Director: John Carpenter
I’ve always been a fan of Carpenter, even before I knew who he was. I was raised in a house run and operated by film buffs, who I fondly called Mom and Dad. Growing up, my father’s tastes in movies had more of an affect on me than my mothers. The first rated R movie I got my hands on and watched fully was Ridley Scott’s Alien. I watched it in the middle of the day, with all the lights on, at a friends house. Even in a sunlit living room surrounded by reality, I remember being afraid. I wasn’t scared away however; rather, I just became hooked on the horror genre. John Carpenter’s The Thing wrecked me in a way similar to Alien. A frozen desert, a small crew of humans, and one other-wordly monster brought to life through fleshy animatronics and freakish, uncanny silhouette shots filled me with the a kind of fear that I now recognize and look for in a horror flick.
I found Madness on Netflix, while skimming through the horror films available on instant watch. I saw Carpenter’s name under “director,” and noticed that Sam Neil was starring as lead, and got very excited, very quickly. Admittedly my excitement wavered a bit after watching the credits: a montage of close-up shots of a printing press, a dated guitar-jam of Carpenter’s partial composing, screaming through the list of cast and crew. I was excited again once the movie actually started. Sam Neil plays John Trent, at first, a violent schizophrenic. We seem him shut up in a padded cell, kicking and screaming, the usual pronouncement of “I’m not crazy!” shouted, just in case we were confused as to what his mental state might be. Soon though, Trent is explaining to a government paranormal psychiatrist (or something) about how he got into this state of mind, and that’s when I realize this movie will take place in flashback; exposition given to us through an already established unreliable protagonist. We get to see Trent as a cynic insurance investigator, content to believe everyone in the world has an angle, an agenda. He lives as though he is surrounded by bullshitters, and carries a predictable mantra like a suit of armor: you can’t bullshit a a bullshitter. Trent is a freelancer, bragging in the beginning about being his own boss; no one pulls his strings. Sam Neil revels in both roles: playing a terrifying schizophrenic and cocky investigator with ease. When he takes an assignment trying to hunt down fictional Stephen King parallel Sutter Cane, it’s a bit disappointing that the he’s given a sidekick. Linda Stiles (Julie Carmen) plays Sutter’s editor, and for some reason she’s necessary to Trent tracking down this lost horror fiction writer.
This is where the movie starts to falter. Leaving behind reality (a state which the film constantly debates) we follow Stiles and Trent into the world of Sutter Cane’s fictional town of Hobb’s End. The fiction of Cane starts to become real in small New Hampshire town, (which isn’t even supposed to exist), and Trent, who was so sure about being no one’s puppet, now seems to be questioning whether he isn’t just a character in Cane’s series of horror fiction; the most recent book being entitled, funny enough, In the Mouth of Madness. The movie devolves into a mess, complete with dreams within dreams and annoying repetitious discussions/asides on the constitution of reality. It becomes post-modern, using only the gimmicks and none of the insights that are familiar to the movement. That overdone limbo between dream and reality is where the majority of the movie takes place, and because of this, despite horrific, tentacle-swishing monsters, Neil playing cartoon-crazy like only he can, and gruesome make-up effects, the film suffers, and ultimately stagnates. Nothing seems to actually happen in the town-from-hell, Hobb’s End and the ending, (which is essentially just a clip-show of what we’ve just seen) answers a question we had answered for us a half hour ago. Carpenter has forgotten that horror works best when we can feel the character’s horror; when we can, no matter how fantastic the setting, empathize with the terrorized. It’s impossible to do this in the stuttering, jittery mess that is In the Mouth of Madness.
Also: fiction update!