John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness” full review

Stephen King meets The Twilight Zone in this underrated Carpenter film! It isn’t often that I am introduced to a, what should be a well-known, horror film that is completely unknown by me. There are certainly many indie and obscure horror films that I am unfamiliar with; but because this is a Carpenter film in my lifetime, I should have known about it! Thankfully my penpal, fellow cinephile, and friend Leon in Germany selected this gem for our weekly film screening. Each week we take turns selecting a different film for us to watch. Sometimes it’s a movie that one of us likes and wants to share, other time, it’s a film that neither of us have seen but want to. This was the former. When Leon asked if I’ve seen In the Mouth of Madness, I replied with I haven’t even heard of it. When he told me it was John Carpenter in 1994, I was shocked! And is stars Dr. Alan Grant and Damian himself, Sam Neil! You may be wondering why you have not heard of this film, and that is most likely because it performed poorly at the box office and was panned by critics. Fortunately, a small cult following has developed over the years, but it’s largely still an obscure mid-90s horror film. The reason for this is likely because the film has been accused of difficult to follow, but I do not believe that to be true. It’s true if you need to be held by the hand through the plot, but this film is one of those that has so much depth that you will want to be fully engaged in every minute, every frame. In the Mouth of Madness contains many Stephen King, and Twilight Zone elements that truly make this incredibly rewatchable. The cinematography and score are beautiful, and I find the screenwriting fascinating! I’d even venture to conclude that this is Carpenter’s final masterpiece. Carpenter’s vision of John Trent’s (Neil) descent into madness is terrifyingly spine-chilling.

Summary: When horror novelist Sutter Kane (Jürgen Prochnow) goes missing, insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) scrutinizes the claim made by his publisher, Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), and endeavors to retrieve a yet-to-be-released manuscript and ascertain the writer’s whereabouts. Accompanied by the novelist’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), and disturbed by nightmares from reading Kane’s other novels, Trent makes an eerie nighttime trek to a supernatural town in New Hampshire. (IMDb)

Go into this movie with an open mind. I highly recommend this because I still do not fully understand everything. But. That is the beauty of this film. There are so many layers that you can peel back and do a close reading. Perhaps this film was ahead of its time in that there is a meta nature to the experience of watching this film. The central character of Trent must discern what is fantasy and what is reality; and by extension, we are challenged, as the audience, to very much the same task. We must decide if the imagery before our eyes is reality or fantasy, to be taken literally or figuratively. While meta films are much more popular now, it was highly experimental back in 1994/95. The beauty of horror is its ability to force us into uncomfortable places in which we come face to face with that which terrifies us–sometimes to our very core. And what is more terrifying than the possibility you may be crazy or a hoax is attempting to gaslight you? When our very psyche feels under attack, it’s fight or flight.

We are drawn into the story because we are naturally drawn to the repulsive, because there is a subconscious masochistic desire to experience a pleasurable unpleasure. Much like in Sunset Boulevard where we are not concerned or preoccupied with what happens to Joe Gillis (since we know he’s dead from the opening scene), we are profoundly curious about HOW he winds up floating facedown in a swimming pool. We can liken that to In the Mouth of Madness because we know Trent, whether sane or insane (though, that is a legal term), is institutionalized and placed in the padded room. Once we flash back to a few weeks earlier, we are morbidly curious as to how this otherwise intelligent, rational man winds up a prisoner of his own mind.

Another question that the film confronts us with is the power of literature. Is it possible for a writer to be so incredibly popular, and enough people become engrossed in the words that the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred to the point that people begin to believe that the “fictional” characters and setting are a real place? That is certainly a powerful concept to tackle in a low-budget horror film. But Carpenter was never one to shy away from a bold concept or statement. It’s clear that the film is a commentary on the prolific writing and power of the words of authors like King or Lovecraft. Furthermore, the film suggests that there is a transcending power of the text to nest in the subconscious to tap into primal fears and carnal actions. Trent slowly comes to realize that the readers of Kane’s works have been placed under a spell, of sorts, that predisposes them to taking on the characteristics of the literary characters and giving themselves over to behaving like the monsters that are written about in Kane’s novels.

