Tag Archives: In the Mouth of Madness

Director | John Carpenter, Part 4: The Mundane Years

In the four phases of John Carpenter’s career, the final one–starting in 1992 and going on eighteen years–contains almost forty percent of his theatrical output. This final period is almost an afterthought’s afterthought. While Sandy King produces most of the films, Gary Kibbe photographs most of them, and Peter Jason has a part in most of them, the films are not defined by Carpenter’s collaborations but by their lack of success, creatively, critically, and commercially. It’s a somewhat cynical way to classify these nine films, but not an inaccurate one. Nothing Carpenter does works, regardless of cast, regardless of budget. He’s no longer creating or recreating genres, he’s firmly–and often disinterestedly–in established ones. His closest thing to a success from the last half of his career is just a return to his early standards, only half as good.

Daryl Hannah consoles a visible Chevy Chase in MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN.
Daryl Hannah consoles a visible Chevy Chase in MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN.

Given 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man kicks things off, I suppose Carpenter’s final phase could be a lot worse because Memoirs–four years after Carpenter’s last film, They Live–threatens an already asleep at the wheel John Carpenter. Memoirs is the first Hollywood “Invisible Man” with CGI, it’s an attempt at (another) revitalization of Chevy Chase’s career, and it’s the return of John Carpenter. It’s also one of the least “John Carpenter” John Carpenter films. He’s doing a studio picture without his regular supporting cast, without his regular crew (though he did previously work with editor Marion Rothman on Starman and Christine); it’s very different John Carpenter film.

Chevy Chase can't been seen in MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, directed by John Carpenter for Warner Bros.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2014 review

It’s also an unfortunate John Carpenter film. The script is weak and Carpenter is checked out. It’s like he knows it’s not going well. The CGI’s good, anyway, but it’s fairly clear Carpenter hasn’t got any more a handle on it than he does the rest of the film. There’s a distressing lack of personality when it comes to the production, except maybe in Carpenter’s indifference.

When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.
When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man was a fairly big box office bomb, but it’s not like anyone blamed Carpenter exactly. You don’t blame the directors for bad Chevy Chase movies. They’re not the problem. Even when they’re bad, they’re not the problem. Since its release, Memoirs has not gotten a better reputation or a discovery. There’s nothing to discover; at least it’s available widescreen now, so you can see the Panavision, but you shouldn’t because there’s no reason to see the movie.

Even a hackneyed Charlton Heston is better than Julie Carmen and Sam Niell IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.
Even a hackneyed Charlton Heston is better than Julie Carmen and Sam Neill IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.

Carpenter’s next film, In the Mouth of Madness, stars Sam Neill in the lead. Neill was the villain in Memoirs, promoted here to an insurance investigator who has to try to stop a Stephen King wannabe from ending the world. It’s made more difficult because the entire world is going crazy from reading the author’s books. Violence and chaos ensues. It’s New Line–written by studio exec Michael De Luca no less–so some occasional gore. The film does bring back a bit of Carpenter “flavor,” with Peter Jason in a cameo, Sandy King producing (she worked on Starman through They Live), and Gary B. Kibbe on photography.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2014 review
In the Mouth of Madness (1994). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2014 review

Mouth of Madness has a lot of varied fans. I’m not one of them. The Maltin guide, at least at the time, described it as (partially) Carpenter’s “best work as a director” or something to that effect, which is a ludicrously absurd (and patently wrong) claim. The acting is terrible–Neill and leading lady Julie Carmen in particular. It’s got a bad script, the production isn’t good, Kibbe’s photography is bad. Some of the editing does work out. Otherwise, it’s a too short, unfocused slog.

Sam Neill is trapped in a book, the viewer is trapped with Sam Neill.
Sam Neill is trapped in a book, the viewer is trapped with Sam Neill.

Of all Carpenter’s post-They Live films, which is actually almost half his career, In the Mouth of Madness easily gets the most regard. Still, it’s never had much curation on home video; solid home video releases always encourage Carpenter discovery. But I still think it’d be too much of a slog to catch on. Neill’s really lame.

Intrepid reporters Sue Charlton and Clark Kent try to figure out what's wrong with the children in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.
Intrepid reporters Sue Charlton and Clark Kent try to figure out what’s wrong with the children in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.

Squinting at Carpenter’s remake of Village of the Damned, one can almost pretend there’s a parallel to The Thing. It’s a Universal release, it’s a remake, it’s… no, it’s just those two elements. It’s Carpenter’s only other remake and has his most “all-star” eighties genre cast, with Superman Christopher Reeve, Star Trek Kirstie Alley, and Star Wars Mark Hamill, along with Michael Paré, Linda Kozlowski, and Meredith Salenger. It’s like the perfect cast for a movie in the HBO Guide from 1987. Unfortunately, it’s from 1995 (the same year Madness got a domestic theatrical release, those two films the only Carpenter pictures from the same year–features at least). Carpenter brings back some familiar players–Peter Jason, of course, and George ‘Buck’ Flower–and crew–producer King, cinematographer Kibbe, editor Edward A. Warschilka. Village of the Damned sort of kicks off a sub-period for Carpenter, one where he’s no longer casting unappreciated character actors and leads, but trying to tap into something retro. Sort of. It might just be a signal of what kind of Carpenter films are to come.

