"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, October 30, 2009

DVD of the Week: Cloverfield

Cloverfield was the first media sensation of 2008 and an excellent case study in canny marketing. A teaser trailer appeared in theaters months ahead and featured a few, brief, tantalizing scenes of chaos in Manhattan with no mention of a title or who was in it. The only thing that was certain was that J.J. Abrams was somehow involved. Fans speculated about possible similarities to his TV show Lost or the likelihood that he had masterminded a new kind of monster movie. This teaser trailer sparked intense interest on the Internet which the studio brilliantly exploited with snippets of information staggered over succeeding weeks. The marketing paid off and the buzz resulted in a strong opening weekend and decent critical reaction.

The film’s framing device is that what we are about to see is “found” footage recovered from a digital camera in what used to be known as Central Park in New York City. Hud (T.J. Miller) has been entrusted to record testimonials for his friend Robert Hawkins’ (Michael Stahl-David) going away party. Rob recently got a promotion that will take him to Japan. During the party what feels like an earthquake forces everyone to the roof where they all witness a huge explosion in the distance. The partygoers make their way to the street and all kinds of debris comes flying down the street including, incredibly enough, the head of the Statue of Liberty.

In the distance, a skyscraper comes crashing down and the ensuing dust cloud and people running eerily echoes footage from 9/11. It looks exactly like a terrorist attack except for something massive glimpsed briefly moving between buildings. A huge tail that later takes out the Brooklyn Bridge confirms that some kind of creature is wreaking havoc in the city. After losing his brother, Rob decides to go rescue his friend and love of his life, Beth (Odette Yustman) with Hud and friends from the party, Lily (Jessica Lucas) and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) tagging along. What follows is an intense, white-knuckle journey through Manhattan as Rob and his friends try to avoid the thing that is tearing the city apart.

Cloverfield’s take on the monster movie is brilliant: imagine Godzilla (1998) shot like The Blair Witch Project (1999) fused with the same story structure as Miracle Mile (1989). This gives the film an immediacy that is very effective, especially in a scene where our heroes decide to walk through a subway tunnel only to realize that some things are chasing them. Director Matt Reeves ratchets up the tension with a chilling shot of rats scurrying away en masse while our heroes are traveling through the tunnel. There are all kinds of shots like this throughout the film, most notably a haunting shot of a riderless horse-driven carriage going through a deserted intersection. In addition to the aforementioned films, Cloverfield is also influenced by the original Night of the Living Dead (1968) in the way we (and the characters) get bits and pieces of information about what might be causing all of the destruction via newscasts. Like George Romero’s film, there is a raw, almost documentary-like feel that enhances the horror of what we are watching.

The comparisons to 9/11 – especially visually – are unavoidable as is evident early on in the initial attacks on the city and when the military show up with images that are not only meant to evoke that day but also footage of American soldiers fighting in the streets of Baghdad. More than any other film before it, Cloverfield is a cathartic experience for those of us who experienced and lived through 9/11 much like the original Godzilla (1954) film was for the Japanese after the atomic bombings during World War II.

Like any good horror film, Cloverfield is a metaphor for the horrors of real life. For people who actually lived in New York City at the time of 9/11 this film is particularly harrowing and traumatic ... but in a good way if that makes any sense. What makes the film particularly gripping is that the filmmakers take the time to allow us to become emotionally invested in the characters so that we care about what happens to them. We are given just enough details about their lives and their relationships with each other to make what happens to them later that much more powerful. This is visceral filmmaking at its finest that finally eradicates the waste of celluloid that was the Roland Emmerich Godzilla remake and finally gives America a decent monster movie to call their own.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by director Matt Reeves. He starts off talking about the genesis of the project and how he got the gig. He speaks about the casting process and how it was shrouded in secrecy with the actors auditioning scenes from J.J. Abrams TV shows Felicity and Alias. Reeves says that he resisted the urge to have a lot of obvious edits in favour of long takes or invisible edits in order to mimic a film actually shot by an average person who was there. To that end, he points out that the style of the film was meant to suggest that anyone could have shot it. This is an engaging and informative track with very few lulls.

