In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1995 and seven from 1985 (the extra from August’s double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
In times of full pockets and rosy prospects, horror has a hard road to hoe. After all, it’s tough to frighten those who presume there’s absolutely nothing worth fearing.
Thus, amid the Clinton era’s relatively uninterrupted rising tide, 1990s horror often got dashed on the rocks. Second-tier Stephen King adaptations. Umpteenth uninspired Jason, Michael and Pinhead sequels. Hybridized, sanitized reboots, however entertaining (The Mummy). Familiar, conquerable, safe, sellable. Little that would remotely rattle you. Hell, even Mike Nichols tried his hand at it with Wolf. Imagine Nancy Meyers’ Bride of Frankenstein. The antithesis of scary.
As always, there are exceptions. Tales from the Hood and Abel Ferrara’s militarized take on Body Snatchers scratched out scruffy commentary. Under the guise of a serial-killer thriller, Se7en conjured up disarmingly resonant moral shivers. Wes Craven went full-tilt meta with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Scream (the latter a fine film but more of a clever reflection than a chilling fright).
For a while, it seemed even John Carpenter — pioneer of the platonic ideal of slasher films in Halloween — would sit out the decade. After his shotgun marriage of Reaganomics, Roddy Piper and retro pulp in 1988’s They Live, Carpenter took what was then the longest break of his career. His return in 1992? Memoirs of an Invisible Man, a cardboard Chevy Chase pet project Warner Brothers tasked him to save from the scrap heap.
Had conditions simply grown too comfortable for one of the genre’s resident cynics to thrive? Had success somehow softened him? Hardly. Carpenter was just hibernating, waiting to scratch his seven-year itch for sociological end-times horror and this time with a bent both religious and political.
On its face, 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness — an H.P. Lovecraft homage from its At the Mountains of Madness-aping title to its brief glimpses of Great Old Ones-style creatures — seems a purely paranormal exercise and nothing more. The prose of Sutter Cane, a popular horror author and “mad prophet of the printed page,” pushes people into psychosis … and is possibly heralding the return of “an evil older than mankind and the known universe.”
Madness briefly hints at the primal endurance of words. One character smudges cheap paperback ink under his eyes on waking after reading himself into a slumber, a visually tribal reminder of the power in passed-down stories. It’s a minor knock that the movie doesn’t go on to more specifically portray how vivid, lurid writing contorts a worldview rather than presenting it as a cause of changeling horror.
The film is considered the closing installment of Carpenter’s informal “apocalypse trilogy” after 1982’s The Thing and 1987’s Prince of Darkness, neither of which indulged Carpenter’s scrappy sociological slant. Madness is also not at all narratively attuned to governmental misdeeds a la 1981’s Escape from New York (Carpenter’s raw, ragged response to Watergate’s domino-effect corruption) or They Live, in which he revealed America’s ruling class as aliens who have enslaved mankind to complacently consume and obey. Unlike New York and They Live, Carpenter didn’t write Madness, either; that credit goes to Michael DeLuca, then president of production at New Line Cinema, the house Freddy Krueger built.
However, pitched as it is at a halfway point of decadal prosperity, and directed by a filmmaker who understands any pinnacle just precedes a grim, grimy decline, In the Mouth of Madness holds up as a cautionary tale against the placation that politicians of any persuasion may promise us. Enjoy the spoils of the world you’ve sown now because the pain is coming, it suggests, and we’re powerless to prevent it.
It’s hard to not conjure images of today’s grotesquely divisive political theater with dialogue like, “Reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could switch places. You either believe what you see around you or you choose crazy. It would be pretty lonely being the last one left.”
Despite its otherworldly milieu, Madness taps into apocalyptic anxieties about real-world rhetoric — chiefly that it’s turning virulent to a point where our collective cultural antibodies can’t, or won’t, fight off the disease. This isn’t just expertly escapist fiction about intrusions of nightmarish incident into everyday life. It’s about the world around you whittling away until you’re the abnormality. The film’s characters seem to persist that if they simply push on through the horrors, they’ll emerge unscathed. Carpenter is always visually proving them wrong with some sort of ceaseless hallway, architecturally bastardized stairwell or winding road that inevitably leads them to the same destination. Thematically, he poo-poos their reliance on logic and precedent as the biggest boondoggle of all.
Ultimately, Madness becomes a parable for the inevitable anomaly that will upend our foolhardy belief that everything will turn out OK because it has before. Somewhere, somehow, someone will push the button and believe they’re right. The world has ended in plenty of movies. This one packs a more potent philosophical punch than most.