Thomas Dekker, Linda Kozlowski, and Christopher Reeve star in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, directed by John Carpenter for Universal Pictures.
Village of the Damned (1995). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2013 review

And those films, like Village of the Damned, are going to be pretty lame. I even remember when Village of the Damned came out in the theater and I wouldn’t walk six blocks to see it. I just couldn’t subject myself to another lame Carpenter. It’s got a weak script, it’s utterly lacking in terms of Carpenter’s interest. He’s done confined towns successfully before (Halloween), even in Northern California (The Fog), but he doesn’t do anything to make it work in Damned. But Carpenter also hasn’t got any idea what to do with the “monsters” in the film. Why remake Village of the Damned if the damned kids aren’t going to be scary? Again, there’s some gore, but not to any great effect.

The funny looking children of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.
A VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED or an ophthalmologist’s dream?

Village of the Damned had a decent Universal LaserDisc release–which I also couldn’t bring myself to purchase back in the nineties because the movie’s crap–and a late DVD release, but has since had a Blu-Ray release with some kinds of special features. Not enough to make it worth a look (Carpenter doesn’t contribute an audio commentary); it’s another sore thumb in Carpenter’s nineties bevy of sore thumbs. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of anyone liking it.

Snake Plissken doesn't just jump a shark, he surfs over it!
Snake Plissken doesn’t just jump a shark, he surfs over it!

However, while the nineties didn’t bring much in the way of good John Carpenter, the decade did do something to (temporarily) resurrect Kurt Russell’s stardom and he utilized it to get Escape from L.A. made. Released fifteen years after Escape from New York, Russell’s the only returning actor, though the film does finally reteam Carpenter with Debra Hill. She and Russell produce; she, Russell, and Carpenter write. Kibbe’s back on photography, Warschilka on edits. The film also reunites Carpenter with production designer Lawrence G. Paull, who did Memoirs (though one assumes his Blade Runner experience came more in handy than that one). And Peter Jason’s back, of course.

Kurt Russell stars in ESCAPE FROM L.A., directed by John Carpenter for Paramount Pictures.
Escape from L.A. (1996). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2013 review.

It’s a film with a lot of familiar actors–from standards like Cliff Robertson and Stacy Keach to trendier ones like Pam Grier, Bruce Campbell, and Steve Buscemi (as Russell’s sidekick)–and some solid performances, but it doesn’t work out. If his nineties output showcases anything about Carpenter, it’s his inability to work with CGI. Escape from L.A. relies heavily on it to terrible result. And Paull’s production design turns out pretty lame. I was a moderate fan when it came out–as a teenager–but I was hopefully just hopped up on “Starlog” press about it.

The Capitol Records Building is destroyed; you should see what happened to the Hollywood Bowl.
The Capitol Records Building is destroyed; you should see what happened to the Hollywood Bowl.

If anything, Escape from L.A. starts Carpenter’s final phase of his nineties work, where he gets a bit of a pass. Unlike almost every other Carpenter film, Escape has never had anything approaching a special edition. Russell’s star power got a grateful studio–Paramount–to make the film, but after it flopped (and helped knock Russell’s career back down), it’s not like they were going to put anything into special features. The film’s since been released on Blu-Ray (from Warner, through their Paramount catalog deal), but still without special features. Presumably there’s nothing anyone wants to say about it; though people do watch it. There are some Carpenter films from the nineties no one watches (Memoirs of an Invisible Man, for instance).

James Woods looks for VAMPIRES!
James Woods looks for VAMPIRES!

And so, Vampires, Carpenter’s last film of the nineties, gives him a perfect post-Kurt Russell lead in James Woods and a strong supporting cast. Unfortunately, most of that strong supporting cast gets killed off too soon and it’s not like Woods has a good face-off with lead vampire Thomas Ian Griffith. The film’s got a high concept–the Vatican employs a band of vampire hunters, led by Woods, and they get in trouble. That trouble involves combining a road movie with a star-crossed romance (not even for Woods, but Daniel Baldwin and Sheryl Lee). There’s comic relief too, albeit entirely thanks to Woods’s yelling. Carpenter’s nineties crew stable is present–King, Kibbe, and Warschilka; but… the film’s distressingly without a Peter Jason appearance.

A scene from VAMPIRES, directed by John Carpenter for Columbia Pictures.
Vampires (1998). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2011 review.

Before it came out, I was waiting what seemed like forever for Vampires to get picked up for domestic release. Columbia eventually picked it up–Carpenter’s first Columbia Pictures release since Starman in the eighties–and it’s not a terrible film. I mean, it’s boring, dramatically inert, entirely phoned in creatively by Carpenter, but it’s watchable. It’s also maybe the only Gary B. Kibbe photography to impress me. He does a lot better with the New Mexico location shooting than one would think.

Hands out of the desert, decapitated heads flying across the sky
Hands out of the desert, decapitated heads flying across the sky

The film doesn’t have much of a reputation, but it does have enthusiasts. Again, it’s James Woods in a John Carpenter movie called Vampires. You get what you paid for (and not a thing more).

