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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“Ready Player One” movie review

A spectacular journey that will have you on the edge of your seat. Ready Player One is a throwback to the classic Spielberg blockbuster films from the 70s, 80s, and 90s that many of us know, quote, and love. You’ll do far more than wax nostalgic in this film, because the focus is on the conflict at hand and not the pop culture references. Spielberg’s adaptation of the best-selling novel, written by Ernest Cline, takes on the challenge of crafting a visually compelling narrative that shows the benefits of virtual reality (VR) and gaming, juxtaposing it against the harshness of a reality following socio-economic and natural disasters in the near future. Although the story highlights the benefits of VR and shows the wonders of the imagination through the exquisitely designed scenes, there is one element seen throughout the story that transcends the illusion of Oasis (the virtual world); and that is humanity. Generosity of spirit and integrity are showcased brilliantly through the various central characters. I found myself, at the end of the movie, thinking about how much it reminds me of the magic of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Never once, will you find an opportunity for boredom to set in. And you’ll find yourself rooting for this open source of entertainment and information to remain available to all those who want to participate, and not regulate content based upon how much someone is willing to pay.

From filmmaker Steven Spielberg comes the science fiction action adventure “Ready Player One,” based on Ernest Cline’s bestseller of the same name, which has become a worldwide phenomenon. The film is set in 2045, with the world on the brink of chaos and collapse. But the people have found salvation in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When Halliday dies, he leaves his immense fortune to the first person to find a digital Easter egg he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, sparking a contest that grips the entire world. When an unlikely young hero named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) decides to join the contest, he is hurled into a breakneck, reality-bending treasure hunt through a fantastical universe of mystery, discovery and danger. (IMDb)

Pop culture, geek-dom, and nerd-dom for everyone! Whereas the book primarily contains 1980s references, the movie adaptation spans pop culture from the 80s to today. This was an important and strategically solid move in order to appeal to a wide age-range of movie-goers. Not being a gamer myself, I am unable to comment on the various references in the film and how they are placed perfectly in the narrative; however, I LOVE movies and TV, so I can definitely comment on those references, and they were spot on! Loved every one of them. And not just because these references were in the movie–anyone can just shove references and product placements into a movie without thought of the meaning or contribution to the plot–each and every movie or TV reference was selected specifically to fulfill a larger purpose and placed precisely where it needs to be. It would have been far too easy for the pop culture references to steel attention away from the plot, but the structure and pacing of the movie is such that the references enhance the experience without becoming sheer spectacle that could have been interpreted and pandering to audiences.

Of all the references, my favorite is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. That’s right. Return to the infamous Overlook Hotel during one of the quests to search for the Jade Key. The Overlook Hotel from Kubrick’s horror masterpiece (that was, interestingly enough, disliked strongly by Stephen King) was incredible. I felt that I was legitimately transported to the macabre setting in which we encounter unimaginable terror. This referenced worked particularly well because I cannot imagine another setting that could have been used in such an instrumental fashion. There are times in films that a location could be swapped out for another similar setting and achieve the same result because the plot is not predicated on it–essentially, the plot would play out just as well and effectively through another comparable location. The Overlook Hotel and specific events from The Shining (that I won’t go into because of spoiling the experience) were nearly as integral to the advancement of the plot as the characters themselves. No sooner could you replace The Shining sequence than you could the main turning points between Acts I/II and II/III. Although there are many excellent sequences to choose from in the movie, the series of scenes during the time spent at The Overlook are definitely my favorite.

It’s not often that an action-adventure or fantasy movie is deep enough to provide social commentary on real issues facing us in the real world or what it means to be human; but Ready Player One contains fantastic material for philosophical discussions regarding the current trends and challenges facing present-day society. The subtext of this movie contains material on human values, equitable access to content online, and the dangers of falling victim to only “existing” in a virtual world. Man vs technology, greed vs generosity are ways to look at the story, not to oversimplify the subtext. Because of the present crisis of the ending of net neutrality facing the United States, there is clearly a message that everyone has the right to equitable access to the universe of entertainment and information online. When a greedy capitalist attempts to disrupt that access and determine someone’s access based upon how much someone is willing to pay, we see that the system runs the risk of breaking down and not allowing for the joy that was once ran through the very framework of the virtual world. The film also provides audiences with commentary on the importance of actively participating in the real world to form tangible, physical relationships with others in order to find love and forge friendships. Furthermore, if a society becomes so fixated on avoiding the problems of the real world by transporting to a virtual world, then the problems of the real world grow worse, bigger, and more devastating than if society takes the time and effort to combat that which seeks to destroy our world.

Such an excellent movie! If you are a fan of the Black Mirror series on Netflix for its Twilight Zone approach to tackling tough subject matter involving the degree to which technology permeates our lives, then you’ll enjoy Ready Player One. I find that many elements of this movie feel like the San Junipero episode, and the successful show at large, because of the terrifying visions of the near future distorted by the abuse of technology. Thoroughly enjoyed every moment on the more than two-hour runtime. I was initially afraid that the movie would feel too much like a video game, but that is not the case. The design is such that the virtual world and real world feel just as tangible. Being that I am not a gamer, I don’t want to attend the cinema and feel that I am watching cut scenes from a video game, so this was handed extremely well. You’ll easily find characters that you can identify with and root for, and the opposition forces are well-developed too.

