Horror director John Carpenter has made some amazing and awful movies. In the Mouth of Madness is one of his lesser-known works -- and also one of his best. Despite some stiff acting, this film combines the ancient horrors of H.P. Lovecraft with the reality questioning of Philip K. Dick to create a terrifying film.
At the opening of In the Mouth of Madness we see John Trent (Sam Neill) committed to an insane asylum. For the flashback that is the bulk of In the Mouth of Madness, we learn that Trent is an insurance investigator who's great at spotting frauds. His latest assignment: Find Sutter Cane.
Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) is the world's biggest horror writer, outselling even Stephen King. His writing has an unsettling effect on his readers, some of whom riot and murder to get his books. (A creepy opening scene has a maniac smashing through a restaurant window with an axe, then asking Trent, "Do you read Sutter Cane?") But Sutter Cane has disappeared before delivering the last chapters of his upcoming book In the Mouth of Madness, so publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) hires Trent to learn what happened to the author -- and to get the rest of the next book. Trent is joined by Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), who was Cane's editor.
Trent is convinced the whole thing is a publicity stunt, and soon he and Styles are up in New England, finding themselves in the town of Hobb's End -- a town featured Cane's writings. Pretty soon they start meeting characters from Cane's books, and find very dark things happening in the town that may or may not be fictional.
Screenwriter Michael De Luca creates an original blend of monsters and mind games here, creating an environment where insanity may not be the worst thing that's happening. Neill is good (even if his whole "I refuse to believe it!" attitude goes on a bit long), though Styles is less convincing. Carpenter delivers plenty of scares, from the creatures that go bump in the night to the more calm, more unnerving questions about reality. Cane himself, portrayed very well by Prochnow) is neither maniacal nor violent, but a calm participant in the ultimate evil.
With the gruesome torture flicks and unstoppable killers so popular in horror right now, In the Mouth of Madness is a delightful, thoughtful change of pace. This movie is an excellent choice for Halloween -- or any time you feel like thinking while getting scared.
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch