It is Halloween season, which of course means that it’s also Halloween season for many horror geeks and film aficionados. While most agree that Carpenter’s classic slasher is a seminal work, many people overlook some of his other gems. While Big Trouble in Little China and They Live rank among my favorite films of all time and both of the great Snake Pliskin films are clinics on what an entertaining action flick looks like as far as I’m concerned, films like Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness are, perhaps, the most interesting in his catalogue.
Carpenter’s 1995 homage to H.P. Lovecraft (and, seemingly also, Stephen King), In the Mouth of Madness is a quirky and unique film with an interesting story and incredible performances. Critics lambasted the standard rock songs comprising the bulk of the soundtrack as generic and dull, especially when compared to Carpenter’s other soundtrack compositions. They called the script disjointed and confusing. Some describe the performances as less than stellar and others found the film to be one of Carpenter’s lesser works in general. On the other hand, other critics raved about the Lovecraftian themes and great use of the idea that a writer can change reality through the stories he writes.
For me, that latter camp has the right idea. I’m not sure what about the film turned off many critics, but then again some critics tend to simply prefer to be contrarian and others just have extremely different sensibilities than I. The Lovecraftian monsters and absolute madness of Sam Neill’s John Trent are what truly make the film feel like something special to me.
I cannot pretend to be some type of Lovecraft expert, but I do love a great deal of monster stories and films. In recent years, other films described as Lovecraftian, such as Benson and Moorehead’s Spring, have been among my favorites released. Moreover, this Halloween season has also found me intentionally soaking in more Lovecraft inspired works than in previous years. And, here, in Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, the creature design and effects work are pretty stellar. That isn’t to say that there is some big monstrous threat throughout the film, but that creepy Lovecraft supernatural feeling looms over the film from start to finish, before and after any creatures appear.
These themes are truly brought to life by some really solid acting. Though, from Sam Neill, I’ve come to expect nothing short of stellar. In this film, he’s just that… stellar. He is joined by many other great actors who also give great performances, including Charlton Heston. Despite being surrounded by other great performances, Neill’s stands out as the strongest and most interesting. In his flashback, he’s in control, intelligent, and clever, but in the film’s modern day setting, he’s lost his mind completely… or has he? The question of what exactly did and didn’t happen must always be considered based on his performance and the story itself. Yet, when he plays the unhinged man of present day, his convincing lunacy is beyond reproach. Perhaps I’m being too generous, but it truly feels impressive to me what Neill does in this film.
In short, In the Mouth of Madness is a must watch this Halloween season. In a year where Sam Neill deserves to be recognized as best supporting actor for his role of Hec in The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, what better way to honor the great actor than to take in some of his other great performances… and why not start here?