In the Mouth of Madness

Horror films have always been prone to navel-gazing. Often neglected and sometimes maligned, the genre has tackled more than its share of Imponderables: what scares us, and why? What happens when you stick a knife into the tender underbelly of faith? What is the face of evil? What does it mean to be a storyteller, and what is the nature of film itself?

John Carpenter has done as fine a job as anyone at exploring these issues. From his landmark Halloween (whose unforgettable final moments offer up a chill that is pure cinema) through such underrated strokes as the paranoiac’s bedtime story The Thing, the anti-Reaganite They Live, and the sublimely creepy Prince of Darkness, Carpenter’s films have been smartly crafted with a real story to tell. It comes as no surprise that his newest horror picture, In the Mouth of Madness,, taps the offbeat yet ubiquitous Sam Neill to anchor a wacked-out tale that pokes sly fun at the Stephen King phenomenon while at the same time offering an odd picture of mass culture.

Neill plays John Trent, an insurance investigator sent on a mission to locate best-selling novelist Sutter Cane. Cane writes horror novels, the kind that make fans of “literary” fiction wrinkle up their noses. We get the impression that he’s a sort of amalgamation of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, with a rabid contingent of fans who grow inexplicably violent — they break windows and bloody one another’s faces scrambling for copies of Cane’s new book at the local shop. A few of those readers, among them Cane’s former agent, wander the streets with bloody hatchets, drooling and raving. The problem is that Cane has vanished, after delivering just a few chapters of his newest manuscript to publisher Arcane. Trent sets off to look for Hobb’s End, the presumably fictional New Hampshire town where many of Cane’s stories take place.

Trent finds Hobb’s End, all right, a small town torn from the pages of Cane’s novels that’s not on any map. And he finds Cane there, as well (Jurgen Prochnow, having great fun as the messianic novelist banging out pages on a manual typewriter as the walls around him sweat and breathe). The story takes a Twilight Zone spin as Trent and Linda Stiles, his companion from Arcane, discover that the good townsfolk are acting out their parts in the books of Sutter Cane. The author is manipulating reality, and he promises that his new book will drive the entire world stark-raving mad. What about people who don’t read books?, one character asks at one point. Well then, he’s told, there’s always the movie (starring John Trent, of course).

Shot for the wide screen and brilliantly visual, In the Mouth of Madness is great fun to watch, with even the requisite cheap shocks doling out a good jolt. Sam Neill is always a pleasure, even when it seems that he’s hardly trying, and his staid characterization is balanced by a slew of icky demonic crowd-pleasing creations that fly in the face of his pronounced skepticism. The down side is that the movie isn’t really about anything, save perhaps the power of the media and the purported dangers of paying too much mind to pop culture phenomena (yawn!). Another old horror hand, Wes Craven (who has been savaged like few other filmmakers for his brutal debut feature,The Last House on the Left), did the genre a bigger favor last year. Even though both films empower the artist, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare went a bold step farther, offering a clever and impassioned defense of the horror film when it needed it the most.

In fact, one might suspect that Carpenter has been sleeping with the neo-conservative enemy, offering up a critique of the mania that could ensue when people read too many scary books. Still, the director is on record opposing censorship, and has always stood up to critics who called his films (The Thing, especially) too violent. We can only interpret the new movie as a love letter to horror fans, a brotherly nudge and wink toward our own cathartic experiences as we sit in the dark, waiting to be scared. At any rate, it’s a tremendous improvement over such Chevy Chase fodder as Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and we can hope that in his next film (a remake of Village of the Damned), Carpenter’s incisive, critical vision will snap back into sharp focus.

Nobody’s Fool

This gentle film may have been the biggest surprise of 1994. I’m not usually one to get all warm inside over dramas of small-town relationships and redemption starring folks like Paul Newman, but Nobody’s Fool is nearly perfect from start to finish. Newman’s never been sharper than he is as Sully, a loser from way back who’s still coming to terms with his botched history and trying to put together what’s left of his life — which includes a recently returned son and grandson. Bruce Willis is unbilled in his best role to date, and director Robert Benton coaxes a warm and charming performance from Melanie Griffith, on whom I had given up completely. Capped by the regal presence of the late Jessica Tandy and based on an award-winning novel by Richard Russo (who was solicited for input on story changes), Nobody’s Fool qualifies as a minor masterwork, and should be perfect fare on some fragile, snowy night.

