• In The Mouth Of Madness (Shout! Factory) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Shout! Factory
    Release date: July 24, 2018
    Directed by: John Carpenter
    Cast: Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, John Glover, David Warner, Jürgen Prochnow, Bernie Casey, Peter Jason, Charlton Heston, Frances Bay
    Year: 1994
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    The Movie:

    Some sort of apocalyptic awfulness is going on. Seriously, it’s a mess; murder and mayhem in the streets, carnage everywhere. In the midst of the chaos, Dr. Wrenn (Warner) visits freelance insurance investigator John Trent (Neill) in his locked room at the local psychiatric institute. Trent has been busy drawing runes and other symbols, mostly crosses, all over his padded walls. After some small-talk, Trent says: “Every schizophrenic has one, a ‘them,’ a ‘they,’ an ‘it.’ And you want to hear about my ‘them,’ don’t you?” Wrenn applies in the affirmative. “Things are turning to shit out there, aren’t they?” Trent asks. Again, Wrenn replies in the affirmative.

    Trent tells his story via flashback. It seems that he recently took an assignment to investigate a claim by a large New York firm called Arcane Publishing. The company asserted that its most successful writer, horror novelist Sutter Cane, had disappeared at just the time he was due to submit his latest novel. Trent meets with Arcane’s director (Heston), who assigns Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Carmen), to assist him in getting to the bottom of things.

    Trent strongly suspects that he’s being played by the company to provide publicity for Cane’s book. Nevertheless, he takes on the job. After piecing together clues from the covers of several of Cane’s paperbacks, he and Styles embark on a road trip to Hobb’s End, New Hampshire. Tis true that it’s a fictional location found only in Cane’s writings, but they locate it (and Cane) nonetheless. A series of weird events later, Trent realizes that storylines from Cane’s books are playing out in this little, non-existent town from which, wouldn’t you know it, they cannot escape.

    John Carpenter has given us at least two great films (Halloween, 1977; The Thing, 1981), some very, very good ones (Starman, 1984; Christine, 1983; Prince of Darkness, 1987 et al.), lots of entertaining escapist fare (Escape from New York, 1981; Big Trouble in Little China, 1986; et al.), and quite a bit of not-so-entertaining crap (Escape from L.A., 1996; Village of the Damned, 1995; et al.). Unfortunately, In the Mouth of Madness goes on that final list, toward the bottom.

    Where to start? The title of the film (and Cane’s book) is a play on H.P. Lovecraft’s 1931 novella At the Mountains of Madness, one of the film’s many references to Lovecraft that just sort of hang out to dry. They—specific location names, tentacle-faced monsters, and whatnot—along with the scary Stephen King children who pop up apropos nothing to “menace” our heroes, don’t seem to be included for any reason other than to make viewers think they’re watching something more substantial than it is. And therein lies one of the film’s biggest problems: It can’t reconcile it’s Lovecraftian heritage with its Stephen King obsession. Cutter is far more King than Lovecraft, despite the cosmic nature of his horrors. He’s massively successful, and while his work is replete with the usual otherworldly menaces, it also features the usual: kids with sinister powers, standing in doorways staring down angry townsfolk. How do we know the kids are sinister and powerful? Their blond hair is blowing when nothing else around them is…

    The screenplay, credited to esteemed producer Michael De Luca, tries hard, and unsuccessfully, to pass off a concept as a plot. The makeup, by the prolific Kurtzman, Nicotero and Berger EFX Group, is often laughably bad, nor did Industrial Light and Magic exactly bring their A-game this time out (at least, for anything other than one amazing set piece, which we’ll discuss shortly and throughout this review). Most sadly, little by way of the direction hints at more than bare competence, much less anything worthy of the name “Carpenter.” (Carpenter also co-wrote the film’s so-so hard-rock score with Jim Lang, best known for his work on Nickelodeon Network’s animated “Hey, Arnold!”) All that said, there is one genuinely creepy moment: As the film reaches its crescendo, John Trent stares into the abyss as Linda Styles reads from Cane’s latest novel. As she intones those terrible words prophetically describing their situation, John watches as horrible things ascend into his reality and chase him down a long, bleak corridor. Here, for but a few moments, the film authentically channels Lovecraft, and the brief glimpse we get of the eldritch creatures from realms beyond our own is indisputably terrifying.

