In the Mouth of Madness is a rarity. It’s a film with some terrible, terrible parts, yet it needs to be longer. There needs to be more terribleness for it to be better. And it can’t even be much better, because those terrible parts break it, but it would be somewhat better. It would definitely be a better viewing experience.
Here are the film’s problems, in no particular order. Gary B. Kibbe’s photography. Madness is Panavision aspect and Kibbe shoots everything spherically distorted. Well, not everything, but the most visually distinctive parts. One of the film’s more conceptual problems is what visually compels. Kibbe screws up the compelling visual narrative pacing. Maybe Carpenter told him to do it, in which case it’s Carpenter’s bad. But Kibbe’s photography is never great. With the sets, it sometimes looks like a shoddy attempt at a Shining rip-off and Madness isn’t that thing at all.
Next problem. Sam Neill. Fourth-rate Harrison Ford who everyone thought was just a second-rate Harrison Ford. He can’t hold his accent, which would be a hilarious bit for the film to acknowledge, but of course it doesn’t. Even though Madness eventually wants to be meta, it’s like Carpenter doesn’t really have any interest in it, which brings me to the next problem. The script. The script is awful.
Even though Carpenter goes for his traditional possessive titling on Madness, it’s not his vanity project. It’s writer and executive producer Michael De Luca’s vanity project. So while Carpenter can do a nod to this Quatermass here, that Corman there, this Lovecraft adaptation here, that whatever there, he’s still got this disastrous script. De Luca’s doing zeitgeist–Neill is hunting down Jürgen Prochnow’s Stephen King-esque author, not Prochnow’s Lovecraft-esque author. The script wants to be pop culture, the narrative needs literary musing, Carpenter’s doing this Lovecraft movie homage thing. Not to mention De Luca also models the structure after a film noir (Double Indemnity in particular) and Carpenter couldn’t, frankly, give less of a shit about that narrative structure. He goes out of his way not to acknowledge it.
And if you’re not going to acknowledge your femme fatale, maybe you shouldn’t have a femme fatale. Madness’s femme fatale is Julie Carmen. She’s Prochnow’s editor and Neill’s sidekick. Carmen and Neill have no chemistry, which isn’t really surprising since she’s awful. He’s awful too, but she’s awful in a different way. She doesn’t have a part. He’s just bad at his part. The film also breaks its narrative device to run off with her adventures; if the movie were a little better, it might be annoying but it’s not. The script’s already been inept at that point.
Prochnow’s bad, but it isn’t his fault. He’s just doing his schtick. It’s why he’s in the movie.
Stylistically, the front is stronger than the back. Once Neill and Carmen find Prochnow, Edward A. Warschilka’s editing starts to falter. It was one of the few excellent things about the beginning. By the end, Carpenter relies heavily on jump scares. They aren’t scary, they’re occasionally desperate, but at least he’s enthusiastic about them. There are some okay visual ideas but there’s no time for Madness to make them stick. It isn’t just the film needing another ten or fifteen minutes of visual presence to make an impression, it’s the order of the shots. Part of the film’s gimmick (Prochnow writing reality) means visual trickery. Carpenter, Kibbe and Warschilka just blaze through instead of making anything distinct.
Charlton Heston’s in a “guest starring” role and he gives one of the film’s better performances. If you’ve got a hackneyed Heston cameo and he gives the best performance, you know the film’s got problems. Bernie Casey’s good, Peter Jason’s got a nice scene. John Glover. He’s fine. Frances Bay should have a great small role and she doesn’t. Because the script’s crap and Carpenter never pushes against it.
Oh, and who thought giving Wilhelm von Homburg the film’s most important part would be a good idea? He’s awful, but of course he’s awful, he’s obviously awful and no one should’ve kept him in. You feel bad for him. But only him. Everyone else who’s awful, you blame them.
Just because it’s an apocalyptic downer doesn’t mean the entire thing should feel like a surrender, yet it does. Madness is a defeat.