the ‘90s. One could argue that his biggest leap of faith that decade was the critical and commercial bomb Vampire in Brooklyn, from 1995. A big risk because it was a movie that attempted to sell comedy paragon Eddie Murphy as a credible horror villain (he’s the titular antagonist); a big risk because, until that point, it was probably the closest Craven had come to making a comedy.
The finished product is not exactly what Craven had in mind when he got involved. Murphy, a horror fan and an admirer of Craven’s body of work, was the one who approached the director to make the film; the movie was written as a kind of horror comedy. When he signed on, Craven understandably had it in his head that Murphy, playing a creature of the night that had historically been associated with an aura of enjoyably hammy evil (see Béla Lugosi as the indefatigable Count Dracula), would help seal in the movie’s combination of humor and horror. The trouble, Craven would later say, was that Murphy didn’t want to be funny during production. He took the part more seriously than he needed to; he could be combative on set because of a refusal to see the material for what it was. Murphy's purported unwillingness to be playful is what leads, I think, to the film never quite working. In hindsight, he humorously ascribed the feature’s failure to the wig he wears in it: it’s shoulder-length and lusciously shampooed and gives him a funny faux-regality. It’s accidentally comical. But it's also among the least of the movie’s troubles. It's a shaggy scapegoat.
Vampire in Brooklyn conspicuously wants to be amusing; it’s weighed down by a star who, comparatively, doesn’t want to. The film is never dark enough to be scary, goofy enough to be outrightly funny. One can tell, watching the movie, that with a couple of tweaks it could be a delight, which sharpens the sting of its failure. The tweaking would mostly amount to Murphy playing up the humor of embodying a vampire — specifically a vampire that, with only harebrained notions of a blueprint guiding him, comes to Brooklyn to seduce a detective descended from succubi to make her his queen (Angela Bassett, lovely). The film is a particularly good example of a star vehicle wherein the star doesn’t seem to realize what kind of movie, exactly, they are headlining and proceeds to be painfully discordant with nearly everything with which they come into contact. I can sympathize with Murphy for wanting to try something different — being determined to soothe a creative itch. But for him to take on this role and avoid squeezing out every drop of its preordained silliness is like biting into a neck and only sucking up a sip of blood. Some things are just expected with the territory. Why needlessly abstain from expectation?
In the Mouth of Madness: A-
Vampire in Brooklyn: C
peaking of Craven: New Nightmare and Scream — those game-changing horror movies that didn’t have a problem disclosing to their audiences that they knew exactly what they were — were not his only big risks of
would have to do to be thwarted by him is silently sit in the same room. They could be careful to relay nothing and avoid any sort of suggestive twitch of the body and his internal alarm bells would still ring. He must have come out of the womb with a furrowed brow; was “yeah, right” the first thing he uttered?
Shortly into In the Mouth of Madness, Trent is hired by a book firm, Arcane Publishing, to look for its star author, a venerated horror novelist who has disappeared just ahead of the premiere of his latest book. The film likens this author, near-mythic Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), to Stephen King. He’s a dream for Arcane because, unlike the more assiduous latter writer, he produces with the almost automatonic efficiency of James Patterson or Danielle Steel while retaining remarkable quality. Cane inspires wrap-around lines for every new release; enthusiasts are so fervid that they believe he can turn fiction into reality. Such a claim, of course, feels hyperbolic on the face of it — a living blurbed-to-death cliché. But sometimes we catch stray news-report proclamations bellowing from TV screens; they note a nationwide uptick in senseless, extremely violent riots (many participants white-knuckle axes and other prodigious blades) supposedly rooted in Cane’s influence.
Trent is advised to familiarize himself with at least some of Cane’s work before attempting to lift some of the heavier stuff as required by an investigation. Turns out to be a good tip. Trent quickly notices that when linking a recurring element from various book covers (a lurid red slash), created is an outline of New Hampshire. Marked is Hobb’s End, the place where most of Cane’s books are set. Hobb’s End is ostensibly fictional — an obvious nod to King’s favored Castle Rock. Trent figures he’ll find something — hopefully Cane holed up somewhere — if he keeps his driving precise. Arcane sends Cane’s primary editor, Linda (Julie Carmen), to go with him. One should not be surprised that when the two arrive in the little town — preceded by a telling overnight journey featuring lots of apparent apparitions on a badly lit highway made to elicit plenty of “what was that”s — it is not prototypically quaint.
