Let’s move back towards pure horror movies, shall we? (Props to Tenandys for showing this one to everyone he bumps into.)
John Carpenter is recognized as a master of horror, but he has so many widely unappreciated great films. The Thing is one of them, though I’m glad it’s attained a cult status amongst horror movie buffs. In the Mouth of Madness is another, but I can see why it’s relegated to “cult classic” status. For horror, it’s very subdued and cerebral, with less of the visceral horror that drives The Thing or Halloween. Instead, it’s the best non-Lovecraft Lovecraftian movie ever made.
“Do you read Sutter Cane?”
It’s a fairly simple plot: Sam Neill plays John Trent, freelance insurance investigator who’s hired by a book publisher (Charlton Heston) to investigate the disappearance of best-selling author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Along for the ride is Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen); they head out to Cane’s New England hometown of Hobb’s End, which may or may not exist.
But things are never that simple; this is a horror movie, after all. It starts getting weird pretty quickly, and is laden with psychological horror and weird goings-ons. As the film progresses, we begin to explore Trent’s sanity: events that he remembers occurring that nobody else does, strange visions, and a great meeting between Trent and Cane which reveals the film’s horror: Sutter Cane’s phenomenal output makes him more read than the Bible, and he’s now bending the world to his rules. The ending is amazing, and is what sold me on the film.
I can see why the film’s not a huge hit or popular horror choice; to say it’s subdued is an understatement. Not a whole lot happens, and if you’re not up for a slower film that isn’t terrifying until you stop and think about it, look somewhere else. But the gravity of the situation—a crazed horror writer turned God bending reality to fill his horror-trope wishes—damn, that’s a great setup. Even if you don’t like the movie, you have to admit that’s a fantastic idea.
Mouth of Madness is a fascinating look at madness, reality, belief, and above all, the power of the written word. One of the most unique horror films I’ve ever seen.
Why is it scary?
This film doesn’t have much visceral horror—no stalking killers, no jump scenes, not a lot of gore. What it does have is subdued but tangible psychological/cerebral horror. Is the protagonist the last sane man in the world, or is he going crazy as Sutter Cane rewrites reality into a descent into hell? I wasn’t kidding when I said it was the best Lovecraftian movie ever made. This is a film where the horror is all in your mind, a surreal trip down madness lane.
That said, there are a few really creepy scenes. There’s a few night shots of a creepy bicyclist, and the weird old lady with something in her basement, and the odd painting that keeps changing whenever somebody looks at it. Oh, and John Carpenter is aces at writing his own eerie soundtracks. He’s also the master of atmosphere for a reason, and this film showcases this: in this film reality just feels off, giving out a strong sense of wrong, from the earliest scenes.