher (Charlton Heston) hired him to locate his missing meal ticket. Cane inexplicably vanished just when final revisions of a new title were due.
Enlisting the assistance of editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), Trent goes in search of Hobb’s End, the fictional setting of the errant scribe’s tales of the macabre. When they indeed stumble onto the tiny New England hamlet, it’s as if they stepped into the pages of the novels. They know the fear ahead simply because it’s been foretold between the covers of popular past works.
Michael De Luca’s script is both homage and parody of the King oeuvre. Carpenter takes the blueprint a step further with nods to “Living Deads, “”Aliens” and, most effectively, the monster from the id. It’s about as clever as the genre gets without intellectualizing the screams into vapor.
Neill, normally the picture of control, plays against type as the unravelling hero. While the pic doesn’t really have meaty characters, the presence of Neill, Carmen, Heston and Prochnow lend an air of credibility that heightens the proceedings.
It’s also blessed with an arsenal of special effects that work with tinker toy precision.
“In the Mouth of Madness” chomps down hard on the genre. It’s a tasty morsel not overly concerned with nutritional content, nor intent on driving its point home with a bloody stake. The balance seems perfect, even if the story seems to stray slightly off course.