The Age of Adaline

Age of AdalineA new ‘timeless’ classic! The Age of Adaline, from Lions Gate, is a beautiful modern-day fairy tale that will prick your curiosity and capture your imagination. Blake Lively shines as Adaline, an ageless woman in an ever-changing world. Borrowing elements from the popular children’s novel Tuck Everlasting and the Academy Award winning film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, this movie takes what the preceding stories did and develop a new movie around the concept of a character with prolonged life. Fortunately, director Lee Toland Krieger sets his movie apart from others, in a similar sub-genre, so the audience can enjoy a fresh take on a plot that is reminiscent a Twilight Zone episode. I won’t go as far as to say this was a completely original concept; but, it is clear that this movie throws what’s been done into a blender, added some additional ingredients, to produce a story that combines the best of a fairytale with a romantic drama. From ‘time to time,’ there are movies that show love as something that can be beautiful and painful, and this is definitely one for your movie library.

The Age of Adaline is about Adaline Bowman (Lively) who lead a very nondescript life in the early 20th century until one day, following a tragic car accident, she is blessed and, at the same time, cursed with eternal youth. Realizing that she will never age past 29, Adaline must keep running and changing her identity every decade so as no one discovers her secret. Although it means leaving the daughter she loves so dearly and never allowing herself to experience true love, Adaline is unable to let anyone into her life for fear of becoming a specimen in a science experiment. Depressing as it is, everything is going to plan until one day, Adaline has a chance meeting with a charismatic philanthropist named Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman). As hard as Adaline plays hard-to-get, she is ensnared by his generosity and persistence. After reluctantly agreeing to travel with him to his parents’ place for their 40th anniversary, Adaline comes face-to-face with her past when she meets Ellis’ dad William (Harrison Ford). Follow Adaline through the 20th and 21st centuries as she attempts to maintain a relationship with her daughter, hides from love, and then falls in love, all while coping with her seemingly immortal youth.

At the center of the movie is 29 year-old Adaline. Blake Lively was an outstanding casting choice to play the century-old protagonist. Lively’s passion for design and style is clearly visible through her character. This is impart thanks to the costuming and makeup departments on the film. Bringing the costuming and hair/makeup to life for the screen, Lively embodies the idea of a sense class that transcends the decades. Despite how easy it would have been for the character of Adaline to be one-dimensional and mostly stagnate, Lively plays the role in such a way that she adds depth and shows development through the story. In indirect and subtle ways, Lively displays the pain and loneliness Adaline must live with everyday. As her counterpart, Michiel Huisman plays the gentleman who captures what’s left of her heart. Even though we don’t get a lot of backstory or exposition regarding the character of Ellis, it is apparent that he has been longing to find someone to love for most, if not all, of his adult life. Not nearly as well-developed as Adaline, Huisman takes the role of Ellis, who  essentially represents the opposition to Adeline’s goal of no one discovering her secret for fear of what may happen, and portrays a character that the audience can fall in love with and feel his pain of not having his emotions reciprocated by Adaline.

One of inescapable elements of the movie, the audience first enounters, is the omniscient narrator. This sets the mood for and indirectly explains to the audience that this is a fairy tale. Unlike many fairy tales, this is one that is grounded in a pseudo-science, so it helps to bolster the believability of the plot, within the confines of the narrative that is. Although having the narrator helps to create the atmosphere of a modern-day fairy tale, there are definitely times in which the exposition was a little too much. After all, the very foundation of a movie is anchored in the concept of showing and not telling. It isn’t that a movie cannot include voiceover, but it needs to be kept from explaining elements that could be shown visually instead. When a narrator is describing something with words at the same time it’s being shown on screen, the exposition becomes a trifle redundant. However, there is plenty that is shown, and quite well, in the movie. Speaking of ‘shown,’ another technical element of the film that is sure not to go un-noticed is the gorgeous cinematography (by David Lanzenberg) and production design. Not that it is flashy or profoundly groundbreaking, but that it displays a sense of timeless class that supports the narrative and moves it along instead of becoming the spectacle in and of themselves.

Regarding any areas of improvement, the aspect of the plot I found lacking was the under-developed external goal; we deal mostly with internal opposition and growth. A well-written story needs a protagonist with a well-developed external goal and well-defined opposition to that goal. The closest we get to an antagonist and opposition is through the characters of Ellis and William (Ford). More like anti-heroes than true opposition, they pose a threat to the life Adaline has lived for over 80 years. A plot element that often, when used, gets abused and written haphazardly is the flashback. Writers must be very careful when integrating the concept of storytelling with the tool of the flashback because sometimes the audience is left to wonder whether the main story is the present one or the one being told through flashbacks. Fortunately, writers J. Mills Goodloe & Salvador Paskowitz, handle this fragile plot tool carefully and keep the focus on the present story while using the flashbacks as support.

Taking place around New Years Eve, this movie may have been better-received by many critics had it been released during the Holidays. Never-the-less, I feel strongly that is is a beautiful movie that is definitely worth a watch this weekend. It may not be the next Academy Award winning love story, but it is still an all-around well-produced and directed film that most anyone will enjoy alone or with their significant other. It’s also refreshing to see another romantic movie released by the studio best-known for their horror films.

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