Wednesday, October 23, 2013

17 Days Until Halloween - In The Mouth Of Madness

"Do you read Sutter Cane?"

In the Mouth of Madness is John Carpenter's last great film.

That is, barring any Clint Eastwood-esque latter years of life creative peak of directing, John Carpenter's 1995 film will be his last great achievement.

Not Village of the Damned.

Not Escape from L.A.

Not Vampires (although it could have been.  Carpenter back in the Western mold, with vampires thrown in.  The film has the distinction of creating one of the most iconic vampire is film with Thomas Ian Griffith as Valek; and cutting the film off at the knees by casting James Woods as the hero.  Now I have nothing against James Woods.  He's a great actor -- but tough guy hero he's not.  There's a scene where he beats a priest with a telephone to get information out of him.  All I could think of while watching it was You hit me with a phone, and the next time you see it will be on your pelvic x-ray).

Not Ghosts of Mars.

And certainly not The Ward.

In the Mouth of Madness is Carpenter's last great stand.

I don't say that with criticism or condemnation.  I say it with a bit of sadness -- because it reinforces my belief that one of my favorite (and all-time greatest) filmmakers just stayed a bit too long.

He's been very vocal about his being "retired" over the past few years; but the truth is that he began to check out long ago.

Every great fighter knows when to hang it up.  And John Carpenter has taken his share of punches -- battles with studios, evisceration at the hands of critics, box office flops.  All of it has taken its toll.

But what a career it has been.

Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, Christine (absolutely one of my favorites -- and one of the greatest car movies ever), Starman, Prince of Darkness.

And even though he didn't direct them, he produced Halloween II and Halloween III: Season of the Witch, two of the best (but often and unfairly maligned) sequels and essential 80' horror films.

And I could spend hours just talking about his legendary scores (perhaps another time).

His stamp, not just on the genre, but on all of filmmaking, should be without question.

Here's a great article that says it much better than I can:

Although Halloween was an immediate classic, a good number of his films (daresay all) have simply been ahead of their time.

The Thing is the most obvious, a film that had the misfortune to debut in the summer of E.T., and the public and critics, who had consumed gallons of the Spielberg Jesus-parable punch, ignored/condemned/eviscerated the film.

Now?  The Thing is regarded not only as one of Carpenter's best, but of all time.

Similar ahead-of-its-time complications may have affected In the Mouth of Madness, as the film failed to find an audience, just barely recouping its production budget.

But still, upon modern reflection, I think it is Carpenter's last great hurrah.

It's John Carpenter meets H.P. Lovecraft, with Sam Neil playing John Trent, an insurance investigator who's been hired to track down the whereabouts of Sutter Cane, a hugely popular horror novelist whose work has what can only be called an unsettling effect on some of his readers.  The author has disappeared just days before he was due to hand in his most recent novel, In the Mouth of Madness.

Crafting a mysterious map from the cover artwork of Cane's novels, Trent and Cane's editor, Linda Styles, head off to Hobb's End, the marked spot in the middle of New Hampshire.

They find the town -- but it's safe to say it doesn't exist on any map.

The town is populated by a number of Cane's characters, and what Trent initially believes to be an elaborate publicity stunt develops into a place where Cane's monsters are exceedingly real.

Any H.P. Lovecraft fan is aware of his mythology of the "great, old ones", slimy tentacled beasts who ruled the world before man, and are due to return.

Cane is essentially Lovecraft, and it turns out he is less author than conduit, a device through which the beasts of beyond have crafted their return.

Trent is able to escape back to our world, only to discover that reality, and Trent for that matter, are not what they seem.

As always (at least, according to my list here), the film does not have a happy ending.  In fact, Carpenter considers the film to be part of his "end of the world trilogy" -- tied to The Thing and Prince of Darkness.

Even though John Carpenter's work with cinematographer Dean Cundey (with whom he seemingly had a falling out with after Big Trouble in Little China) will never be equalled, with their collaboration forging my own personal love of the widescreen aspect ratio, Gary B. Kibbe's (one of Cundey's camera operators) work on In the Mouth of Madness still feels like a strong part of Carpenter's visual palette.

And Carpenter's score (with the association of Jim Lang) is eerie and all-together classic Carpenter (I think Carpenter's strength as a composer has always been that he uses the synthesizer as as synthesizer, instead of using it to mimic an orchestra).

The special effects are the early work of K.N.B., and they are a huge part of bringing the Lovecraftian creatures to life.

In the Mouth of Madness is definitely one of The Master's best works, albeit his last.

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