“Document 01.18.08: The Making of Cloverfield” takes a look at how the film came together amid a shroud of secrecy. The use of hand-held cameras is examined including how it gave the film an authenticity. The on-the-set footage shows how it was filmed, mostly on a soundstage which is amazing because it doesn’t look it in the film. We see several scenes being shot and it is fascinating to see how they pulled it off.

Cloverfield Visual Effects” examines how they virtually destroyed Manhattan with CGI effects. The fore and middle ground of scenes were real with practical sets while the background was a mix of CGI and good ol’ Matte paintings. This featurette takes us through the major SFX set pieces and shows us how they did them.

“I saw it! It’s alive! It’s huge!” J.J. Abrams was inspired by Godzilla and its iconic status in Japan and he wanted to do that for America. This featurette takes a look at how the creature was designed and why it looks the way it does.

“Clover Fun” are outtakes and bloopers as the cast blow their lines and goof around.

Also included are four deleted scenes with optional commentary by Reeves. There is more footage from Rob’s farewell party and more of him and his friends in the subway tunnels including more from the aftermath of the attack there.

There are two alternate endings with optional commentary by Reeves. Both tweak some of the pre-recorded footage of Rob and Beth during happier days.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Happy Halloween courtesy of Sarah Michelle Geller

This fantastic horror-themed photo shoot was first published in Entertainment Weekly in October 2004. Many of these stills have quotes from famous horror films. I've always been a fan of Sarah Michelle Geller's, especially her work on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television program but even in B-movies like The Return.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Class of '84 Blogathon: Streets of Fire

NOTE: This article was originally posted on September of last year but I am dusting it off for Joe Valdez's excellent Blogathon celebrating cinema in 1984 over at one of my favorite blogs This Distracted Globe!

Walter Hill makes pure, unabashed genre films and Streets of Fire (1984) is one of the best examples from his career. The film was a pet project that he was able to realize after the success of 48 Hrs. (1983). He came right from making that film into Streets utilizing much of the same crew. Based on the commercial and critical success of his previous film, Universal Studios put up a significant amount of money and promoted it as a big summer event film. Streets of Fire promptly flopped both at the box office and with critics but has since developed a dedicated cult following.

The plot is an old chestnut that we’ve seen a million time before: “the Leader of the Pack steals the Queen of the Hop and Soldier Boy comes home to do something about it,” is how Hill summed it up in the film’s production notes. Local girl Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) returns home to put on a concert now that she’s a famous rock star. Hill conveys the fantastic energy and excitement of a live concert and Jim Steinman’s song, “Nowhere Fast” perfectly captures the youthful energy of rock ‘n’ roll but with his trademark operatic flourishes. Lane looks and acts every bit the iconic rock start she is supposed to be. At one point, towards the end of the song she spins around with wild abandon like she’s lost in the music and it is hard not to get caught up in the energy of her performance. However, this emotional spell is broken when Raven (Willem Dafoe) and the Bombers, his motorcycle gang, come storming in like a nightmarish version of Marlon Brando and his gang in The Wild One (1953). All hell breaks loose as the locals are terrorized by the bikers and in the ensuing chaos they kidnap Ellen while the police do little to stop them.

Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) writes to her brother, Tom Cody (Michael Pare), an ex-soldier, to come home and rescue his ex-flame, Ellen. He arrives on a train with Ry Cooder’s bluesy music accompanying him as if to signify that he’s an old school protagonist – the strong silent type, a man of action as he quickly demonstrates when he efficiently dispatches a group of punks known as The Road Masters when they try to mess up Reva’s diner. It’s a drop dead cool introduction for Cody as he slaps around their leader and then makes short work of his buddies. They are no match for him and there is a fantastic energy to this sequence, scored to Cooder’s music. Hill breaks things up by occasionally freeze framing the action as a credit appears on-screen, which is very Sam Peckinpah-esque (Hill worked with Peckinpah writing the screenplay for The Getaway) It is an excellent marriage of editing and music. By the end of the opening credits, Hill has done a great job of establishing the film’s premise and introducing the hero, the damsel in distress, and the bad guy who has kidnapped her.

