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1995, dir. John Carpenter
95 min. Rated R.
Starring: Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jurgen Prochnow, Conrad Bergschneider, Charlton Heston.

Review by Justin Patterson


Folks, let me tell you a little about love. I've seen this movie probably 15 times. Twice, I've let enough time go by between viewings that I forgot that I already owned it. As a result, I am the proud owner of THREE copies of John Carpenter's masterpiece, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. No, I'm not going to sell one of my copies.

It's not as creepy as, say, THE RING. It's not as well-written as THE SHINING. It's just freakin' excellent. The idea behind it is one that can spark some truly deep conversation. I'll elaborate.

Reality is very specific. Reality is, to each person, exactly what that person perceives it to be. Charles Manson views reality one way, the Reverend Billy Graham views it another way. John Kerry and Sybil each view it a few different ways. To each person, what they perceive is more real than any suggestion otherwise. A madman's hallucination is no less real to him than your Jordaches or your Goody comb are to you.

Now, imagine that there is a truly gifted author of horror fiction. His writing is extremely. . . persuasive. His fans frequently find that they're almost compelled to immediately read all of his books that they can find. Some find that they've read his work so much that his writing is almost believable. Next, imagine that this gifted writer of horror fiction has more than one billion books in print.

Where is the line? At what point do enough people believe a writer's work just a little, but enough that more people believe it a little than do not? It's the old argument that if enough people were crazy, the sane ones would be locked up. This is the creepy theme that permeates the film, running just under the surface of the film. Without it, the film would be mid-grade John Carpenter horror. With it, it's enough to make for some interesting conversations.

Sam Neill plays an insurance investigator hired by a publishing house. Their major client is Sutter Cane, the writer who makes Stephen King look like a half-wit hack. His books are making the publisher tons of money and he's not behind schedule or anything, but he's disappeared. Sam Neill is brought on just to find the author and make sure everything's copacetic. In the mean time, incredible acts of violence are springing up all over the world, apparently centered around the publication of the latest Sutter Cane novel. Readers of Cane novels have developed an almost Amway-like devotion and desire to bring in new blood. Neill is paired with an otherwise omittable female partner and sent to find the author. In the process of reading Cane's work, Neill finds that the writing is getting to him, despite his cynicism. He's having nightmares. He finally finds the way to Sutter Cane: the art on the covers of his books forms a map to a sleepy New Hampshire town that isn't on any map. It's Hobbs's End, which is a nice way of saying to Stephen King that someone else can do Salem's Lot and Castle Rock better than he can.

In the town of Hobb's End, Neill finds himself in a world dedicated solely to the celebration of Cane's genius. Everything from Cane's books that sticks in the imagination can be found there. The Black Church, where unspeakable rites have been performed. The hotel, whose elderly mistress keeps her equally elderly husband shackled underneath the front desk until she can dispose of him properly. The children have all become something between CHILDREN OF THE CORN and 28 DAYS LATER. The more time that is spent there, the more Neill comes to question whether or not this is some wild publicity stunt. The more time he spends in this town that won't let him leave, the more he wonders whether or not he was born, or simply written into the plot at this point.

It's not perfect, but I can confidently recommend it to anyone who likes horror films that go a little beyond the gore. It also works as a tribute to Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft, the creator of modern American horror. All the film was missing was the brilliant, manic work of Jeffrey Combs, considered the first true Lovecraftian actor. It has it all: the children who just aren't right, the dark church, the things trying to break through the wet door, struggling to get free to do. . . whatever. You're treated to the close-up view of a man who can feel himself sliding into madness, because madness seems the only way to cope. You can feel the foreboding, the sense that everything is just Wrong, the helplessness of every struggle against what is coming.

Sam Neill did a great job in the film. Since EVENT HORIZON, we all knew that he could do creepy and unbalanced. In this film, he does an admirable job of portraying the Everyman who is drawn into events beyond his ability to control. The film itself isn't overdone, and moves along pretty well. When I watch this movie, I really don't understand how John Carpenter managed to still crank out dreck like VAMPIRES, but I can forgive him for a lot after this.

If you like entertaining and intelligent horror, do yourself a favor and check this movie out. Even if you choose to skip over the more cerebral aspects of it, it's still a strong horror flick. The effects are pretty good, the plot is engaging, the acting is sufficient and is has a certain amount of fun. If it convinces you to check a Lovecraft book out of the library, so much the better.

Remember: Cthulhu saves! He might get hungry later. . . .


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