Terror Tuesday: Terror Team-Up #1: IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS
BC: Some have labeled In The Mouth of Madness Carpenter’s last great film, and I do not disagree. I hadn’t seen it for years, but when I hosted a screening at the New Bev a few months ago and saw it projected for the first time, it was truly like seeing it for the first time PERIOD. For starters, the audience just LOVED Sam Neill’s character, and his hilariously cynical demeanor (plus his smoking habit) wasn’t wholly unlike that of his director, a bit I never picked up on before. I know Memoirs of an Invisible Man gets an asterisk on Carpenter’s filmography - it’s one of the very few that doesn’t have his name above the title - but for whatever faults it may have, it was obviously worth making as it established Carpenter and Neill’s working relationship, one I hope they rekindle someday. Todd?
Todd Farmer: I saw the movie in the theaters about a year before my grand move to LA to pursue fame, fortune and boobs. Horror wasn’t getting a lot of love at the time. Beyond New Line and Dimension very few studios would even consider horror. This was just before Scream blew the lid off the joint. But with De Luca behind the script and New Line, this one was going to happen. As for my interest? First off, John Carpenter. Of course, I’m in. He’s one of the reasons I am what I am. Halloween is one of the reasons I do what I do. Second, I LOVED The Hunt for Red October. So any movie with Sam “I would like to have seen Montana” Neill had my ticket and popcorn money. But this wasn’t the sweet sidekick or the fatherly dino detective. This was old school Omen Neill. And from the moment we meet Trent, Neill’s character, you KNOW you are in for a story that’s likely gonna leave everyone bloody. Next toss in the story set up and it’s nearly perfect. I mentioned Carpenter as one of my reasons. Well, Stephen King is one of my other reasons. This was a movie about Stephen King writing books that drive his readers… no… his followers insane. I’m getting hard again just thinking about it.
BC: Yeah the King parallels were definitely part of the fun, and I liked that they made sure to mention that King existed in this world too, grounding it in ours (though I guess King didn’t mind this Cane guy stealing his font). Especially now in retrospect, since King himself eventually dipped into this sort of rubber reality with his later “Dark Tower” novels, it’s fun to see a film so informed by his writing and persona playing around with these ideas. But we can’t forget Lovecraft, as the basic story of a guy going to a strange New England town is very much Lovecraftian (more often than not, King heroes tended to be residents of wherever the story took place), and the monsters - which we don’t see nearly enough - are the sort of grotesque and undefinable types that he dealt with, unlike King who usually sticks to things we can more easily imagine: killer clowns, vampires, haunted cars, etc. And that’s part of what makes it a very unique Carpenter horror film; nearly every major element is something he hadn’t really dealt with before (though it’s interesting that like Memoirs, it’s a flashback narrative). Also, it might be considered part of his “Apocalypse Trilogy”, but it’s not about a bunch of folks trapped somewhere, like the other two (The Thing and Prince of Darkness). Do you think it fits in well with those two?
TF: Likely one of the reasons I’ll never visit Bangor Maine is that it feels a little too Hobb’s End to me. But I do love that In the Mouth of Madness starts King and ends Lovecraft. Has King ever gone so anti-reality? Even “Dark Tower” feels oddly grounded though its reality only exists in a world that’s moved on. I know there are those who argue that Madness loses itself. No it doesn’t. Morons. What, you thought a movie called In the Mouth of Madness would wrap itself into a nice pretty box in the end? Get thee behind me Satan. The movie makes sense BECAUSE of the King/Lovecraft influence. With King you get mainstream horror and fame and fortune. You get the success story! Because King is all those things. He lives in the world that loves him. He didn’t have to die for his work to achieve success. Lovecraft wasn’t so fortunate. Lovecraft’s world was dark and full of struggle. He was not a man of fame and fortune. He died in pain. And poor. We get both sides of the coin. This isn’t a story where good goes after evil, fights, gets wounded but wins in the end. It’s a journey from King to Lovecraft.
Does it fit in the End of the World trilogy? Oh without a doubt. And it’s funny that “End of the World” is also a Sam Neill theme. For instance, the ambiguously named, Until the End of the World. While most of his films don’t actually see the end, several of them flirt with it. In the Mouth of Madness doesn’t flirt. What’s both horrible and wonderful is that trilogy grows darker as it proceeds. At least with The Thing there’s some glimmer of hope. Maybe it’ll freeze. Maybe no one else with find it. Prince of Darkness kicked me in the gut. That final image. It haunted me. The hopelessness of it. But In the Mouth of Madness strips you of both hope and sanity. It leaves you a little mad.
BC: Yeah, I guess it always felt like the odd man out to me because the other two were primarily ensemble/single location movies whereas ITMOM (best acronym ever!) is almost entirely Neill’s show. However, never looked at it as you described, with the progression of hopelessness… might be fun to take another look at “the trilogy” in one sitting. Paging the New Bev…
One thing we haven’t touched on is the score, which Carpenter did along with Jim Lang. Like the film itself, it’s one of his more underrated efforts, and that opening theme is pure ass-kicking awesome. And I’m pretty sure it was the start of the hard rock sound that dominated the scores for his later films (going so far as actually composing with Anthrax on Ghosts of Mars) as he moved away from the more atmospheric and electronic based sound of his previous movies. Or at least, the first time it was so overt.
TF: I listen to it all the time! I can’t think of a better soundtrack as a backdrop for what I do for a living. The soundtrack is as much a journey as the movie. It starts with modern sounds. Normal. Familiar. Rock. Electric guitar. The title track is simply amazing! And then the musical reality slips into the bluesy sounds of Robby’s office. And it’s wonderful. But then, like the story, the soundtrack goes dark. And NOBODY does dark better than Carpenter. “Alley Nightmare”, “Hobb’s End”, “Mommy’s Day”? Those are freakishly creepy. And it does not let up. Ever. You are never brought up for air. You are left surrounded by eerie sounds and darkness and disturbing audible images. The bulk of this album SCARY. And unlike other soundtracks that lighten in the end, ITMOM does not. Instead it drops you into pure insanity. “Madness Outside”? Listening to that is like reading Sutter Cane. To me is not only the perfect soundtrack to the movie but the perfect soundtrack for a horror screenwriter.
And sadly it’s amazingly under-appreciated. I was in LA recently and I didn’t have my music on my Macbook Air. So I went to iTunes to grab it. Not there. All the others were there. Halloween, the Escapes, Vampires, Halloween III, Big Trouble, Prince of Darkness... but no ITMOM. This is a movie that even World of Warcraft pays tribute via a level 80ish quest called “From the Mouth of Madness” in which you are surrounded by babbling insane slaves. Yet Amazon does not carry it in mp3 format. I shouldn’t be surprised.
The movie did not open well. Nor did The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China. Carpenter’s always been ahead of his time. He always will be. Remember, horror exploded the year after ITMOM. But you just wait. In years to come, the horror printing press movies will begin to fade. Those ‘Movie by Committee’ creations will be forgotten. But Carpenter movies… Halloween, Elvis, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, They Live... and I haven’t even made it to ITMOM yet! What a list! THESE movies will stand the test of time. These movies, every single one of them, will outlive all of us.
BC: Well, I certainly agree - Halloween is my favorite film, but Carpenter wouldn’t be my favorite director without a filmography full of classics backing that one up. And I can’t put it better myself, so let’s wrap this up. Thanks so much for shooting the shit about the flick with me and helping kick off this column.