Ice Cube and Natasha Henstridge aren't quite  Darwin Joston and Austin Stoker, but they're enough to take on GHOSTS OF MARS.
Ice Cube and Natasha Henstridge aren’t quite Darwin Joston and Austin Stoker, but they’re enough to take on GHOSTS OF MARS.

After five films playing with different genres (and sub-genres), in 2001, Carpenter went as back to basics as he could, sort of remaking Assault on Precinct 13, only on Mars with zombies–or, more accurately, Ghosts of Mars. Even with a limited budget, it had the biggest mainstream, “name” cast for a Carpenter film in years. Leads Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube were at (or near) the tops of their careers and showy co-star Jason Statham was about to be on his way up. Pam Grier and Robert Carradine are back from Escape from L.A.. Peter Jason returns. Kibbe and King are back, with Paul C. Warschilka (Edward’s son) handling the edits. Carpenter even co-writes (with Larry Sulkis), which goes a lot better than the L.A. script, even with less budget.

Ghosts of Mars (2001). ★★. 2016 review.
Ghosts of Mars (2001). ★★. 2016 review.

I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the film, which I saw reluctantly in the theater; Carpenter’s not reinventing the wheel with the handling of the special effects, but at least he’s trying. There’s a mix of miniature and CGI, with the CGI nicely blending in the miniatures; Carpenter knows how to make this film. His cast isn’t the best in terms of, you know, acting, but they’re all eager. Unfortunately, a lot of the editing implies shortcuts–whether actual or just perceived–and Warschilka, fils isn’t particularly subtle with his cuts. Still, it works out far better than expected. Carpenter’s got ideas, context, and momentum, something his nineties films otherwise severely lack.

For some reason, no one likes Big Daddy Mars.
For some reason, no one likes Big Daddy Mars.

Ghosts of Mars, despite being somewhat well-received and having a number of casual fans, has never garnered much more attention. It doesn’t really deserve much more, but it does deserve some. It’s workman, but gloriously so. I should note some Carpenter fans really can’t stand it–I spent years trying to get it on the “Alan Smithee Podcast” schedule but my co-host steadfastly refused.

After nine years away, Carpenter can't do anything to get a performance out of Amber Heard in THE WARD; Mamie Gummer's good, however.
After nine years away, Carpenter can’t do anything to get a performance out of Amber Heard in THE WARD; Mamie Gummer’s good, however.

Following Ghosts of Mars, it was another nine years until Carpenter’s next feature. The Ward is Carpenter’s only ghost story–and his only period piece (the film’s set in the mid-sixties)–and his only eighty-five percent female cast. It takes place in a women’s mental hospital, features no Carpenter regulars in the cast or on the crew. It’s just him (and some of his regular effects crew).

Amber Heard stars in THE WARD, directed by John Carpenter for Warner Bros.
The Ward (2010). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2011 review.

It’s a disappointing film, no doubt, but not an entirely worthless one. There’s some bad acting and some okay acting. The script’s weak. The lead (Amber Heard) is one of the bad performances, which never helps. But there are twists and turns, even if Carpenter’s not really good at this kind of film. He just doesn’t care enough.

The Ward has become an footnote in Carpenter’s filmography; maybe it never was anything more than a footnote in it. I’m fairly certain I’ve never talked to anyone else who’s even seen it. The Ward’s biggest impact is–since its release–there hasn’t been much clamoring for Carpenter to return to the director’s seat.

No amount of group can make THE WARD any better.
No amount of group can make THE WARD any better.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve wanted John Carpenter to stage a great comeback. The strange thing about these seven films is any of them could have been a critical comeback for Carpenter. He could’ve created a special effects driven comedy genre, he could’ve done super-literate gore, he could’ve done moderately budgeted, moderately successful genre remakes, he could’ve made an Escape from L.A. so awesome Escape from Earth got greenlit before the first Sunday box office was in, he could’ve started a series of awesome collaborations with James Woods, he could’ve done sci-fi Westerns on a budget, he could’ve done great twenty-first century low budget, CG-enhanced horror. But he didn’t do any of those things. It just didn’t work out. It sucks. But it didn’t work out.

What has worked out is the preservation and presentation of Carpenter’s films on Blu-Ray, usually thanks to Shout! Factory. And it’s not like Carpenter isn’t finally interested in doing something; it’s just music, not movies. At least not directing them. Maybe it’ll be a good thing.

It can’t get much worse than Memoirs of an Invisible Man, after all.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994, John Carpenter)

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.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; written by Michael De Luca; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Edward A. Warschilka; music by Carpenter and Jim Lang; production designer, Jeff Ginn; produced by Sandy King; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Sam Neill (John Trent), Julie Carmen (Linda Styles), Jürgen Prochnow (Sutter Cane), David Warner (Dr. Wrenn), John Glover (Saperstein), Bernie Casey (Robinson), Peter Jason (Mr. Paul), Wilhelm von Homburg (Simon), Frances Bay (Mrs. Pickman) and Charlton Heston (Jackson Harglow).


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