Tom goes to a bar and meets a fellow ex-soldier named McCoy (Amy Madigan) who shows off her toughness by punching out the bartender, played by Bill Paxton in a memorable cameo complete with a gravity-defying pompadour. Apparently, he’s an old buddy of Cody’s and gives McCoy a hard time at every opportunity. This role came early in Paxton’s career when he was a scene-stealing character actor with memorable turns in Aliens (1986) and Near Dark (1987). Clocking him gives Amy Madigan’s character a nice introduction as a tough-talking, hard-hitting soldier looking for work. Madigan originally read for one of the other parts and told Hill and producer Joel Silver that she wanted to play the role of McCoy, which, she remembers, “was written to be played by an overweight male who was a good soldier and really needed a job. It could still be strong and have a woman do it without rewriting the part.” Hill liked the idea and cast her in the role. McCoy is an atypical sidekick. She’s definitely not interested in Cody romantically and casually brushes off his equally blasé overture as if they wanted to get it out of the way and get down to the business of rescuing Ellen. Madigan gets some good zingers in during the course of the film – usually at the expense of Ellen’s surly manager, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) who takes an instant dislike to McCoy. She is not a goofy sidekick by any means.

McCoy convinces Cody that she can help him out, much to the chagrin of Billy. Genial comedian Rick Moranis is cast wonderfully against type as the no-nonsense manager. He’s only concerned about getting Ellen back because she’s his ticket to the big time. It is strictly business between him and Cody. Billy also takes an instant dislike to McCoy and vice versa. It’s fun to watch them trade acerbic insults back and forth but like any good Hill protagonists, they put their differences aside and get the job done. Fish takes them to the Battery, an industrial hell-hole where the Bombers hang out. The rest of the film plays out Cody’s rescue mission and the fallout from it.

The cars and clothes in this film are a mix of 1940s and 1950s styles and Hill juxtaposes them with Jim Steinman’s ‘80s music and all sorts of snazzy neon decorating the stage Ellen performs on. It all works towards establishing a mythical place, tying into the opening tag that announces the film as “a rock and roll fable,” taking place in “another time, another place.” The look of Streets of Fire is something else – a wonderfully atmospheric retro noir look that Sin City (2005) tried to replicate years later with CGI but nothing beats the real thing.

After the success of 48 Hrs., Hill reunited with producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver and screenwriter Larry Gross. According to the director, impetus for Streets of Fire came out of a desire to make what he thought was a perfect film when he was a teenager and put in all of the things that he thought were “great then and which I still have great affection for: custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and question of honor.” Planning for the film began while they were making 48 Hrs. and soon after its completion, Gross and Hill worked on the screenplay, writing ten pages a day. When they were finished, the two men submitted the script to Universal Studios in January 1983 and within the span of a weekend were given the go-ahead to make the film.

The film’s title came from a song written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen on his album Darkness on the Edge of Town. Originally, plans were made for the song to be featured on soundtrack, to be sung by Ellen Aim at the end of the film. Negotiations with the musician for the rights delayed production several times. However, when Springsteen was told that his song would be re-recorded by other vocalists, he withdrew permission for the song to be used and it was replaced by “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young.” The studio, in an attempt to save face, claimed that they replaced Springsteen’s song because it was a downer.

At one point, McCoy says to Cody, “Are we gonna do it or we gonna talk about it?” This could be the credo of Hill’s protagonists. They would rather do the job and be done with it than have to talk about it. They are all about action, whether it’s Swan and his gang in The Warriors (1979) or Ryan O’Neal’s wheelman in The Driver (1978), or Bruce Willis’ hired gun in Last Man Standing (1996). They are super efficient, no-nonsense professionals who get the job done.

Hill described the film as a “big movie without a big name star.” He wanted to cast a young group of relative unknowns and heard about Michael Pare from the same agent who recommended Eddie Murphy to him for 48 Hrs. After creating the character of Tom Cody rewrote the script “around his personality and motivating force: ‘I take it wherever I can find it,’” the director said in an interview. Pare does a decent job portraying one of Hill’s trademark laconic protagonists – a man of few words who lets his actions define his character. Pare goes for the Clint Eastwood stoicism but doesn’t quite have his effortless intensity and toughness. He’s a little too good-looking with a sleepy look but he’s okay considering that this was only his third film and first big studio one. For Cody, Hill wanted to cast an unknown with a toughness mixed with an innocent quality and found it in Pare.