In the Mouth of Madness is the third chapter of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse trilogy,” preceded by 1982’s The Thing and 1988’s Prince of Darkness. The films harmonize in how they combine otherworldly stories with a disturbing, moonless kind of gloom. But In the Mouth of Madness is most conspicuously playful. It’s podged with genuinely chilling nightmare-style imagery; there is one Hobb’s End figure in particular whom I dreaded seeing again — an old man with milky white eyes and a shock of mad scientist hair, dressed in grubby denim. He circularly peddles around on a bike too small for his unevenly ratioed body. Once the movie introduces us to the flesh-and-blood Cane, it transforms from being a somewhat orthodox, vaguely supernatural horror to something more cerebral and analytical. The spine-chilling hunt for a potentially disheartening truth turns out to be the vehicle to get us to what the movie is actually about. It’s a smooth transition from almost solely viscerally unnerving to additionally unnerving in its ideas.
During its last act, In the Mouth of Madness transforms into an extended, surrealistically realized dissection of how much power a good author can wield over a reader — something that sounds boringly literate when described but, in the scope of Carpenter’s film, pretty ingenious in the way it infects, and finally rejiggers, the story. A reader’s hungry page-turning may not resemble Trent’s more macabre reality — being, spoiler alert, literally trapped inside one of Cane’s creations, able to be tyrannized like a Barbie doll with a sadistic owner. But he makes for a terrific conduit nonetheless. Neill gives a great, increasingly swivel-eyed performance; he’s plausible, and progressively sympathetic, as a reasonable, cynical man flummoxed to find himself in the shoes of a probably doomed horror-novel protagonist. How could he have gotten here? It was just the other day that he was an invincible-feeling investigator — a man who never demurred when faced by the powerful.
Like me, modern audiences might watch In the Mouth of Madness from the vantage point of 2020 and not first think of the movies that came before it in its loosely connected
trilogy (1996-2000). New Nightmare cheekily found “real-life” actors filming the latest Nightmare on Elm Street
movie terrorized during production by thought-to-be made-up villain Freddy Krueger. (Lead Heather Langenkamp is playing "herself.") Now legendarily, the Scream franchise followed a teenage ensemble that was so well-versed in the filmographies of filmmakers like John Carpenter that they thought it was pretty funny, when not being scared, that their lives were beginning to resemble the plight of Laurie Strode and all her friends in the Halloween
The protagonist of In the Mouth of Madness is plenty aware of horror literature and cinema, and alludes to real-life examples of both. He can’t believe it when he discovers that he’s practically living in a conceit that might be used in one of them, enlivening their more tired conventions. But In the Mouth of Madness differs from both New Nightmare and Scream in that it doesn’t use climactic self-reference, I don’t think, to help push black comedy. Instead it cleverly deploys it as a way to bake in the ghastliness of where the storyline heads. Any hints of humor only add to the horror.
In keeping with its trilogy’s invocations of the apocalypse, there is no place for cheer-inducing survival — praying something away in In the Mouth of Madness. “I think, therefore you are,” Cane purrs to Trent at one point. He’s not going to let up just because someone is here to watch him work, react to that work. Having an audience, on the contrary, is, in part, what galvanizes him.
Angela Bassett and Eddie Murphy in 1995's Vampire in Brooklyn.
they were glad that what was happening on the page wasn’t happening to them. John Carpenter’s high-concept meta horror movie In the Mouth of Madness (1994) acts as a
freaky next step to this line of thinking. What if you were reading a horror novel only to, after finishing up a chapter, find that elements you thought were confined to fiction — impossible to recreate in one’s humdrum routine — had invaded your world? This is something that unfortunately happens to the protagonist of the movie. He is John Trent (Sam Neill), a freelance insurance investigator locally lauded for his always-on-the-money intuitiveness. His bullshit radar is killer: All Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff, the scheming lovers of Double Indemnity (1944),
t seems unlikely to me that there has ever been anyone who, while reading a particularly good horror novel, has not at some point thought to themselves that
Horror mavens John Carpenter and Wes Craven took risks in the 1990s with In the Mouth of Madness and Vampire in Brooklyn