Kane likens his books to the Bible in a sacrilegious attempt to prove that if you convince enough people to read your books that you can control them, and ostensibly become a god. Kane certainly displays signs of a god-complex; he seeks to be in control over not only his fictional Hobbs End but the whole world. And instead of taking over the world by physical force, he seeks to take over the world through the power of the written word. It’s a fascinating concept to think about, and perhaps you can think of books that have greatly influenced society to the point that behavior changed. Can a book truly spark widespread delusions and paranoia? Trent certainly believes so. I love how this feels like an episode of the Twilight Zone on crack. The power and success of The Twilight Zone is due in large part to the show’s ability to comment on societal behavior through the use of bizarre or shocking imagery. Pose a big question grounded in reality, then use science-fiction, fantasy, or horror as a vehicle to explore various perspectives and possible outcomes.

John Carpenter provide us with a fantastic score that will penetrate you all the way down to the bone. It’s both shocking and beautiful all at the same time. Originally Carpenter desired to have Metalica score the film, but the combination of not fitting into the budget and an unwillingness to license the rights left John to compose his own score that mimicked what he wanted from Metalica. The score of In the Mouth of Madness was not intended to be spooky but to keep the audience ever so slightly off-balance. The cinematography is also an element to take note of when analyzing this film. The lighting, camera movement, and shot selections convey a neo-noir tone. Similar tones can be found in Mulholland Drive and Pulp Fiction. Although there are many horror elements in this movie, it bares a lot of similarities to neo-noir in how it handles the central character and the conflict he’s been thrown into that leaves him in over his head. And of course, it ends badly for Trent.

I am surprised that not more horror fans know of, much less, like this movie. It really seems to have two camps: one that loves this film and the other that hates it. Honestly, it appears to be one of the more polarizing films within the horror library. It’s one that I will certainly rewatch because of the highly intellectual component. There is tremendous depth to the narrative and it strikes me as the type of film that will give the viewer something different to think about every watch. It’s visually stunning and the imagery is macabre. Definitely one that I will recommend to fellow horror fiends like me.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Halloween (2018) Full Horror Film Review

Happy Halloween Michael! David Gordon Green’s Halloween truly is the sequel that we have been waiting for in the Halloween franchise. Green set out to direct a Halloween movie that he desired to work both as an homage to the original whilst crafting an original story that could do more than be a great horror film, but be a great film period. And suffice it to say, he delivered in spades (or knives, as it were haha). Words cannot even begin to capture the energy of the auditorium last night. From screen to entrance Studio Movie Grill Tampa (my regular cinema) was filled with a level of energy that I’ve only ever witnessed at JurassicAvengers, and Star Wars movies. Twitter is all a’buzz this morning with those who saw it at pre-screenings and those of us who saw it at 7 o’clock last night. When I’ve been asked what I think, I am quick to respond that you need to throw out the rule book because Michael is writing this story. From echoes of the original (and some of Halloween 2) it still succeeds in providing longtime fans and those newly discovering the franchise with an original story that will hook you from the very beginning when you realize that all bets are off because no one is safe. It’s thrilling, engaging, and fun. It may lack Dean Cundey’s brilliant cinematography from the original (he was also the cinematographer for Jurassic Park, Carpenter’s The Thing and Back to the Future), but visually the film has those quintessential moments that act as a throwback to Carpenter’s original groundbreaking slasher. From the vintage opening title sequence accompanied by that iconic score to the showdown, Blum House’s Halloween is a brilliant addition to the franchise and is destined to be a future classic.

For my conversation about Halloween with the guys across the pond at the Movie Drone Podcast, be sure to watch for that episode dropping on Sunday wherever you get your pods.

It’s been 40 years to the day that Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney), the boogeyman, committed the infamous Haddonfield Halloween murders and 55 years since Judith Myers was stabbed to death. On Halloween night, Michael escapes from a bus that was transferring him from Smith Grove to a maximum security prison when the transfer goes horribly wrong. News of this escape puts Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) on high alert as she knows he is heading for Haddonfield. Only this time, she is ready for him. Laurie is challenged with protecting herself while also protecting her daughter’s family. More than protecting herself and her family, Laurie is out for blood. With it being so long since the infamous murders, the town has largely let its guard down. History has faded into myth. But Laurie knew that Michael would be back one day, and she is fully prepared to face-off with the real-life boogeyman.

