Color, 1995, 95 mins. 22 secs.
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jurgen Prochnow, Charlton Heston, David Warner, John Glover, Bernie Casey, Peter Jason, Frances Bay
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Warner Bros. (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), New Line (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Apparently inspired by the
growing cult following for his once-neglected Prince of Darkness,
John Carpenter decided to explore similar waters again in the Lovecraftian In the Mouth of Madness, a jittery study
of reality going straight to hell. Though this material proved to be a
little too heady for the multiplex crowd at the time, Carpenter's film has, not surprisingly,
enjoyed a solid reputation in the horror crowd thanks to home video and
cable and now stands as his last full-strength feature film masterpiece.
Called in to investigate the
disappearance of popular horror writer Sutter Cane (Prochnow), insurance
investigator John Trent (Neill) decides the whole thing is a huge publicity
stunt. Meanwhile the release of Cane's latest novel is provoking
outbreaks of violence and maniacal behavior among readers who treat Cane's
fiction like an addictive drug. Accompanied by book editor Linda Styles
(Carmen), Trent decides to take an investigative
road trip after discovering a hidden map in the covers of Cane's novels.
The pair stumble into what appears to be a real life version of Hobbs'
End, a cursed town depicted in Cane's novels, and soon the line between
reality and nightmare begins to horribly blur.
Though equipped with the
usual number of Carpenter cheap shocks (including a reprise of the Prince
of Darkness double whammy dream sequence), In the Mouth of Madness works best as a creepy, subversive "what if?" scenario in which the viewer's
perspective is constantly called into question. The first half in particular
delivers some skin-crawling chills that rank with the director's most accomplished
cinematic tricks, such as the nocturnal drive to Hobbs' End and Styles' initial realization that the town may be just
as dangerous and supernaturally afflicted as its fictional counterpart.
The underrated Neill makes for an engaging Doubting Thomas protagonist,
and you have to admire the mischievous touch of having the liberal Carpenter talking
NRA spokesman Charlton Heston into making an appearance as Carmen's
boss. The script (written by then-New Line honcho and infamous party horn dog Michael De Luca) is just enough to get the job done, with Carpenter and an incredibly strong cast -- David Warner, John Glover, and Bernie Casey all in the same movie! -- pushing the material into truly delirious territory. Carpenter's clearly familiar with Lovecraftian cinema as well, complete with little nods to the works of Lucio Fulci and especially The Haunted Palace, but it's a strong original work on its own terms that continues to age like a fine, particularly dark wine.
Always treated fairly well on home video, In the Mouth of Madness did the rounds initially on VHS and laserdisc, the latter featuring TV spots, a trailer, a making-of featurette, and an immediately notorious audio commentary with Carpenter and cinematographer Gary Kibbe that's still among the dullest ever recorded. New Line issued the film on DVD in 2000 featuring a good anamorphic transfer, the commentary, a punchy 5.1 soundtrack (plus dubs in French, Spanish, Italian, and German, with plus optional subtitles for all offered languages), and the theatrical trailer, plus a hidden trailer for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (presumably to inspire a double feature that could do actual brain damage). A heavily cropped 1.33:1 version is also included if you're feeling masochistic. Warner Bros. basically ported the relevant extras from the DVD over to a Blu-ray in 2013, featuring an HD scan that had been making the rounds on-demand for a little while.
In 2018, Scream Factory made a much-needed revisit to Hobb's End with a Blu-ray special edition sporting a new transfer from a 4K scan of "original film elements." Whatever the source, it looks gorgeous with a significant boost in detail levels and has an almost hallucinatory clarity at times, which seems appropriate. There's a bit more image info visible on the edges, too. The color timing of the two transfers diverges significantly in some scenes (see comparisons below), with the older transfer looking more yellow and rosy by comparison for the most part but also going much cooler in some scenes. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 English audio is also really punchy and wonderfully gimmicky, right down to the catchy, metal-inspired main theme by Carpenter and Jim Lang.
The original commentary and trailer are carried over from the earlier Blu-ray, plus the TV spots (9m34s worth!) and vintage making-of (5m2s) from the laserdisc. However, there's also a nice batch of new goodies here as well starting off with - thank the movie gods - a new audio commentary with Carpenter and producer Sandy King (Carpenter's wife). It's much looser and more entertaining right off the bat ("He hated me," says King of Heston during the opening), with the track gliding through negotiations with Richard Carpenter, working with a mostly Canadian crew in Toronto, riffing on popular horror fiction of the day, the absence of blood squibs in one iconic scene ("It costs more money!"), admiring Heston's professionalism, explaining the advantages of shooting in wide Panavision, and plenty more. A new "Horror's Hallowed Grounds" (11m30s) offers a fast-paced tour with Sean Clark through tons of locations from the film including the publisher boardroom and office (now without a staircase), the covered bridge, the Slovak Cathedral, and even a funny mishap outside the Toronto Zoo. Extra points for the very clever ending, too. "The Whisperer of the Dark" (9m46s) features a new interview with Carmen (who had earned her horror chops already with Fright Night Part 2) for a very intelligent, articulate peek at how she crafted her character including an influence from His Girl Friday and her intentionally flat, haughty demeanor in the opening stretch of the film. Interestingly, she also goes into how her own experience as a psychotherapist played into her own fascination with Lovecraft and turn of the millennium hysteria, and there's a peek at an additional bit she shot for the final scene that ended up on the cutting room floor. Special effects artist Greg Nicotero turns up next for "Things In The Basement" (16m34s) for an account of how he hopped into this film directly from Body Bags and had to create a huge gaggle of monsters requiring a massive amount of latex, ingenuity, and puppeteers. There's some fun behind-the-scenes footage in here, too, but you can find way more of that in the new "Home Movies from Hobb’s End" (12m7s), a wild highlight reel of Nicotero's footage from the set shot on a VHS camcorder. You'll never watch Sam Neill's monster tunnel pursuit scene quite the same way again, and it's probably the only time you'll hear someone yell, "Who's on the front tentacle?"