In the Mouth of Madness
In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
John Trent (Sam Neill), an insurance investigator who bears a slight resemblance to hard-boiled detectives in noir pictures, has a reputation of having the best nose for sniffing out a con. This captures the attention of Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), publisher of a highly popular book series, and John is hired to look into the sudden disappearance of their most valuable horror author, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow).
His last published novel, “The Hobb’s End Horror,” has incited very strange behavior from its readers, from random acts of extreme violence to self-mutilation. John, a man of total practicality, deduces such incidences as a form of mass hysteria. But that was before he stepped in a town called Hobb’s End, eerily similar to Cane’s novel.
Although the individual early scenes of “In the Mouth of Madness,” written by Michael De Luca, are relatively well-written, they failed to leave a lasting impression on me. I think the problem is that there are too many discussions about fiction versus non-fiction and fantasy versus reality that the material ends up unhinged from its basic horror elements. Philosophy, in the beginning, overshadows the terrible thing that is unfolding in front of—or within—everybody.
When characters declare “No, this is reality!” with so much passion, it often feels misplaced. The constant hyperboles make an otherwise compelling material into a joke. Since the happenings surrounding the so-called mass hysteria are already exaggerated, the actors having to scream and overact feel phony and unnecessary.
However, the picture’s strength lies in the latter half: the scenes that take place in and around Hobb’s End. The image of a boy, suddenly turning into an old man, riding a bicycle in the middle of the night on the freeway while Linda (Julie Carmen) and John search for elusive town gave me chills. When Linda is forced to interact with the old man, equipped with a voice of a little boy, I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare so twisted, I was reminded of horror movies’ sheer power, sans blood, screaming, and torture, to invoke such a visceral reaction.
The scene is effective because the filmmakers are able to find a synergy between the odd but horrifying images, the unsettling playfulness of sound and silence, and our jaded expectations, at the same time subverting them in such a way that the product, the scare, does not feel cheap. Afterwards, I found it so difficult to dispel the images from my head. It certainly is something that I would not want to think about when I’m driving at night and there are not a lot of other cars on the road.
Hobb’s End feels like it came right out of a Stephen King novel. There is definitely something sinister brewing just below the placid and unpopulated streets. A group of kids chasing a dog with intent to harm it stands out. So does a hotel painting that seems to change each time an observer turns his back from it.
Directed by John Carpenter, “In the Mouth of Madness,” though repetitive at times, manages to keep me guessing. While some would criticize it for its cheap-looking special effects and make-up, I counter that its ability to incite horror has endured. Most horror films like to use comedy as a presage to horror. In here, with just the right dosages, the opposite is observed even with a bloody eye.