It’s really a shame about Pare. He was being groomed for the big time with Eddie and the Cruisers (1983) and Streets of Fire, but both films were critical and commercial failures, eventually becoming cult films. That didn’t help Pare’s career as he was relegated to low budget, direct-to-video hell. In Streets, Hill wisely limits Pare’s dialogue and lets his matinée idol good looks and knack for physical action do all the work. It also helps that he and Diane Lane have excellent chemistry together. You can see it in his eyes. When he’s with her, his tough guy stare softens a little and gradually the ice between them melts, culminating in a passionate kiss in the rain as they finally drop their defenses, their long-standing disagreements, and admit their true feelings for each other.

Diane Lane had already done more than ten films by the time she appeared in Streets of Fire and described her character, at the time, as, “the first glamorous role I’ve had.” She looks beautiful and inhabits her rock star character with complete conviction thanks to essaying a punk rock musician previously in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1981). She has all the moves down cold as an iconic rock star and looks great on stage. Lane has that retro look and she would have been a big star in Hollywood films made during the ‘40s. Hill originally wrote Ellen Aim as a 28-year-old woman but Lane auditioned for the role when she was 18. He was reluctant to cast her because he felt that she was too young but he met her in New York City and she auditioned in black leather pants, a black mesh top, and high-heeled boots, feigning confidence. Based on this, Hill cast her in the role. In addition, he was so impressed with her work on the film that he wrote additional scenes for her during the shoot.

When Raven and Cody finally meet, they exchange tough guy pleasantries and set up a future showdown. Willem Dafoe looks like he just walked off the set of The Loveless (1982) and I always wondered if Hill was a fan of the cult film oddity that marked the auspicious directorial debut of Kathryn Bigelow. Raven is a cartoonish bad guy complete with some kind of fetish gear overalls and vampirish pallor. In some respects it is a one-note warm-up for his truly evil and deliciously complex baddie in To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). The final showdown between Raven and Cody, which took nine days to shoot, is appropriately introduced musically by Ry Cooder’s ominous cover of Link Wray’s classic, “Rumble.” Their confrontation is a contemporary riff on the old western showdown between two gunslingers, except that Raven and Cody slug it out with large hammers that are normally used to break rocks. Then, they settle things the old fashion way: they beat the crap out of each other. Guess who prevails?

A lot of wonderful character actors early in their careers pop in this film. Ed Begley Jr. has a peculiar cameo as a quirky bum who gives Cody a tip as to where Ellen is being held. At one point, Cody and his group cross paths with the Sorels, doo-wop group that features a young Mykel T. Williamson and Robert Townsend. At the end of the film they sing “I Can Dream About You,” which was actually done by Dan Hartman, and proved to be the most successful song from the film, becoming a Billboard Top 10 hit in 1984. However, Winston Ford actually sang the version that is used in the film with Hartman performing the version on the soundtrack album. Lee Ving, lead singer of the punk band Fear has a memorable minor role as Raven’s right-hand man. He gets to do the tough guy thing and definitely looks the part of a badass biker. Cult rockabilly band The Blasters are quite fittingly the house band at Torchies, a scuzzy biker bar where the Bombers hang out and ogle a fishnet-clad go-go dancer played by Marine Jahan, Jennifer Beals’ dance double in Flashdance (1983).

Filming began in Chicago in April 1983 and continued for 45 days at various Los Angeles locations, including two weeks at a soap factory in Wilmington, California with additional filming taking place at Universal Studios. Some scenes, like the Strip District and Battery sequences, neon tubing was painted because its light was too bright. In some cases, penlights were used to fill in where professional lighting equipment was too strong. In the Richmond District, the environment’s look is “very soft; the colors don’t call attention to themselves,” cinematographer Andrew Laszlo said in an interview. In the Battery, the light is “contrasting and harsh, with vivid colors,” he said at the time. For the Parkside District, Argyle prints and plaids were used. For part of the train sequence, it was filmed in Chicago’s Kimball-Lawrence CTA yard, and on Lower Wacker Drive. Production designer John Vallone erected a special train car on Universal’s backlot to complete the sequence.