And yet Madness is packed with playful references to those whose business it is to bother us. Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) shares phonetic similarities and a signature font with Stephen King. Some of Cane’s quoted work comes from Lovecraft himself. Those seem like easy jokes if you don’t consider “Madness” as set in a world where King and Lovecraft are real … and neither was strong enough to summon the demons as Cane will.
Gallows humor sets in when one character, confined to a padded cell, chooses to bemoan the Carpenters blaring over the PA system; “We’ve Only Just Begun” the cruel, borderline-Muzak metaphor that wickedness is only winding up. And because Carpenter insists on contributing to the musical score, as he often does for better or worse, the first sound heard is an incongruous instrumental that blends Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction” in a way sure to rile Dave Mustaine and rock Beavis and Butt-head’s world.
Madness then offers a ballsy introduction to our protagonist — squeezed into a straitjacket, hair unwashed and askew, face caked with weeks of dirt, eyes wildly flitting and voice insistently bellowing he’s the only sane one left. This would throw us for a loop even if he wasn’t played by Sam Neill, less known to ’90s audiences as the guy who played a grown-up Damien in an Omen sequel and more as Alan Grant, that paradigm of pragmatism from Jurassic Park.
Neill rarely lets you see the whites of his characters’ eyes, often because they’re squinted in smug, narrow skepticism. There’s a wiliness here that the often squared-up actor rarely displays, as well as an extreme version of his smartest-guy-in-the-room character. You get the sense that if John Trent weren’t a freelance insurance investigator busting people’s fraudulent claims, and their balls to boot, he would be some sort of nasty syndicated talk-show host happily persecuting the put-upon.
In flashback, we learn Cane’s publisher (Charlton Heston) hired Trent to investigate Cane’s disappearance. After several months, his only sign of life has been a new manuscript, titled In the Mouth of Madness, delivered to his agent … who, after reading it, tries to decapitate John in public before he’s gunned down by police. Trent then pieces together the covers to several of Cane’s novels to form an outline of New Hampshire and the spot of Hobb’s End, a fictitious New England town (a la Lovecraft’s Dunwich or King’s Castle Rock) in which Cane’s novels take place.
Convinced this is simply an elaborate publicity stunt, and eager to prove he’s no pawn in it, Trent agrees to join Cane’s editor (Julie Carmen) on a journey to Hobb’s End — which they find a ghoulish Grover’s Corners in which Cane has holed up.
Here, reality as it were spins out into the sort of topsy-turvy dream logic with which we wrestle each night and from which we groggily emerge each morning. Snarling dogs with unfailing gaits and insatiable appetites have overrun the town. The only approachable pup later turns up with a leg missing, seemingly gnawed off by a pack of feral kids with fur and viscera matted to their mouths. Hungry-eyed, sharp-toothed imps grow on the backs of people’s necks. A seemingly sweet innkeeper (elderly oddball emerita Frances Bay) hides a sadistic secret and her true form as a tentacled creature, when shown, harkens back to The Thing.
All sufficiently gruesome, but none of it cuts quite as deep as Deluca and Carpenter’s assault on belief systems. “At what point does fiction become religion?,” one newscaster asks early — ostensibly of Cane’s work but just as easily interpreted as a question about any holy text. Later on, Cane converts a Hobb’s End church into a sort of tollbooth for demons to pass through. The walls are fetid, dank and dripping, as if the entire institution has become a malleable, penetrable and fallible membrane. Trent later covers his walls, clothes and body with crosses in which he doesn’t believe, a token gesture of iconography as a last-ditch effort to save his skin. “Religion is just discipline through fear,” Cane says. “No one’s ever believed it enough to make it real.” A bold point, but Madness walks as big as it talks — challenging the dogma and the stigmata, equally sticky.
Madness continues on its drain-circling course — ensnaring Trent in escalating horrors through on buses and in the streets — before a terrific ending that ends with Trent watching the movie we’ve just seen. The implication is that we, too, will go mad for watching it, just as he has. With microscopic modulation in his cackle and countenance, Neill sells the tragedy, and the comedy, in his choice of crazy. (And don’t forget to grab some popcorn on your way.)
Arguably Carpenter’s last great movie — because Vampires and Ghosts of Mars present no legitimate challenge — Madness isn’t just the work of a horror master peeling back the flesh to poke around inside his brain la Craven in the 1990s.
It’s an exposure of the palpable fears, beliefs and frustrations Carpenter has over the idea of a political world on fire — that trusting the crazies to come around once they’ve disappeared around the bend is a fool’s errand, that the horrors which seem irrational or impossible will become inescapable, that the flame will scorch us all no matter what.
Laugh off the evil that men do too often, and we become the punchline. Although largely lost amid the ’90s lap of luxury, Carpenter’s idea of Madness hits uncomfortably close to home — as great horror should — 20 years on.