Thursday, February 13, 2014

Madness and Metafiction

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
Director: John Carpenter
Seen via: Retrofantasma, Durham, NC
Rating: 6.5 / 10

I'd heard a lot about In the Mouth of Madness prior to seeing it, mostly by fans using it as an example to show John Carpenter's post-80's work wasn't uniformly bad. The 90's are so often reviled by horror fans as a terrible decade for the genre, but after the horror boom of the 80's it seems like the genre had to step back and wrestle with its success. How to deal with the tons of watered-down films and franchises capitalizing off the hits of yesterday? How to handle the burgeoning CG technology beginning to dominate special effects? Lots of films from the era seem to be casualties of the choice between adapting to trends or endlessly retreading old ground. Is it any wonder that some films took the third route of turning to self-reflection? In the Mouth of Madness examines the success of horror as a genre without letting the self-awareness take center stage, as in films like Scream (whose constant explanation of its gags seemed to turn it into a film made primarily for non-horror audiences). It also manages to lovingly incorporate lots of classic horror tropes within a metafictional context that works... sometimes.

At the center of the film is the work of fictional author Sutter Cane - a Stephen King stand-in with a body of work whose subject matter appears to be a blend of King and Lovecraft. Cane's books have been wildly successful, and his latest work, In the Mouth of Madness, is flying off the shelves. But Cane has vanished, and in response his publishing house hires investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) to look into the disappearance. Trent is not a horror fan, and his disdain for Cane's work is only magnified by the over-the-top marketing surrounding the new book's release.

The skeptical anti-fan placed front and center had me hoping that the film would engage with some of the common criticisms of horror. Unfortunately, it doesn't have much to say. Trent initially decries Cane's work on the grounds that they're inciting violence by unstable readers. He's right in a way, even if there turns out to be a little more to the story. Once Trent starts reading the books to get insight into his disappearance, he admits that they've got a certain lowbrow appeal. If anything, they've given him nightmares, just like any good horror novel should. But all of Trent's criticisms become somewhat irrelevant when fiction starts to bleed into reality. Horror authors face frequent scorn because their work approaches violent or taboo topics in a manner inconsistent with the norms of polite society. By dissolving the barrier between the real and fictional worlds, the film lets the rules of horror run wild without calling them into question.

Still, there's quite a bit of fun to be had once the film enters the world of Cane's novels. The fictional New Hampshire town of Hobb's End is a kaleidoscope of Lovecraftian horror, and Trent's constant scoffing is pretty amusing in the face of the outrageous supernatural events going on around him. The film's denouement is a little tedious though, and dwells longer than I'd have preferred on Trent's descent into insanity. We've been privy to the real story for much longer than he has, so I feel like the film would have been more powerful if it had wrapped itself up more quickly.

In the Mouth of Madness is a pretty good film, it just doesn't feel like a pretty good John Carpenter film. The metafictional aspects feel a little played out at this point. I have no way of knowing how fresh the film seemed in the mid-90s, since at the time Ghost Writer and Wishbone were about as metafictional as I got. But the is-it-fiction-or-reality games aren't terribly suspenseful these days. More engaging to me was the greatest hits reel of horror tropes the film throws into Hobb's End. Overall, it's a fun film, if a little overblown, and definitely not deserving of the grief that often gets piled on Carpenter's later work.

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