In The Mouth Of Madness

In The Mouth Of Madness (1995)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Sam Neill, Jürgen Prochnow, Julie Carmen, John Glover, Charlton Heston
Extras: Commentary track, Theatrical trailer

It is interesting to view John Carpenter’s career and examine each movie for its own merits on occasion. I have noticed that I found some of his movies actually work better with some distance upon repeated viewing, rather than the high expectations one has when seeing a particular film in theaters for the very first time. While Carpenter’s “The Thing “was a homage to the great 50s B-movies, “Big Trouble In Little China” was his tribute to Hong Kong films and “Prince Of Darkness” a bit of a nod to Hammer’s classics, “In The Mouth Of Madness” is screaming “H. P. Lovecraft” throughout. What I find most interesting about it is that it certainly succeeds much better in creating an atmosphere that resembles the author’s creepy and surreal sense of fiction, than any of the real Lovecraftian movies do. With Carpenter in the director’s chair, New Line’s secret weapon Michael De Luca as the writer and Sam Neill in the lead, nothing can really go wrong – other than in the movie, where things really do go haywire. With that, I dove right into this hot new release from New Line Home Video to take my trip into the mouth of madness.

Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) is a best-selling horror novelist whose books have a weird impact on its readers. Although the stories are entirely fictive, they leave their mark on readers, eventually driving many of them insane. Before he can deliver his latest book, Cane disappears and his publishing house brings in insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) to find out what happened to the writer. Trent is fully convinced that it is all just a well-prepared media stunt to create headlines, and he immediately tries to uncover the hoax. He starts putting together some pieces that lead him a town that supposedly existed only in Cane’s novels. Slowly he realizes that things are becoming too real to be a set-up. He is re-living events from the novels and eventually it seems as if he is currently living through Sutter Cane’s final masterpiece. Could it be that human belief has altered reality, and that a horror writer’s fiction turns into reality, superseding the physical existence as we know it?

Sam Neill is amazing as John Trent in this movie, showing off his entire acting range. He goes a long way from the superior, cold and calculating investigator to a man who accepts that the impossible is taking shape. With subtle nuances you can almost see his brain at work as he tries to figure out what is going on at any given time. Trying to rationalize, attempting to find explanations for the inconceivable, he is changing as a person and Neill’s performance brings this transmutation to full life. Most other actors – although good – play almost insignificantly small parts, as the focus of the story is on Neill’s character only, and it is great to see such a skilled actor at work.

“In The Mouth Of Madness” is unmistakably a John Carpenter movie, featuring all the traits that make him such an interesting filmmaker. Once again, it features some of his own music to create the pounding pace in a number of scenes, and although he does not take writing credits for the film this time around, much of the story has certainly been tailored with him in mind. Especially the ending is very typical in its abruptness, leaving viewers hanging there for a second until you will eventually wake up and catch your breath. I have always loved this beautiful approach to end movies, as it keeps images very vividly in your mind and offers plenty of material to ponder what you have just witnessed, at the same time still offering a solid resolution for the story.
But also the visual approach to the tale carries his signature throughout, as well as the film’s editing. Although a little atypical in its subject matter, “In The Mouth Of Madness” is certainly one of the films that combine and showcase most of his impeccable skills at once and also has to rank as one of the director’s most challenging achievements.

The DVD New Line Home Video is presenting here contains the film’s theatrical <$PS,widescreen version> in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, as well as a <$PS,pan and scan> transfer. The transfer is crisp and clean and seems to come from a very clean film print. The level of detail in this presentation is remarkable, bringing out many details of the oftentimes dimly lit scenery. Detail you may not have noticed before on other video incarnations. It dramatically enhances the feel of unease created by the film at many times, as shadows seem to be penetrable, yet never penetrable enough to make out clear details. The colors in the transfer are bold and strong, nicely delineated without bleeding or <$chroma,chroma noise>. Their reproduction is faithful, also rendering fleshtones very naturally. Compression artifacts are not existent on this superb transfer, making “In The Mouth Of Madness” another great incarnation of a John Carpenter movie on DVD.

The disc contains an English <$DS,Dolby Surround> track, as well as a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> mix. While both are very well integrated, the 5.1 mix offers more dimension and width. With its natural sounding frequency response, the audio track creates an active surround stage with good bass extension. Sometimes subtle, at other times more effective, surrounds are used quite frequently to enhance the impact of the visuals and to further the surreal feeling the movie generates.

New Line Home Video is continuously releasing some of the finest looking DVDs in the market and always knows how to please fans of particular movies with their selection of supplements. Apart from their Platinum Special Editions, a number of their standard releases feature exciting bonus features. In the case of “In The Mouth Of Madness”, New Line has added the superb <$commentary,commentary track> by John Carpenter and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe, that was also part of the movie’s Laserdisc release. Kibbe has been lensing many of Carpenter’s newer films, starting with “Prince Of Darkness” in 1987, going all the way over “They Live”, “Body Bags”, to “In The Mouth Of Madness” and went later on to photograph the director’s “Village Of The Damned”, “Escape From LA” and “Vampires”.
He practically replaced Carpenter’s former long-time cinematographer Dean Cundey, who went on to lens many big budget Hollywood movies when Carpenter decided to step out of the major studio system to return to his independent filmmaking roots. The commentary track is very good, covering many aspects of the production, and it is always impressive how well Carpenter remembers even minute details after all these years. It is also always refreshing to hear how outgoing he is when he is talking about his productions, always keeping in mind and answering exactly what film fans may want to know about his movies. He won’t let technical lingo go by without explanation and he is always concerned to cover as many aspects of a scene as possible.

As John Carpenter puts it himself in the commentary, “In The Mouth Of Madness” is the third part in his “Apocalypse Trilogy” that started with “The Thing”. It is an imaginative and intelligent approach to the subject matter, although certain parts of the movie don’t work out as well as they certainly could have. Especially the apocalypse scene with demons materializing could have had substantially more impact and punch if tackled differently. Nonetheless, to me “In The Mouth Of Madness” is a great alternate-reality movie with plenty of subtext to digest. The tightrope walk between dreams, reality, and fiction is well built up to the movie’s finale. The beautiful presentation on this DVD combined with the great commentary track makes this DVD a great addition in any horror fan’s collection, so make sure to get your copy before the world goes entirely mad.