Pros: Strong horror elements, good central character, good special effects, neat premise and good execution.
Cons: Some recycled horror scenes in past movies, and some characters are flat.
First of all, I'd like to thank a certain penpal of mine who brought this movie to my attention. Otherwise, I probably would have ignored it.
Most John Carpenter fans don't consider the 90's his best decade in terms of movies, though I think this movie is a pretty underrated horror diamond in the rough. While my favorite horror titles from the 90's are Event Horizon and Wes Craven's New Nightmare, In the Mouth of Madness has been a very welcome horror discovery for me.
In the Mouth of Madness is a movie about an insurance investigator named John Trent (Sam Neill) who winds up in a mental hospital. After being locked up, Dr. Wrenn (David Warner) interviews him about his psychiatric state, and tells the tale of his madness. Prior to his loss of sanity, John was hired by Arcane Publishing director Jackson Harglow (Charleton Heston) to investigate the whereabouts of their hottest property, horror writer Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) and his story, In the Mouth of Madness (Cane's stories supposedly make the readers go crazy). John goes with Cane's editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) to a supposedly nonexistent place called Hobb's End.
The characters in this movie were developed pretty well. I liked John's character since he felt like a real insurance investigator. His job forces him to be distrustful of everything and is good at playing the man who's initially unswayable into believing the supernatural content in Cane's books. His descent into madness as the movie progresses is believable and engaging. The other characters like Linda feel believable and pretty engaging as well.
Since this is a horror movie, the horror elements have to be good. Thankfully, Carpenter properly executed the horror elements in this movie. The scenes of horror taking place within John's mind really are creepy, such as in the beginning, when he covers his cell (and his face and clothes) with crude drawings of crucifixes, not to mention that he sees well-shot, creepy moments of gory murder happen in his mind. Later on, when John and Linda make it into Hobb's End, lots of creepy, surreal things happen.
Among the scariest is that John sees an old woman with monster-like appendages murdering someone in the hotel cellar, and when Linda finds herself encircled by zombie-like children (I normally don't think kids are scary, but this is one of the few moments where I was unnerved), and they dance in a circle around her. The scene with Linda being surrounded by the circle of dancing children reminded me a bit of the scene in episode one of Doomed Megalopolis where Yukari gets surrounded by a circle of evil, singing children.
The setting helps with the horror elements as well, especially the Byzantine church in Hobb's End. Its imposing height and creepy interior make it an ideal place for Sutter Cane to write his novels. The interior of the church even features breathing, bleeding doors, almost like an evolution of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.
The only negative things I could say about the horror elements is that in one scene, John has a “double nightmare” involving a zombie-like cop, and I swear it was almost like Carpenter recycled the “double nightmare” scene near the end of Prince of Darkness (which wasn't a good movie to me).
For the most part, the special effects are very good. The scenes of gore, zombie-like humans, and monsters all look very convincing, though in the case of the monsters, they won't top the animatronic puppet mastery Rob Bottin pulled off in The Thing. The only special effects that looked dated were this scene where Cane “opens himself” and it looks a little cheesy. However, all in all, I think the effects in this movie helped it out a lot more than harmed it.
John Carpenter's and Jim Lang's musical compositions were a good fit for the movie. The guitar-based opening and closing theme was a good fit for the movie, and the rest of the background music was more like typical horror fare, but it wasn't a bad thing at all.
In the Mouth of Madness is considered the last in John Carpenter's trilogy of “apocalyptic horror” movies, with the first two being The Thing and Prince of Darkness. In the Mouth of Madness isn't quite as masterful as The Thing, but it's far superior to Prince of Darkness.
If you're in the mood for a solid Lovecraftian horror film that delivers strong atmosphere of the apocalypse and descent into madness, then give this movie a shot, you won't be disappointed.