The ten days of filming in Chicago were exteriors at night on locations that included platforms of elevated subway lines and the depth of Lower Wacker Drive. For Hill, the subways and their look was vital to the world of the film and represented one of three modes of transportation with the other two being cars and motorcycles. While shooting in the city, the production was plagued by bad weather that included rain, hail and snow and a combination of all three.

A gigantic tarp covered six city blocks of Universal’s famous New York City backlots to double for the Richmond District setting and completely covering them so that night scenes could be filmed during the day. The tarp measured 1,240 feet long by 220 feet wide over both sets. This presented unusual problems. The sound of the tarp flapping in the wind interfered with the actors’ dialogue. Also, birds nested in the tarp and provided additional noise. The heat beneath the tarp in the summer heat often went above 100 degrees.

The exterior of the Richmond Theater, where Ellen sings at the beginning of the film was shot on the backlot with the interior done in the Wiltern Theater in L.A. for two weeks. Famous music producer Jimmy Iovine was brought in to work on five of the songs for the film and the soundtrack album. For Ellen’s singing voice, he combined the voices of Laurie Sargent and Holly Sherwood. Ellen’s band the Attackers were an actual band known as Face to Face – bandmates of Sargent. In addition to Iovine, Jim Steinman wrote two songs that bookend the entire film – “Nowhere Fast.,” and “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young.” In the action sequence, like when Tom terrorizes the Battery, Hill edits in time with Cooder’s propulsive music. The two have had a long-standing collaborative relationship over the years and this is one of their early ones but already they comfortably compliment each other. This sequence was filmed in Wilmington, California with two huge gas tanks to provide the necessary explosions.

Hill and Universal were so confident that they had a hit on their hands that Streets of Fire was to be the first of a proposed trilogy called, “The Adventures of Tom Cody,” with subsequent sequels to be called The Far City and Cody’s Return. However, the film fared badly at the box office. It opened in 1,150 theaters on June 1, 1984 and grossed a $2.4 million in its opening weekend. After ten days, it had only made $4.5 million. In relation, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock had made $24.8 million in the same time. Streets of Fire went on to make a paltry $8 million in North America, well below its $14.5 million budget.

Streets of Fire received mostly negative reviews from critics at the time. In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin criticized the film’s screenplay as being misogynistic and “problematically crude.” Gary Arnold, in his review for the Washington Post, wrote that “as romantic leads, Pare and Lane are pretty much a washout,” and that “most of the action climaxes are treated as such throwaways that you begin to wonder if they bored the director.” Jay Scott, in his review for the Globe and Mail newspaper wrote, “when Streets of Fire is speeding like Mercury on methedrine, the rush left in its wake cancels out questions of content. But the minute the momentum slows, it’s another story – a story about a movie with no story at all.” However, Roger Ebert praised the film’s dialogue. He wrote, “the language is strange, too: It’s tough, but not with 1984 toughness. It sounds like the way really mean guys would have talked in the late 1950s, only with a few words different – as if this world evolved a slightly different language.” Ten years after its release, critic Greil Marcus revisited the film and wrote, "Music videos have never come within centuries of what Hill (and Jeffrey Hornaday, the cinematographer) does here with every gesture." Shortly after the film’s release, Pare said in an interview, “Everyone liked it, and then all of a sudden they didn’t like it. I was already worried about whether I should do the sequel or not.”

Hill created a genre film that celebrates the clichés that make the action film work: the stoic hero, the despicable bad guy, and the beautiful damsel in distress. The world he creates is a mythical place that is a mishmash of styles from various decades. Streets of Fire is very much of its time when the fashion and style of the ‘50s made a comeback in the early ‘80s. So, the film is populated with classic cars from the era and architecture from the 1930 and ‘40s and yet Ellen’s clothes that she wears on stage and the music she plays is pure ‘80s mixed with Jim Steinman’s rock opera of the 1970s. As the song that ends the film – “Tonight Is What It Means to be Young” – illustrates, Streets of Fire is all about youthful energy and the power that rock ‘n’ roll has the ability to give hope and love in widesweeping melodramatic fashion.

