An now institutionalised former insurance investigator (Neill), recalls the tale of how he was sent to look into horror writer Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), whose novels tend to drive readers to psychosis.
In the mid '90s, it seemed that of all the 1970s horror directors, John Carpenter had in the most tantalising career crisis: Wes Craven put out a winner for every two duds, Tobe Hooper had declined direct-to-video drivel (but would eventually cave in for The Toolbox Murders when the naughties came around), David Cronenberg had gone very quiet and George Romero was churning out good movies nobody sees. Carpenter, the only one of the gang who could land a major studio gig, alternated between big budget emptiness (Starman, Memoirs Of An Invisible Man) and low budget incoherence shot through with undeniable brilliance (Prince Of Darkness, They Live). In The Mouth Of Madness is one of the latter, but the tide of incoherence here threatens to swamp any brilliance.
In an asylum run by David Warner and John Glover, a ranting former insurance investigator (Neill) retells the story of his slide into an insanity. Hired by publisher Charlton Heston to track down Sutter Cane (Prochnow), a Stephen King-style best-selling author whose fans tend to turn homicidal, Neill and editor Carmen find themselves in Hob's End, a small town that replicates the setting of Cane's novels, complete with tentacular creatures from the Pit and axe-wielding maniacs. The climax is an apocalypse triggered by the publication of a novel designed to break down reality; and for those who don't read, there's a movie directed by John Carpenter.
Coming after Wes Craven's New Nightmare, a more successful juggling of metafiction and horror, this flounders rather than chills. Fans can console themselves with some disorientating creepiness as half-glimpsed monsters swarm and the fine melodramatic performances. But as the film descends into a babbling wreck you start to wonder whatever became of the directing talent that gave us Dark Star, Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween and The Thing.
A few good spots here and there, but mostly a mess. The most scary bit? Ghosts Of Mars was yet to come