In the Mouth of Madness
directed by John Carpenter
(New Line, 1995)

If there are two things director John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing) brings to horror films, they're his quirky sense of humor and the ability to finesse a haunting quality from simple everyday images.

Take his latest video release, In the Mouth of Madness, which opens with a fairly normal-looking man being unceremoniously dumped into a ward in a white-on-white mental hospital. No sooner is he locked in his padded cell than what comes blaring over the intercom but a Muzak version of "We've Only Just Begun" -- proof that in the depths of despair, it's always possible to find even more despair.

The second trait takes longer to manifest itself, but assumes a variety of effective guises, including a baseball card clicking against the spokes of a bicycle wheel, the center line of a two-lane blacktop and a recurring book poster that becomes more revealing every time it's peeled back.

In fact, Carpenter is so good with images that plot and character almost get lost. So too will the viewer who's not paying close attention. The reason for that becomes clearer as the characters grow murkier.

First, there's insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill). Trent may or may not be a paranoid schizophrenic, and he may or may not be a character in a novel by best-selling horror novelist Sutter Kane (Jurgen Prochnow). Kane may or may not be weeks late turning in his latest manuscript, which may or may not be an apocalyptic treatise which drives readers mad and prepares the way for the elimination of humanity and its replacement with some hideous ancient life form.

And all of this may or may not be a publicity stunt taking place in a fictitious town where all Kane's characters may or may not have come to life, and may or may not be acting out their violent misdeeds.

The only thing, in fact, that's clear, is that In the Mouth of Madness is one frightening film.

Just how scary it is, of course, depends on how open you are to suggestion. For his part, Carpenter turns reality and his characters inside out in his search for new frights. And in Trent, he captures vividly the fear of a man sent out on an unholy mission which he does not understand.

Admittedly, some of Carpenter's plot elements are as old and creaky as the cathedral doors behind which Kane promulgates his madness, and the director is often too quick to shuck his sense of the eerie for an axe-wielding maniac or slimy monster. Worse yet, the dialogue turns leaden any time the characters attempt to discuss anything the least bit theoretical, in particular, the relative nature of reality.

But in In the Mouth of Madness, the sights and sounds say it all. And in the end, it's all very, very scary.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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