From the moment the film cuts to the vintage titles and the smashed jack-o-lantern becoming whole again, after the prologue, I knew that I was in for a real treat. That music is so incredibly iconic; those familiar chords are enough to strike fear in those who listen. Although many in the general audience may overlook the power of an opening title sequence, the typeface, transitions, music, and jack-o-lantern work together in order to communicate to the audience that David Gordon Green recognizes and respects the original and knows that you will love this installment that goes back to what made the first one work so well. It’s as if he is stating to the audience “I’ve heard you and I love the original too.” Instead of falling in line with current trends in horror films, Green is communicating to the audience that he is taking this franchise back to the roots. and back to the roots, he did. For fans of the franchise, you will undoubtedly recognize some easter eggs and other moments in the plot and kills that are nods to the original. Nods with a slight twist. I love the moments that connected me to the original. Same may call it shallow fan service, but I call that branding. Branding is important to a franchise, because those are the moments that are quintessential to the experience. And these moments in the film, that I see as branding, connect us to the original. Holding back on that branding would inhibit the nostalgia from shining briefly here and there. So much of Michael and Laurie’s identities are connected to those branding moments. However, don’t allow the return to channeling what made the first one work so well lead you to believe that you have it all figured out. While the soul of the original is there, the plot is full of twists and turns because just as Laurie was ready for Michael, he was ready for all of us sitting out there in the dark.

Written by Green, Danny McBride, and Jeff Fragley, this installment in the Halloween franchise was written to be a true continuation of the original story, ignoring everything that came after it. On that note, I like Halloween 2 and Halloween H20 but I am also equally pleased that this one essentially takes all the sequels and chalks them up to fan fiction. Could H2 and H20 have been included and the film still play out just as original and powerful? I think so, but at the same time, I did not find myself missing those installments. By placing this story 40 years after the original, it was able to remove all the absurdities of most of the others and start afresh. Missing from many of the other sequels was the playful nature of the original. Horror movies are supposed to be fun! Scary but fun. Even though there is murder and mayhem in a horror movie, that does not mean that it should be without those humorous moments. Fortunately for Green’s Halloween, the screenplay provides us with a simple revenge plot with a fantastically complex cast of principal characters. There is this refreshing exuberance I felt in the experience of this film. It was almost the same feeling that I got when I watched the original Halloween for the first time. The reason horror is used in events like Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream is because there is a high level of amusement in it. And the screenplay of this film has perfect levels of horror and humor to keep you hooked and entertained for the whole time. Beyond the excellent direction Green provided, Jamie Lee looks so incredibly satisfying reprising her breakout role, we get a throwback Michael, and more. The key to the success of this film is the solid screenwriting. Moreover, this is not only a fantastic horror movie, it’s a solid film with no clarifier needed.

Before getting into content that requires me to talk spoilers, I want to explore the characters of Michael and Laurie specifically. Entire theses could be written on this subject, but let’s look at some of the main points. You may have asked yourself “what makes Michael tick?” The short answer: we do not know enough about his psychology, sociology, or physiology to know for sure. And that is a good thing! Why? Because if we knew too much about his mind and body, he would cease to be the boogeyman. And being the boogeyman is so important to, not only this franchise, but horror in general. That little bit of mystery and fantasy allow him to remain a monster to be feared and never truly understood. You see what happens to people in the film who seek to understand Michael better–hint–it’s not good. But since we are voyeurs who are obsessed with knowing, here is the long and short of what we know. According to Casandra Dodge (Ph.D. in criminology candidate at the University of South Florida), Michael likely suffers from and displays signs of a combination of antisocial personality disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorder. We do not know enough to draw these conclusions, but there are signs of a combination of these psycho-social disorders.

Laurie is even more fascinating in this film than she was in the original. In many ways, she takes on some of the characteristics of Dr. Loomis from the first movie. He warned everyone about Michael’s violent behavior and would not be swayed into thinking that he could be rehabilitated. He was ready to kill Michael at every turn. Like Michael likely suffers from OCD, Laurie and Dr. Loomis also show signs of this disorder. Moreover, Laurie also displays signs of being a psychopath herself. Loomis, Laurie, and Michael could all be psychopaths. But contrary to popular belief, very few psychopaths are violent. In fact, careers for people that could be classified as psychopaths include: lawyers, surgeons, law enforcement, professors, artists, and more. Albeit I am overly simplifying, psychopathy means that you are predisposed to thrill-seeking behaviors and tend to be self-centered (among other characteristics). Laurie is less the final girl in this movie than she was in the original because she is very masculine and protective from the very beginning. There is no one defining moment that she sheds her (heteronormatively speaking) feminine self and takes on the traditional role of a man in stories to save the day and ultimately survive the killer. She is out for revenge the whole movie. I also appreciate how her character provides commentary on the realness of PTSD, and and the affects it has upon the whole body. On the note of revenge, the plot of this film aligns more closely with a revenge plot than a morality play. No mistaking it, Laurie Strode is back, and more phenomenal than ever! I love her character.