    Most of the cast seems in it for the paycheck, and shame on Carpenter for the performances he coaches from his main actors. Few have ever accused Sam Neill of having an unusual degree of acting talent, but watching him spit and sputter and try to look crazed as his accent comes and goes is simply embarrassing. One also can’t help but conclude that poor Julie Carmen’s real-life second career as a psychotherapist was a smart move on her part. There’s also Jürgen Prochnow, who channels Udo Keir on opiates in a “What the fuck?” performance as the really, REALLY sinister horror writer Sutter Cane. David Lynch alumnus Frances Bay (who left us too soon in 2011) does a cute turn as a hotel clerk, but the “script” manages to take the fun out of even that sweet little characterization.

    Carpenter reportedly declined this job at first and later changed his mind. Bad move. It performed, as they say, disappointingly at the box office, though it seems to have found a cult fanbase in the years since its release.


    According to the packaging on Shout’s new Blu-ray of In the Mouth of Madness—released through the label’s Scream imprint—a “new 4k scan of the original film elements” was used to bring the film to Blu-ray, and it sure as hell looks like it! Placed on Blu-ray with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high definition, the film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and looks superb. Regardless of what one thinks of the film (and to be fair, it does have its passionate supporters), no one can say anything negative about the image, the sound, or the extras. The visual elements border on perfection. There’s detail even in the most unlikely of places (such as the mostly white and color-muted halls of the sanitarium into which Trent is placed at the beginning of the picture; and it remains throughout whether in the external environs of Hobb’s End or the internal and infernal rooms of the dark chapel that towers over the town. Not since Universal’s BD release of Jurassic Park (1993) has Sam Neill’s face appeared so detailed, and trees and old homes and antique stores and hotel furniture fare just as well. The film’s inherent grain structure is nicely replicated, never devouring the image even when it goes dark, and when it does go dark, there’s zero crush. The film has never been particularly colorful (the covers of Sutter Cane’s books are one exception), but when it does feature color, that color is gorgeously rendered. At the same time, the image is naturally beautiful, neither DNR’d nor enhanced for artificial appeal. The film has also been painstakingly cleansed of defects to great effect. This is about as perfect an image one can get in the Blu-ray format.

    The film’s primary track is presented in English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. It’s pristine, with crisp dialogue that, in most cases, is quite clear and easy to understand and a beautiful replication of the score. The balance and aural effects are nicely spread across the speakers for strong use of surround sound. The only real problem is that the dialogue is mixed much lower than the music and sound effects, so one has to hold the remote to modulate the sound levels throughout the viewing. Optional English subtitles are provided for the deaf and hearing impaired, and these are among the best this reviewer has ever seen. Not one mistake was spotted, with every spoken line being subtitled, all with a distinct lack of misspellings or typographical errors. Kudos to Shout!/Scream for a job perfectly done, a real rarity in the business.

    There are two audio commentaries provided in English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The first features director John Carpenter and producer Sandy King Carpenter and was recorded for this release. As usual, it’s a pleasure to listen to the great director discuss any of his works, but it’s particularly fascinating to hear him discuss one that doesn’t work as well as it should have. While there’s a little bit of the trap of people sitting in front of a screen discussing a film as they watch it, the two Carpenters keep it going at a fairly quick pace, pointing out shooting locations and discussing key cast and crew. John immediately points out that Sutter Cane is as much Stephen King as he is H.P. Lovecraft before they move on to lighting challenges, the nuances of shooting in Canada, the script, the budget, Bob Shaye, the art-film treatment the movie received in Europe, the Panavision cameras, the estate that serves as the hotel, the black church and how it was chosen, the ‘Hollywood’ dog pack, and so much more. The most interesting discussion comes during the crescendo mentioned above. (Note that, when that scene is frozen utilizing your remote’s pause button, the creatures look just as fantastic and amazing as they do in movement, and their Lovecraftian features stand out all the more. Today, the scene would be crafted by CGI artists, look like water, and go on way too long, revealing so much of the creatures that they would lose their effectiveness.) There are a couple of points where the two commentators get caught up in the film and, for a few seconds, cease to speak, but it’s hardly an issue given just how much you learn about the film’s production.

    The second commentary is much older and features director Carpenter and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe. It begins with Carpenter identifying the film as the third in his “apocalypse” trilogy, the first two being The Thing and Prince of Darkness. Given that this commentary was recorded much closer to the film’s production (the movie was shot in 1993), Carpenter’s memories of the shoot are much sharper. Much of the same people and issues are discussed as in the newer commentary, though they’re more on point here. Given that the cinematographer is involved, there’s a much greater discussion of how the film was shot and the lighting used, which leads into discussions about the composition of specific shots. There’s still much conversation about the cast and crew, as well as the nature of the film itself. Also mentioned are locations vs. sets; in particular, Carpenter has much more to say about the estate used for the hotel. Kibbe holds his own, and the commentary is both fun and informative, though it isn’t nearly as wide-ranging as the first commentary.

