A week after watching, and I’m still trying to figure out just what didn’t work with John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness.
It’s a great idea for a story: an author, equal parts Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, has somehow managed to inflict his horrific imagination upon the world at large. Or maybe it’s all his publisher’s grand hoax. It’s up to insurance investigator Sam Neill to figure out the truth and its consequences.
The problems start with Sam Neill as the cynical investigator. I spent too much of the movie distracted by his occasionally disappearing accent. Sometimes he sounds like his own Australian self, sometimes he sounds like he’s putting on a crap Brooklyn accent, and sometimes it falls in the middle.
It’s a weird distraction not at all helped by his co-star Julie Carmen, who chose exactly the moment my girlfriend woke up from a nap to watch the rest of the movie with me to start acting…well, like a shitty actress who didn’t know what she was doing.
(I swear, the first half-hour, Carmen seemed to be playing a character, and then, BAM! girlfriend sits down and takes in a scene where Carmen hams it up with the bizarro behavior, and I actually had to say, “No no, up until this scene, she was a competent actress.” It kinda hurt my credibility. Thanks a LOT, Carpenter!)
But once the two leads get to the supposedly-fictional town of Hobb’s End, the movie, as Roger Ebert put it, starts playing tennis without a net.
Once it becomes clear that the mysterious writer has, in fact, gained the ability to rewrite reality in his own twisted way, there aren’t any rules. We’re never told how or why he’s done it, only that it’s got something to do with the very Lovecraft-esque monsters on the other side of reality breaking in.
But we don’t know anything about the writer, other than he is supposed to remind us, the viewers, of horror writers we know of. Sutter Cane isn’t actually a character. He’s just a caricature of a horror writer – wild hair, dressed all in black, sitting at a typewriter with only candles for light – warmed by the ideas of his monsters being made real.
Which is another problem altogether. If you actually can spot what a Lovecraft Monster looks like, then it’s an inside joke. And inside jokes are amusing, not scary. (“Heehee! That’s supposed to look like Cthulhu!” See?)
If, on the other hand, you don’t recognize what the iconography of those weird tentacled things is supposed to invoke, then all you’ve got is your own internal threshold for well-crafted puppets. (And, it isn’t going to be high, since John Carpenter directs horror movies with good lighting and simple staging, like an action-adventure film, rather than a horror film.)
And this takes us out of the story, because it reminds us of our own understanding of fiction – horror fiction, specifically. So we apply our own reality to the narrative. And that just doesn’t work.
For us to be horrified by the scary shit going on, we can’t know that they’re clichés, that they’ve been done before. Even if it is cribbing off other stories, the moment we go, “Ah, it’s like that Lovecraft story,” or “Oh, well that’s a pastiche of King stories,” we’re no longer watching a horror film. We’re watching a metafiction about horror.
So no, In the Mouth of Madness doesn’t work as a horror film. I’m not even sure if it works as a meta-text on horror.
And I’ve thought long and hard about this, so believe me when I say: Sam Neill’s shifting accent is ultimately to blame here.
Next up: Humor in Horror. God help us all.