(spoilers ahead)

Substance and commentary. The original slashers such as HalloweenFriday the 13thA Nightmare on Elm Street, and other horror films (that do not fall into the slasher genre) hold up so incredibly well because there is a high degree of subtext that provides a solid foundation upon which to build the more superficial elements of the plot. At its core, the traditional slasher and is a morality play. And this morality goes beyond have casual sex and die or do drugs and die. But the aforementioned are recurring themes in these films. What I appreciate about the new Halloween is not following that approach–at least, not in the same way. It would be all too easy to pick-out the murders based upon that theoretical framework, and Michael is not about to have that. Characters you think will die do not, and other characters that you may not think will die, wind up another Haddonfield victim. The best example of this abandonment of the more traditional approach to slashers is the first kills. One of the past tropes of horror films is that if you are a kid or gay (or queer) you don’t die. Guess again, the 12yo boy who happens upon Michael’s transport bus who prefers dancing to hunting (tipping the hand to the fact he is likely gay) becomes one of Michael’s first victims. This is an indicator that all bets are off–no one is safe. Furthermore, the babysitter that is killed is someone whom is rather likable. She’s a good babysitter–loves her kid–and even when with her boyfriend comes over to the house, they do not engage in anything beyond “dry humping” and some weed smoking. No sex or hardcore drug usage here. Such a great approach because we like the babysitter; however, she winds up a victim anyhow. And Allison’s (Laurie’s grand-daughter) boyfriend kisses another girl at the school dance, but he does not wind up a victim. Although I would have preferred that he died, I like the fact that the rule book is thrown out.

The film also toys around with the idea of the Final Girl by playing around with the hard definition that we’ve recognized for all these years. And it pays off! Furthermore, we have some excellent commentary on and foreshadowing of the role Allison will play later on in the film. She and her boyfriend go to the high school Halloween dance as Bonnie and Clyde–with a twist! They gender bent the costumes. Showing Allison in the pants, foreshadows that she has that same androgynous image that Laurie had in the first film, tipping the hat that she is our final girl. However, she is not the only final girl. We have final girls in this movie. But this concept runs deeper than just the simple fact that we have a trifecta of female heroines. There is pattern established in the movie that when one faces Michael alone that he cannot be defeated. While the journalists at the beginning may seem like mere plot devices through which Michael gets his mask returned, they are so much more. They start the pattern because by themselves, they cannot defeat Michael, and die. The babysitter couldn’t defeat him alone, and her boyfriend died trying to protect his girlfriend. All of them on their own. Even Laurie, though being a solid match for Michael, cannot defeat him on her own either. It’s only when Laurie teams up with her daughter and grand-daughter that Michael can be taken down. Love this!

We also have some poetic justice kills. Loomis’ protege who seeks to use Michael for his own personal gain in the fields of science and academia. He is so incredibly prideful in the capabilities of his brain that his kill is symbolic that Michael will not be used to further his pretentious intellect. He stomps on his head like a pumpkin and the brain matter explodes like pumpkin seeds n a flash on screen (note: this is the most graphic kill). Likewise, the journalists who were using Michael to further their own careers by attempting to be smarter than Michael and even patronizing, wind up dead with primarily injuries to the head. Incredibly symbolic! Furthermore, there are other kills that serve purposes to comment on behavior and intention as well. In addition to symbolic kills and homages to the original, there is a recurring pumpkin and jack-o-lantern motif in the film. I need to watch again, but I believe we have a jack-o-lantern in nearly every scene like we do in the original. In fact, two of the heads of victims are turned into jack-o-lanterns with a flashlight shining out through the decapitated heads. While much of what I have described sounds grossly violent, there is far more violence off screen than what we actually see. Even the kills that are on the screen do not linger. This is important because lingering violence detracts from the narrative and becomes shallow spectacle. Green has a nice balance between narrative and spectacle. He truly showcases he art of storytelling all through Halloween.

Do yourself a favor and go see this movie! It was everything that I wanted it to be. Not only is it a great horror film, it’s a great film period. From the writing to the direction, production design, music and more. It is destined to be a future horror classic worthy of many rewatches.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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