    There are ample extras, including various featurettes. These include:

    “Horror’s Hollowed Grounds” (11:30) features Sean Clark taking viewers on a tour of the various Canadian locations that provided In the Mouth of Madness with so much of its atmosphere. These include the little café and sidewalk where Neill is attacked with an axe at the beginning of the film; the architects’ office that doubled as the publishing offices; the covered bridge; the town of Unionville that doubled for Hobb’s End, as well as that location’s pub; the estate that doubled as the Pickman Hotel, which is located on the grounds of the Toronto Zoo; the cathedral that doubled as the black church; the Woodbine Motel; the library that doubled as the records office; the water treatment plant that doubled as the asylum; and the Eglinton Theater, which was used as the movie theater at the end of the film.

    “The Whisperer of the Dark” (9:46) is an interview with Julie Carmen, who discusses how she came to be cast (thanks to Sandy King Carpenter) and how she saw her character (as a Republican). She says that she played the character a little flat in support of that view, something Carpenter encouraged; and she discusses the chemistry between her and Sam Neill, madness as reality, her psychotherapeutic background and how it colored her view of Lovecraft’s work, and so on.

    “Greg Nicotero’s Things in the Basement: Monsters, Make-up, and Mayhem of In the Mouth of Madness” (16:34) covers, in case you couldn’t have guessed, famed makeup and effects creator Greg Nicotero’s spooky creations for the film. These include the fantastic monsters from the abyss that provide the film with its standout scene. While some of the makeup is simply too obvious to be effective (think the boy-as-old-man on the bicycle here), the monsters were part of one giant framework and pushed along, each part operated by a different puppeteer. A couple of men in suits were then placed in front of the effects contraption for an extra dose of realism. It was an ingenious creation, one that looks stunningly real, unique, and distinct, particularly in comparison to modern CGI creations that lack tangibility. We’ll leave the rest of the discussion for you to view so as to avoid more spoilers, but this featurette is the most fascinating on the disc.

    “Home Movies from Hobb’s End” (12:07) is a collection of behind-the-scenes home movies shot by various crew members. Most of the footage records actors and special effects artists at work. There’s no narration; just snippets of conversation from those involved that was picked up by the various cameras in use.

    And finally, there’s a vintage featurette, “The Making of In the Mouth of Madness” (5:02). Shot at the time of the original film’s production, it was, understandably, crafted to sell the film based on its director and cast. It features interview snippets with John Carpenter, Sam Neill, Charlton Heston, Julie Carmen, Jürgen Prochnow, and others, including a couple of the effects crew.

    Concluding the extras is the original theatrical trailer (1:46) and a collection of TV spots (9:34).

    The disc comes with a reversible sleeve and a slipcover.

    The Final Word:

    In the Mouth of Madness is far from Carpenter’s shining hour, thanks to a muddled script and mostly poor performances. Still, it has one sterling scene that makes the entire effort worth watching, and Shout!/Scream’s Blu-ray presentation is one of their best yet, thanks to a superb image from a new 4k transfer and a ton of extras, including commentaries, featurettes, trailers, and television spots. Fans who had picked up the original 2013 BD release will definitely want to replace it, and those who haven’t seen it may want to watch it at least once for the one scene mentioned at various points above. And there’s no better way to watch it than on this Blu-ray.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out in 2018.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

    Comments 7 Comments
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      Great review!!!
    1. C.D. Workman's Avatar
      C.D. Workman -
      Thanks, Mark!
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      I saw this one in the theatre and I liked it, but I saw it on video not that long ago and it didn't do much for me
    1. C.D. Workman's Avatar
      C.D. Workman -
      That's kind of my take on it, too. I understand what Carpenter was going for, and when I first saw it I was taken in by it. This time out, however, the flaws seemed a lot more prevalent.
    1. agent999's Avatar
      agent999 -
      This one's never clicked with me. With its Metallica-lite opening music, dodgy acting and variable special make up effects I think it's one of Carpenter's worst. Tried again a few years ago and it hasn't improved as They Live and Prince of Darkness have. As a writer, De Luca should have stuck with his day job: snorting coke. The best thing about it is the gimp under the hotel reception desk.
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      Snorting coke is a day job? Damn!
    1. C.D. Workman's Avatar
      C.D. Workman -
      So true, agent999! I used to really dislike PRINCE OF DARKNESS; today I love it. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS has aged in exactly the opposite manner. What was Julie Carmen doing seductively sucking on the earpiece of her eyeglasses when she first meets Sam Neill's character? It just looks ridiculous.