In the Mouth of Madness is one of those oft-discussed but seemingly not frequently watched movies that you stumble across from time to time in horror circles. It’s a unique bird, pitting Sam Neill against a confusing town filled with demonic churches, bewildering townspeople, and a hefty dose of one Howard Lovecraft. Honestly, if I were trying to sell you on why you should watch this movie that’s what I’d focus on, its uniqueness (that or just mention that John Carpenter directed). Don’t just take my word for it though, take a bunch of my words for it by reading the rest of our spoiler filled review.
Reviewed by: Mark
John Trent (Sam Neill) is very good at his job. He’s basically a gumshoe detective who specializes in finding people for insurance reasons. He is soon recruited by a book publishing company to help them find their missing author, Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). This Cane fellow is a horror novelist with a penchant for making his readers go batty. You know how it goes, right? You’re hours deep into one of your favorite newly released books, and boom, now you’re schizophrenic. Only happens with the best of ‘em.
John is able to sleuth some clues together as to where he thinks Kane has hidden himself. That rascal has apparently been designing his own book covers in a way that creates a map of New Hampshire when arbitrarily cut into random shapes and taped together… yeah, that part of the movie wasn’t well thought out. John grabs Cane’s editor, Linda (Julie Carmen) and they book it for the fabled town of Hobb’s End.
After a psychologically grueling drive the pair arrive in Hobb’s End to find it a nice, sunny, and quiet community. Of course, this being a horror movie all that shit’s a sham and there’s a big ass demonic church in the center of town guarded by Rottweilers. Once Linda finds herself inside the church, she does in fact find Cane, finishing a manuscript for his new book. When she is forced to read it, she loses her goddamn mind.
At this point in the movie, there’s basically a shit-hitting-fan-stravaganza as it is revealed that Cane (or his typewriter) has the power of prophecy and anything he writes comes true. The townsfolk riot, Lovecraftian monsters are released from Cane’s face after he tears it off (yeah), and John is forced to deliver the newly finished manuscript to the publishers desk for immediate release to the adoring and awaiting public. Cut to John escaping a padded insane-asylum cell to discover that the world has been destroyed by the book.
What the Movie Does Right
The way the movie treats time is an intelligent plot element. Many scenes are repeated multiple times with slight changes to the scene or its characters. This ends up becoming a useful tool to both introduce aspects of the story and to deliver scares to the viewer. Remember that cop you saw earlier in the alley? Well now we’re back in the alley and the cop is a monster! Ahhh! Okay so maybe the effect doesn’t always work, but I like what they were going for.
In the same respect, I feel compelled to mention the effects in general and the makeup in particular. This movie came out in 1995, which is more or less the end of the era where people avoided using CG effects. Short of a few very minor animations this movie is all practical, and ultimately it’s to the movie’s benefit. Beyond that the makeup they apply to the townspeople and the various crazy hordes is simple but effective. They use a split-pupil effect that actually still holds up as a great and unique approach to showing a physical transformation associated with psychological distortion.
Lastly, the degree of difficulty on this one is pretty impressive. This is basically a way for me to justify it getting a decent score despite not really sticking the landing. Look, translating Lovecraft into cinema is damn near an impossible task. The whole point of much his writing is that these things are impossible to comprehend and to cast your eyes upon them would drive you mad. There’s a reason that there is basically only a very few examples of Lovecraft movies, and although it’s not perfect, I’m glad that this one did it just right such that there isn’t a big push to try and make a new one.
What the Movie Does Wrong
The pacing is the most glaring issue here. The movie itself is barely over 90 minutes, but it feels looooong. It seems like it takes decades for John and Linda to find the town, and then once they get there they basically just stay at a B&B for the next ten minutes. This is especially an issue since the way the movie needs to execute on its gameplan is to introduce a steady stream of darkness and dread into the plot.It does jump to a few nightmarish scenes but those feel like afterthoughts that are only secondary to the plot. As a result the film just seems unfocused and it prevents it from fully capitalizing on the more psychological aspects of the story.
I can’t mention the degree of difficulty in what the movie does right and not say that it botched the landing a bit. The effects are interesting, but they don’t look great. The climax of the movie is just a woman reading passages from a book while Sam Neill stares blankly into the camera. The monsters are all practical, but for the most part they’re shaded and hard to see. It’s a give and take that leaves you either feeling like this was a missed opportunity or perhaps just that this is the best we can do in the “Lovecraftian horror” front, and neither of those are very satisfying feelings.
Story: 8 – High degree of difficulty for sure, and unique to boot. The concept of this movie is great, and describing it to someone as an elevator pitch would sound great. My biggest complaint for this category is that some of the more minor story elements seem like they were either tacked on without much thought or were victimized by some deleted scenes.
World-Building / Immersion: 5.5 – At its core it is still remarkably watchable, but this movie just didn’t age very well. I like the idea of Cane ripping his face open to another dimension, but in execution… well… not so much. Beyond that the pacing and lack of focus throughout the movie also serve to make it hard to pay that close of attention.
Scare-Factor: 4 - There are some good jumpscares here that are creative and well earned. I really like the gimmicks they do with the painting. Outside of those things there isn’t a whole lot else here, since they didn’t do a great job of capitalizing on the building psychosis.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 6 - In general I’m willing to give them props for the risks they took. I’d rather see you fail doing something hard than succeed at doing something trivial.
Overall: 6 - I’m torn here, just like Sutter Kane and Natalie Imbruglia, because I found something charming buried at the center of this movie, the issue was it was surrounded by an unfocused slow crescendo that really just ended up being more noise than signal.