The early '90s had not boded well for John Carpenter, with the eye-rollingly bad as Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) his primary achievement, if it qualifies as one.
Intended as a "comeback" for the near-legendary director of Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), & Christine (1977), his apocalyptic homage to H. P. Lovecraft, In the Mouth of Madness (1994), was not quite the success he'd hoped for. But when one ponders how badly so much of HPL has come off on the screen, & Mouth of Madness is aging so much better than the majority of adaptations.
Private investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) is hired by a publisher (Charlton Heston) to find his most profitable but missing author. Trent will visit the allegedly fictional town of Hobb's End, hoping to uncover what became of the mysteriouisly vanished horror writer Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), whose career satirizes that of Stephen King.
The long night-journey by automobile to the New England village provides one of the film's finest sequences.
Travelling with Cane's editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), the car passes through a dimensional rift of nothingness, with implications that made my own mouth go suddenly dry.
For in fact Hobb's End exists on no map except that of the missing writer's imagination, fiction having shown the investigator the route.
The grim-visaged populace of the reticent village are not eager to part with secrets, but slowly John comes to the conviction that reality itself is shifting, due to some damnable connection between Sutter Cane's horror novels, the collective "belief" of his enormous readership, & the sheer content of time & space.
This is a great film for a while, & it's only too bad that when the story takes us into the underground world, it goes all cornpone. This world is merely hinted of by Lovecraft in such tales as "Pickman's Model," here given cinematic literalness that is fundamentally dorky.
This is so often the chief problem with adapting the cerebral nature of Lovecraftian horror -- of demonic realities which are (as HPL's own cliche would have it) vastly beyond description -- reducing the darkly mystic to literal special FX moments.
Once the allegedly imperceivable is proven all too perceivable as a cartoon, it's inevitably trite.
When we catch our first glimpse of a tentacle reaching upward from hidden passages, it's brief, exciting, even awesome. Likely that should've remained as close to the "answer" to all the secrets as we ever came.
But then a lot of the audience would feel cheated because they didn't see enough, movies being picture-driven & too many viewers are trained not to be using their own imiaginations.
I shan't spoil it by revealing too much as whatever small pleasures the film provides are from not expecting such ridiculous things to happen, sometimes delivering at least a jolt. I will say that when Sutter Cane shows up to essentially unveil what Lovecraft himself never unveiled, it took an actor of Prochnow's unusual severity (disco era perm notwithstanding) to give it any strength at all.
With almost anyone else it would've resulted in laughter, as to me it was like looking behind the mask of the Great Oz & discovering he's actually Roger Rabbit.
By comparison, Sam Neill, even though a superb actor, was not good enough to make it more than a joke that he descends from disbelieving "just the facts ma'am" realist to buggy-eyed lunatic.
I presume he plays it as an over-the-edge joke on purpose, for no intelligent actor could imagine from the script that it might call for anything other. And yet I don't think the screenwriter or the director intended it to be so funny.
The attempt to mix Raymond Chandler film noir with Lovecraftian cosmic doom was truly worth the try. And there's enough rudimentary detective work in some of Lovecraft's tales to justify Carpenter's approach.
Compared to so much horror that is merely awful beginning to end, it's hard to see why this one was a box office failure. Ignoring where it falls short artistically, it delivers everything a cheezier horror film delivers, with the bonus of a pokerface.
I'd say that when the film is being effective it's one of Carpenter's best, but if like me one finds the ultimate revelations disappointing & visually ridiculous, it leaves a feeling of having viewed a near-miss, the film eventually crushed under ponderous & pompous though rather juvenile philosophizing about mediocre creature FX. For me that automobile ride at the beginning remained the one gravely brilliant sequence.
Continue to versions of H. P. Lovecraft's:
At the Mountains of Madness
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