Heavenly Creatures

Two teenage girls sit outside their school building, comparing childhood memories. The one, Juliet, admits gleefully, “I have scars on my lungs!” Turns out she spent all too many of those early years in a sick bed, fighting off infection. The other, Pauline, lifts her skirt and drops her stocking to display a scar that runs the length of her lower leg. Doctors spent an eternity trying to excise something unclean from that young leg. As Pauline goes all weepy recalling the specifics, Juliet comforts her: “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It’s frightfully romantic.”
Friends for life.

Of course, they’re friends in a Peter Jackson movie, so you may suspect there’s something sinister going on. “In the 1950s, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme were branded as possibly the most evil people on earth,” Jackson says in the press materials for Heavenly Creatures, which is based on the real-life diaries of Parker and the independent research of Jackson and co-writer Frances Walsh. “What they had done seemed without rational explanation.”

Let’s say the new film is a “departure” from the director’s earlier work, which included the lowbrow zombie comedy Bad Taste, the wildly scatological muppet massacre called Meet the Feebles, and the exuberant zombie masterpiece Braindead (known in the U.S. as Dead Alive). Even so, you know you’re watching a Peter Jackson movie. The delicately grotesque caricatures, the skewed puritanism of 1954 New Zealand, and the stifling strictures of family life were all in evidence in Braindead, though one could hardly have imagined that Jackson could make his visions palatable for a general art house crowd. But that’s what he’s done here — and it’s absolutely brilliant, one of the finest films of 1994.

Heavenly Creatures is really the story of Pauline (Melanie Lynskey), a quiet schoolgirl of 14 who lacks friends but possesses a sharp and wild imagination. She quickly falls into a close partnership with a new student, the brash and fanciful Juliet (Kate Winslet). The two of them easily forge a relationship where they depend on each other for the magic that is clearly missing from their lives. Pauline watches happily as Juliet corrects her teacher’s French grammar and kisses a stranger outside a movie theater. They share an affinity for “the world’s greatest tenor,” Mario Lanza. They share a certain horror and fascination at the sight of Orson Welles. They spin endless tales tracing the lineage of an imaginary royal family, and they sculpt clay figures to represent the nobles of their fantasies. In one scene, the two of them dance around the New Zealand countryside in their underwear, finally collapsing on the ground, exhausted from their own enthusiasms.

The relationship only becomes stronger from there, as the two discover a passage into what Juliet calls “the fourth world,” a Gilliamesque fantasia of immaculate landscapes where their clay characters come to life and dance, copulate, and mete out justice to some of the authority figures populating Pauline and Juliet’s world. (Pauline’s diary entry explains to us that the two can perceive the fourth world only by using an obscure portion of their brains that “about 10 people” possess.) As the two bond through their fantasies, their relationship becomes more and more intense (to the exclusion of the rest of the world) and erotic (to the chagrin and embarrassment of Pauline’s parents). The tension rises as their friendship is threatened, and Pauline begins to go out of her mind with grief at the thought of losing her best and only friend.

The performances, which border on the farcical, go a long way toward the success of this story. Jackson has always had a talent for coaxing actors to play to the cheap seats while still keeping their essential humanity about them, which is the key to making sure audiences care about the human beings as horrible things happen. Although certain scenes cross the line into the grotesque, they are made far more powerful by the restraint and quiet beauty in evidence elsewhere. Heavenly Creatures is antithetical in many ways to the theory driving Jackson’s earlier work — break the taboos, explore everything in excess, be assured that too much is not enough. Jackson achieved catharsis by refusing to observe any boundaries in his seemingly out-of-control films. But Braindead, written by Jackson, Walsh, and Stephen Sinclair, certainly took pains drawing its characters, and the last half of that very gory film works as a very black metaphor for young Lionel’s difficulties dealing with Mum, Uncle Les, and the rest of his frightening family. And even Meet the Feebles devoted a tremendous amount of expository time to something very much like character development (on the other hand, it also devoted a lot of time to showing muppets being blasted into clouds of blood by machine guns).

At this point in his career, Jackson has exhausted the possibilites of the gross-out. Happily, he has turned his energies to something more delicate, and more affecting. This kind of film is a highwire act — if it’s not constructed perfectly, the results are disastrous. The story needs a wholly remarkable and absolutely believable friendship at its core, the kind you can believe supersedes all other human concerns. Jackson delivers, offering up characters who feel the same glee at thumbing their noses at society that the director must have felt as he made those early, low-budget affronts to good taste. At the same time, the film’s structure demands rational and beautiful segues from the real world into fantasia, a ballet of sensibilities that Jackson pulls off without a misstep. He has created a dark and transcendent love story, a graceful and complicated interweaving of innocence and obsession that begs our sympathy and compels us to understand the beautiful motives that can underly the most dreadful of human schemes.

"Since 1994"