Streets of Fire is a film that unapologetically wears its emotions on its sleeve. You have to appreciate a film that has the balls to let it all hang out like that. In a nice twist, the guy does not get the girl at the end of the film. Ellen is going places with her music and Cody is not the kind of guy to carry her guitar, as he puts it. But they are clearly still in love and he tells her that he’ll be there if she needs him. Ellen takes to the stage and sings an emotional song to end the film. Offstage, Cody gives her this look that is absolutely heartbreaking and clearly indicates how he feels about her and how hard it is for him to leave her again, but he doesn’t belong in her world. Cody leaves with McCoy to go looking for what we assume will be more adventures. Sadly, the commercial and critical failure of Streets of Fire killed of the possibility of sequels. Or did it?

In an intriguing twist, filmmaker Albert Pyun is currently working on an unofficial sequel to Hill’s film, entitled Road to Hell with Pare and Deborah Van Valkenburgh reprising their roles from the original film. In addition, Buffy the Vampire Slayer alum, Clare Kramer has also been cast. Pyun has said that his film is about Pare playing, “An ex-soldier and now hunted killer ... stranded when his jeep breaks down in the desert, on the road to Edge City. Edge City is where people who have crossed the line of darkness go to have their souls reborn. Cody is hunting for his lost love, the rock star Ellen Aim, believing she is the key to his redemption.” The filmmaker has also described this new one as more of a horror film. In addition, two Steinman songs were reportedly licensed for the film. This is certainly exciting news for fans of the film and if you want to check out more about it, go here.

In addition, there are a couple of fan sites dedicated to the film. This one is in Russian and here's another in English. Also, Charles Taylor wrote a really nice piece on the film for Salon.com. Check out the House of Self-Indulgence for a really wonderful appreciation of the film.


Chute, David. "Dead End Streets." Film Comment. August 1984.

Crawley, Tony. "Shooting on the Streets." Starburst. February 1984.

Gentry, Ric. “Streets of Fire.” Prevue. July/August 1984.

Streets of Fire Production Notes. 1984.

Monday, October 26, 2009

In the Mouth of Madness

I’ve always considered In the Mouth of Madness (1994) to be John Carpenter’s truly last great film. It came out at a time when horror films were becoming more self-flexive in nature with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), a fictionalized account of actual key cast and crew members from the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise making the latest entry; and the Scream trilogy filled with genre savvy characters who delight in quoting from other slasher films while also identifying the rules that many of these films follow. Mouth of Madness has elements from both of these examples. Like New Nightmare, it blurs the lines between reality and fantasy and, like the Scream films, it is conscious of itself within the horror genre.

The film doesn’t exactly get off to a good start with sub-par Metallica-esque music playing over the opening credits. Fortunately, once this music mercifully ends proper suspenseful music that we’ve come to expect from Carpenter’s films kicks in and we are tantalized with a teaser set in the present. Much like the opening scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), In the Mouth of Madness’ protagonist is brought into the authorities looking visibly distraught and ranting about the end of the world. John Trent (Sam Neill) is forcibly admitted to a mental institution (by none other than John Glover). He’s wild-eyed and frantic, claiming that he’s not insane despite the straitjacket that says otherwise. In a nice, cheeky touch, the administration drowns out the patients’ ravings with a Muzak cover of The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” and Trent groans, “Oh no, not The Carpenters too.” And then we are hit with the film’s first jolt as Trent is menaced by a mysterious figure who speaks cryptically to him.

