Saturday, 19 April 2014

Lovecraft in film - In the Mouth of Madness

I first encountered the works of H.P. Lovecraft around 20 years ago. During that time I wasn't reading a huge amount. I suppose in many respects film and computer games were my books back then.

I instantly warmed to Lovecraft's style. It didn't bother me that he wrote so much in the first person or that he was frequently far from economical with his words. I actually rather liked his style.
The most important thing for me were the settings that he created. That masterful blend of circumstance, science and misfortune all stretched thin over a rich and fascinating mythos of creatures from another realm or another world. Lovecraft was a complex and fascinating writer.

I've looked for evidence of Lovecraft's influence in film quite a bit over the years. There's quite a bit out there that is, in my opinion, far too easily badged as Lovecraftian in style.

In my web travels I found this list of films supposedly containing a Lovecraftian vibe.
I'm a fan of a handful of John Carpenter's films so I opted for In the Mouth of Madness (read the synopsis there to save me re-typing it) to kick things off.
Personally I think it's a mess. Full of classic horror cliches and some pretty lame effects.
Sam Neill (Trent) does his best with the script but it's really pretty dire. The premise however is not.

In terms of it being Lovecraftian I'd have to argue it's really not.
Yes there's madness and insanity and yes there's a mysterious town with an inherent horror but in terms of it being a Lovecraft style story, I'd say it's far too superficial and cheesy to qualify.
Some of the scenes really are "just add tentacles" and you have that Cthulhu / Shub Niggurath type creature.

It's not all bad. The final act of the film does have a real impact on you. It's still cliched beyond belief but Trent's (Sam Neill) descent in to insanity is engrossing to say the least.
Look out for Pickman's hotel in the town that doesn't exist, a clear reference to Lovecraft's tale of Pickman's Model.
Devoid of rational explanation Trent naturally questions his own sanity. Ultimately confronting the source of his madness - the author Sutter Cane.
The film plays heavily on the fact that when it comes to surreal horror you can dispense with all reality and the boundaries of real world physics and logic. Example: one minute Trent is driving a car at an angry mob, the next he's swerving to avoid his token love interest, then he's sat in a confessional booth. Snap, snap, snap. Scene to scene. No transition just flash editing that for the viewer just looks stupid. That's my opinion.

Ignoring the horror and supposed Lovecraft influence, does it work as a piece of surrealism?
No. It's an unhinged and random mess of scenes with nothing much for the viewer to grasp.
The injection of the otherwordly beasts is intriguing. In fact it owes more to Clive Barker's take on Lovecraft than anything else. Less aquatic aliens from a distant realm or planet and more the cliched denizens of hell for me.

All in all the film's story sets out to portray the effect that a piece of writing can have on its readers. An epidemic breaks out whereby anyone who reads the author's work is sent wild by it. Murderous even. The outside world is a mix of those who read it and those who don't. Those who read it are rapid mutants. Those who don't are "normal".
The story sends a cynical man (in his capacity as an insurance fraud investigator) to a place that doesn't really exist only to confront his own sanity head on.

For me this film is really only effective in the real world scenes. The cliched horror scenes just look cheap. I really think it would have been more effective to have shot most of the "insanity" in a single location. It'd be cool to see somebody fall to pieces in solitude but totally wracked with the vision of hell enforced upon him by a work of fiction. Terrified more by their own fear than by what they saw.

The final scenes however are pretty remarkable. Tongue in cheek for sure but pretty good. A nice twist and a neat end to what for me is a remarkably ordinary film.

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