Horror is, on balance, too often event without mood, murder without mayhem, slashing bodies without slashing the cinematic edifice, and In the Mouth of Madness’ round dismissal upon release in 1995 suggests only that audiences and even critics aren’t always ready for a film that prefers the latter(s) over the former(s). The “murders” in this film are largely structural, formal, visual rather than diegetic to the narrative. Bodies don’t fling from hooks or fall from trees; the film’s victims are, instead, classical Hollywood constructs like continuity editing and linear narrative, both ideologies the film disposes in the garbage on its path to visual pandemonium.
A pandemonium that is abrasive, insurrectionist, and interruptive rather than dormant and passive at a stylistic level. By which I mean that the film perceptually incites bedlam in its very imagery, disavowing classical composure and the hideout of traditional narrative composition. A sane film scaffolded on Enlightenment values envisions the world as an ever-opening door, always available for the characters so that the themes can secrete out of the dialogue and the top-soil of narrative while the film essentially “waits” for the characters to do their things. In the Mouth of Madness, nearly avant-garde in its final half, would be insane according to those edicts and bylaws. Visually invasive, the film abrades the idea of wallflower scenes where characters are forever free to wander about the cinematic landscape, scenes that grant the audience free passage to assert their virility onto the film by understanding it without testing their mettle for a film that bites back. Instead of thematizing disorder in an otherwise orderly visual structure, In the Mouth of Madness swallows us up in a world where conventional cinematic visual structures hold no jurisdiction whatsoever.
Of course, director John Carpenter is too wise to stage such dissociative terror via any other mechanism besides dissolving our associative mental relationships with cinematic structures that implicitly wire our mental imaginations for the world. The connective tissues of cinema – sound that never overlaps, edits that wait for conversational lines to conclude – are inextricably tied up in our mental categories for how events occur, and these tissues become putty in Carpenter’s hands. The idea that the edits ought to “wait” for us to finish our business so audiences can understand the scene and characters can act without the film invading their presences are implicitly Enlightenment ideals. They reflect visions of a world where individual characters are the loci and masters of their domain, where the world is molding clay for people and where the film – a reflection of that world – acquiesces to the needs of the characters. In stark contrast, by the time In the Mouth of Madness concludes, the mental collapse of the film’s characters, or the physical collapse of the film’s world, inscribe themselves in a visual and aural disintegration of the film itself.
Not without a baseline though; the flow from self-determinative social order, where we control the world structures around us, to an awareness of the world we cannot control incarnates in the film’s unfurling flow from streamlined clarity to disfigured locus for aural-visual disharmony. Soon after we begin, vocal and irascible insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) and editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) are knee-deep in a venture to the silent, seemingly non-existent town of Hobbs End, New Hampshire to locate the whereabouts of world-conquering, and possibly insane, writer Sutter Cane (your man, and mine, in the flesh, Jurgen Prochnow, here playing way out to the rafters where he belongs).
The prognosis of insanity isn’t immediate, but Carpenter soon mutates the film’s formal structures for a descent into the subjective capabilities of cinema that chops the top off of reality. Take, for instance, Carpenter’s wonderfully willy-nilly application of aural-visual anti-synergy, slathering sounds and images over the screen that contrast and even disfigure one another, rather than pairing them up neatly to alleviate our minds. Beneath, of course, is a thick undercurrent of Lovecraftian emptiness, a sense of the world opening up before us (in the way the film visually disavows the close-minded continuity style of Hollywood) only for liberation to dive into the maw of ever-unfettering oblivion. Constructed though they be, without worldly structures or a particular outlet for pandemonium, what do we have left?
Making mischief with the Stephen King edifice conceptually, director John Carpenter’s film is ostensibly about the horrors of mass-market public fiction. But Carpenter stages his real coup when he erects a more menacing cinematic tyrant than nearly any cinematic King conversion, especially any that King himself has laid his hands on. That writer’s pulp isn’t much as fiction; the terror is exclusively conceptual, and King the director is actively awful while King the writer is merely timid. In the book The Shining, insanity is the template, but the prose itself is `futile, ordinary, and conformist, an ordered depiction of disorder. Understanding such a friction to be no fun at all, someone like Stanley Kubrick directed an actually maddened film version, a work where mortality seemed to exude from the very unhinged, coiled atmosphere on a film set where 100 takes for single shots were the order of the day.
Carpenter’s version isn’t quite so supple, although it is both batty and bedeviling, a work of cinematic style as cinematic substance (whereas King is often antithetical to literary style). Carpenter’s increasingly disheveled parade of edits that bend and break the film at the seams supplant a mere depiction of chaotic event; the film itself is a chaotic event, with disharmony reverberating through wild, woolly camera positioning that throws caution to the wind. King’s prose is passive, while Carpenter’s cinema is a lair for the artistic flair and ingenuity of someone dedicated to throttling their art into position for the fullest expression of their theme. Without ever feeling rehearsed, In the Mouth of Madness initiates its own caliber of friction between our mental compartments for how cinema ought to function at a formal level and how Carpenter envisions they should work. Over time, the cowl of visual anonymity unfastens and the Carpenter’s detour into formalist hysteria flowers into full-on madness.
In Caprenter’s oeuvre, Madness is also an experiment, the sight and sound of an artist unraveling his aesthetic. The absorbing and glacial perfection of Carpenter’s earlier works like Halloween and The Thing (better films both) channeled from arctic pillars of tightly etched minimalism and devout contributions of negative space. Here, however, an exercise in outré temperament mushrooms into a kaleidoscope of cracked mirror cinema, an askew view of a world of startlingly ambiguous subjectivity that infects the mind with disarray and visualizes sociological and mental pandemonium in nothing less than formal disarray. It reveals Carpenter as no fan of the haven of Hollywood style but also no devout acolyte of his own patented chilly freak-show minimalism.
Although the film’s current is primarily fast-and-loose (a shift first emblematic in Big Trouble or They Live), the playfulness camouflages a thoughtful and judicious slackening of the continuity style and unpacking of the formal categories by which cinema functions. The visual theatrics camouflage Carpenter’s disenchantment with the Hollywood status quo, discharging the reality principle from duty and then discharging copious emissions of Hollywood’s worst enemy: conscious, interruptive, brutally baroque style. Drawing blood from the vein of Italian giallo flicks, films for which cinema was always a lurid clay to be marionetted experimentally, In the Mouth of Madness is an impish work of indelible wickedness. A cautionary tale about Stephen King fundamentally speaks my language, and thankfully, Carpenter knows his.