A doctor (genre veteran David Warner) soon visits Trent to figure out what he’s on about and discovers that his patient has decorated his padded cell (and himself) with all sorts of black crosses of various shapes and sizes in black crayon. Trent appears to be crazy or, as we find out later on, is he the only sane person in an insane world? He no longer wants to escape because he feels that it’s the only safe place and tells the good doctor his story. Trent was an insurance investigator and we see him expertly plying his trade as he grills a man (played with wonderfully sweaty desperation by Carpenter regular Peter Jason) trying to pull a fast one on the insurance company. This scene evokes a similar one in the classic film noir Double Indemnity (1944) where Edward G. Robinson trips up a hapless man trying to cash in a phony claim. Sam Neill is fantastic in this scene as he confidently talks the man into a corner, presenting damning evidence until it is painfully obvious that he’s guilty.
Soon after, we get the first indication that something is amiss when a deranged-looking man uses an axe to smash a window of the restaurant Trent is dining in. The man asks him, “Do you read Sutter Cane?” before being gunned down by the police. The way Carpenter shoots this scene is excellent. He keeps the deranged man in focus in the background so that we can watch what he’s doing while also observing Trent being praised by his employer (Bernie Casey), oblivious to the approaching nutjob with an axe until he comes crashing through the window.

As luck would have it (or is it?), Trent’s next assignment is for a publishing house. They represent popular horror writer Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) who disappeared two months ago. No one has been able to contact him, including his agent who just happened to be the lunatic with the axe. The publisher (Charlton Heston) is eager to get his hands on Cane’s new manuscript but the reclusive author has only given him part of it. So, Trent is assigned the task of finding Cane and getting the rest of the book. The cynical Trent thinks that this is all a public relations stunt to promote sales of Cane’s new book. However, the deeper he delves into the investigation, the more his strange nightmares bleed into his waking life. Also added into the mix is the increasing chaos of the outside world as reading Cane’s books causes his more impressionable readers to lose touch with reality and news reports tell of riots occurring at book stores in several major cities in the United States.
Along for the ride is Linda Stiles (Julie Carmen), Cane’s editor, and the film really takes off when she and Trent arrive in the town where Cane resides. It is like they’ve entered H.P. Lovecraft country or, more accurately, the world as depicted in Cane’s books. At first glance, it seems like any small town in America but there is an unnerving lack of activity. Where is everybody? Stiles and Trent stay at the Pickman Inn (a reference to the Lovecraft short story “Pickman’s Model”) and are greeted by a seemingly kind old lady (David Lynch alumni Frances Bay). Stiles begins to spot details right out of Cane’s novels as if they’ve been transported into his fictional world. For example, there’s a painting in the lobby of the inn that ominously changes its appearance when she looks at it.
Sam Neill is excellent as the jaded insurance investigator who thinks he’s seen it all. Trent sums up his philosophy rather succinctly when he tells Stiles, “Lady, nothing surprises me. We’ve fucked up the air, the water, we’ve fucked up each other. Why don’t we finish the job by just flushing our brains down the toilet?” Trent is also a bit of a smart-ass. He’s a little too cocky, a little too confident for his own good and deserving of a lesson in humility which the Cane case will provide. Trent’s not the most likable protagonist but Neill’s natural charm keeps you invested in his character. He is fascinating to watch as a skeptic who is finally presented with a challenging case that will truly test his abilities and his resolve. Neill does a wonderful job of showing how the increasing madness that surrounds him gradually affects his character. Carpenter had remained friends with Neill after they made Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) and he was the director’s first and only choice to play Trent, but Bob Shaye, head of New Line Pictures, wanted someone else. After the massive commercial success of Jurassic Park (1993), Carpenter convinced Shaye that Neill should be in the film.
Movie executive Michael De Luca wrote the screenplay for In the Mouth of Madness based on his experiences in the streets of New York City and his love for H.P. Lovecraft’s stories about the Cthulhu mythology. He would walk to the Port Authority transit terminal each night to take the subway home from his job at New Line Cinema. He became fascinated with the homeless people that populated the terminal. De Luca remembers, “Late at night it got pretty scary and I started to think, what if everyone wandering around me is part of an otherworldly conspiracy to replace the human race?”

