Stephen King has a lot of fun playing with the line between
reality and fiction - his "Misery" was the story of a fan who takes a
horror writer's work a little too seriously - and now here is a movie to turn
the tables on King.
Carpenter's "In the Mouth of Madness" begins with the disappearance
of a horror writer named Sutter Cane, whose latest book has caused some of its
readers to go mad. The book is a best-seller, and when stores sell out, they're
besieged by angry mobs. (It is a sign of our times, I suppose, that citizens
are fanned into a frenzy by the book even before they read it.) Enter an
insurance fraud investigator named John Trent (Sam Neill), who is sitting in
the window of a coffee shop one day when a man across the street picks up an
ax, walks through traffic and slams the ax through the shop window. (This shot,
showing the man approaching in the background while a quiet conversation
proceeds unaware in the foreground, is one of the movie's best.) Turns out the
would-be ax murderer is Sutter Cane's former agent.
an epidemic of apparent paranoid schizophrenia spreads, fueled by the latest
Cane novel, we meet Cane's publisher (Charlton Heston) and his book editor,
named Linda Styles (Julie Carmen). She hires Trent to investigate the apparent
disappearance of Cane; she wants a fraud investigator because she suspects
everything is not as it seems. No kidding.
the movie lifts off into fantasy, as Trent and Styles go in search of Cane.
are lots of cross-references to Stephen King, as when Trent cleverly pieces
together a map of New Hampshire out of the covers of Cane's books, and when a
town named Hobb's Corner figures heavily, just as Castle Rock is the locale of
many of King's stories.
Trent and Styles drive through the night, strange nightmarish apparitions
appear by the roadside: innocent ones, like kids on bicycles, and more
disturbing ones, like ghouls. They arrive at a town that is not on any map,
check into an inn with weird creatures in the basement, and are constantly
startled by threats that leap in from out of frame, the oldest trick in the
horror movie book.
about here - still fairly early in the film - that "In the Mouth of
Madness" begins to lose its way. The notion of a book that drives its
readers mad is intriguing (especially in a movie where no one thinks to take it
off sale), but after the heroes arrive in Hobbs Corner what we essentially have
is a horror house movie, in which the protagonists creep along while creatures
leap at them.
novelist Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) does eventually turn up, with lines like
"More people believe in my work than believe in the Bible," but not
much is done to develop him, and the movie does what no horror movie can afford
to do, which is to play tennis without a net. Stories like this need rules;
it's not enough to send the beleaguered hero on a roller-coaster ride through
wonders how "In the Mouth of Madness" might have turned out if the
script had contained even a little more wit and ambition.
fact that the book was driving its readers mad might have provided an opening
for some entertaining satire. The Charlton Heston character, a publisher who
stands to make millions by selling the book, might have been expanded into more
of a hypocrite. What about the government? Is a book that makes you paranoid
protected by free speech? The movie
starts out with lots of intriguing ideas, and then sidesteps most of them in
order to provide a special effects sideshow that looks inspired by the
"Nightmare on Elm Street" series.
the most recent "Elm Street" movie, "Wes Craven's New
Nightmare," about a movie director who finds that his horror films are
seeping over into real life, covers similar ground in a much more original way
- and it has better special effects.