De Luca combined this idea with Lovecraft’s mythos about a race of ancient creatures that controlled the Earth, were banished and are now trying to return. The final component was the notion of a writer who was a combination of Stephen King and L. Ron Hubbard – in other words, a popular author with a rabid fanbase that bordered on a religion. He also referenced horror films that influenced him, including Equinox (1970), The Exorcist (1973), and The Shining (1980). De Luca also wanted to evoke Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Cane’s books being like the pods and “turning you into something else, as opposed to saying these people were screwed up before hand.”
In 1988, De Luca showed John Carpenter a draft of the script. Also being a fan of Lovecraft, Carpenter appreciated the homage to the author as well as the elements of the detective and western genres. He was unsure if he could pull it off but over the years he thought about it and finally in 1993, felt confident enough to tackle it. Carpenter and De Luca met to talk about the project. De Luca had brought in another writer to work on the script with Mary Lambert to direct. Carpenter and De Luca went over the script line by line and ended up going back to the original version. Carpenter worked with De Luca on the final drafts and made it his own, including enriching the characters by making them more three dimensional and putting in more good ol’ fashion jolts. Lambert dropped out and Carpenter agreed to direct with a budget of $7 million.

In the Mouth of Madness received mixed critical reaction. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “the movie does what no horror movie can afford to do, which is to play tennis without a net. Stories like this need rules; it's not enough to send the beleaguered hero on a roller-coaster ride through shocking images.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “this is a film with the temerity to think big, if only for the magnitude of the wickedness it invokes. Nothing less than ‘an evil older than mankind and wider than the known universe’ must be reckoned with before this cautionary tale is over.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas praised the film as “a thinking person's horror picture that dares to be as cerebral as it is visceral.” However, in his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe called it, “a bewildering, boring assembly of rock-video-surreal nightmare sequences with more repetitive episodes than Groundhog Day. I said, with more repetitive episodes than – oh never mind. Just consider yourself warned.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum described it as an “only spottily successful homage from director John Carpenter (Halloween) to novelist H.P. Lovecraft's kooky-wooky Who-really-rules-the-universe philosophies, the computerized capabilities of Industrial Light & Magic, and Carpenter's own, greater thriller-movie successes.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote, “In the end the most interesting thing about In the Mouth of Madness is its weird relationship with itself – its cheesy horror celebrating the power of cheesy horror, while pretending to be appalled.”
While Prince of Darkness (1987) only scratched the surface of the blurring of reality and fantasy, In the Mouth of Madness takes it to the next level by constantly questioning what is real and what isn’t. Stiles and Trent discuss this notion while searching for Cane. They start off talking about the scary nature of Cane’s books and Trent says, “What’s to be scared about? It’s not like it’s real or anything,” to which she replies, “It’s not real from your point of view and right now reality shares your point of view. What scares me about Cane’s work is what might happen if reality shared his point of view.” Trent says, “We’re not talking about reality, here. We’re talking about fiction. That’s different,” and she counters, “Reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane were to become the majority.” These will turn out to be very prophetic words indeed. This conversation is the key to understanding Carpenter’s intentions with this film – that reality is what you perceive it to be, but what happens when you can no longer trust your own perception?

In the Mouth of Madness cleverly comments on itself as it plays around with notions of what is real and what is fiction, often blurring the line that separates the two. Carpenter is obviously having fun with the notion that conservative watchdog groups would have you believe that certain horror films and books are evil, promote wicked behavior and have a corrupting influence on their audience. They also believe that some of the artists that work in the genre must also be bad or how else could they conjure up such horrors? It would be so easy for them if there were more artists that acted like the deliciously evil Cane. Fortunately, it’s not that easy and good horror holds up a mirror to our society. It shows us its dark, primal side, albeit from a safe distance.

After the career low of Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Carpenter bounced back with In the Mouth of Madness and demonstrated that with the right material, he could still deliver a smart and entertaining horror film. Since this one, none of the scripts he’s worked with have been as good but fans of his still hold out hope that he’s got at least one great film left in him. As it stands, Mouth of Madness is a fitting conclusion to his informal Apocalypse trilogy that also includes The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness. These films all feature protagonists that must prevent the end of the world with varying degrees of success and at considerable cost to themselves. Mouth of Madness is no different as we are left with Trent laughing crazily at a film version of the misadventures he’s just been through while the world outside has gone to hell in a hand basket.


Boulenger, Gilles. John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness. Silman-James Press. 2003.

Williams, David E. “Memoirs of Madness.” Sci-Fi Universe.