BUILDING HORROR: JOHN CARPENTER ON "IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS" Image

After successfully directing such modern genre precursors as the sci-fi satire “Dark Star” (1974) and the urban siege film “Assault On Precinct 13” (1976), John Carpenter exploded onto the scene in 1978 with “Halloween,” the trendsetting shocker that virtually kickstarted the “slasher” film cycle and made him the most influential single filmmaker in the horror genre over the last 15 years. In the words of genre critic Tim Lucas, “Carpenter has not only bothered to see the classics of the genre in which he works, he has embraced them, infused them into his own filmic vocabulary.” And this is no where more true that in his new feature, “In The Mouth Of Madness,” in which Carpenter pays homage to that filmic storytelling tradition with the tale of a horror writer gone horribly wrong.
Originally scripted by Mike De Luca several years ago, the film was born out of his experiences in the streets of New York and a love for H.P. Lovecraft’s tales of unspeakable terror. Walking to the Port Authority transit terminal each night to take the subway home from his job at New Line Cinema, DeLuca became fascinated with the numbers of homeless people who gathered about the facility. “It was a really scummy building an a scummy area and I just started to think that all the homeless people lying on the floor and hanging around the Port Authority, and a lot of New Yorkers in general, were a different species,” says DeLuca today, now 28 years old, the president and chief operating officer at New Line who was able to green light his own script. “Late at night it got pretty scary and I started to think, ‘What if everyone wandering around me is part of this otherworldly conspiracy to replace the human race?’ So I combined that with a Lovecraft myth about a race of ancient beings who controlled the earth at one point and then were banished and have been trying to claw their way back in ever since. It took off from there and the last thing to gel was the idea of this writer being like a combination of Stephen King and L. Ron Hubbard – so popular that his fans constitute a religion.”
From there, “Madness” continued to absorb other details and elements of the horror genre. Encrusting the film’s basic premise, that of insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) seeking out the mysterious horror novelist Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) in the fictional town of Hobb’s End, they make it a celluloid shrine to the films De Luca found pivatol in his script’s evolution: “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers,” “The Oman,” “The Shining” and even Carpenter’s 1982 remake of “The Thing”.
With his reputation for respecting the horror genre and filling his pictures with subtextual in-jokes for both himself and observant fans, Carpenter was the perfect choice to direct such a picture. And after working more directly in the science fiction field with his most recent films, “They Live!” and “Memoirs Of An Invisible Man,” perhaps “Madness” was a chance for Carpenter to return to his roots.
[ How did you initially become involved with “In The Mouth Of Madness”? ] ^ Mike De Luca showed me a draft about five years ago and it was a highly imaginative horror film with a premise I hadn’t encountered in the genre before. Overall, it was an homage to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, crossed with the detective genre and a few western elements. I had some other commitments at the time, but I got back together with Mike, looked over the script again and said “Let’s try it.” The script had been worked on a by a couple other people, but basically had the same story, so I stepped in and made it my own.
[ John Trent is a classic Carpenter character – a rough around the edges doubter – and in this case a professional skeptic. What was he like when you first read the script? ] ^ Trent was very cynical, but understand that Mike De Luca is from New York – from Queens. So Trent was originally written as an extremely cynical New Yorker. Well, as soon as Sam Neill came into the picture, that was all out the window and Sam made the character his own. Besides our friendship, Sam and I have a great deal in common so far as what we believe the world is like, so he plays someone who is extraordinarily cynical but unfortunately finds out all his worst fears are true. Sam and I had a great time together on “Memoirs Of An Invisible Man,” so we’d kept in contact. Mike had wanted a New York kind of actor, but we were casting just after “Jurassic Park” opened, so it was impossible for them to say no.
[ The beginning of “Madness” is classic with its 3-1-2 construction like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” or an early film noir such as “Double Indemnity”. How does that set us up for the classic horror elements in the film? ] ^ That’s one thing that initially attracted me to the script, its classic structure. It begins in an insane asylum with a patient, John Trent, saying “You won’t believe me, but…” and then he tells the story. The film is about the notion of horror itself. You have a writer (Sutter Cane) who’s producing basically generic horror stories, so we could throw everything in there. And what he writes is a great deal like Lovecraft, the notion that there is an ancient evil waiting to take over the world and so forth, but that was the fun of it. We could throw everything in.
[ There has been a lot of uproar recently regarding the effects of violent imagery on impressionable minds. Among other films, the “Halloween” series has been specifically blamed for murders in England. Most filmmakers deny any link as such, but it is the crux of “Madness”. How much of this film is satire on the absurdity of these charges? ] ^ This is not a new thing. When I was a kid watching television there were these documentaries on TV asking “Are foreign movies too violent?” This not really a satirical film, but it’s based on the idea that Sutter Cane is being told what to write by these creatures from the beyond and so when people read this stuff they become possessed, paranoid schizophrenics and run around killing people with axes. So in that sense, yeah, it is a take the ridiculous premise that television, movies and books can create killers. Hopefully that isn’t the first thing on people’s minds. Hopefully you’re screaming rather than thinking.
[ “Madness” has an ingrained self-reflexiveness, and is in some ways the genre’s version of “Stardust Memories” in that it analyzes the responses and desires of fans. Cane’s fans are a rather unsympathetic lot…was that fun to play out? ] ^ (Laughs) That was all set down in the screenplay already, so it was a no-brainer for me. But that was all part of the appeal of the project, in that it was so over-the-top. But the audience won’t be necessarily be struck by that fact because it’s played so straight.
[ Many of your films, specifically “Escape From New York,” “They Live!” and more lightly, “Big Trouble In Little China” are about second societies that are either hidden or shunned. Do you think horror or genre fans in general are treated as inferiors because of their supposed blood lust or attraction to violence? ] ^ You tend to become ghettoized if you write horror novels or make horror films. I spoke at the Horror Writers of America convention last year and met people like Whitley Striber, Peter Straub and Gahan Wilson – who are not particularly ghettoized – but all of us agreed that these are bad times for the horror genre because I suppose there is a giant fear in the air. Some tend to believe that if you enjoy horror or write horror or have anything to do with it, that you have to be a horrible person. Of course it’s just the opposite. People write about these kinds of things because of their pain and what’s driving them inside, not any need to hurt others. And the fans are generally young people going through various changes and their imaginations are still intact enough to let them believe in monsters and so forth. But yeah, these are tough times.
[ Fans often assume that horror writers and filmmakers are as creepy as their books, but that’s rarely the case – is Sutter Cane the stereotype they’d like to believe in? Is he the anti-Stephen King? ] ^ Well, Cane is played by Jurgen Prochnow and has a very elegant presence all his own. He’s not a stereotype like most people might think, and the way Jurgen plays him takes the curse off all of it. Like James Mason might have played it. He’s almost sexy.
[ Your remake of “The Thing” inspired throngs of imitators and “Madness” deals with a different kind of transformation, but how careful were you to avoid elements that might have been associated with the previous film? ] ^ Well, you can’t any more. After I finished “The Thing,” I realized, “Jesus, what else am I gonna do?” There you have the ultimate kind of shape-changing slop monster and whenever you’re dealing with those hideous things in the dark and you want to make it appear real – as opposed to being a shadow on a wall – then you have to deal with the same kind of effects situations. They’re not fun. They’re hard to do. If they’d given us more money we would have done (computer effects) but we did “Madness” the old fashioned way – all with rubber.
[ All the modern conquerors have used books to spread their word: Hitler, Mao, L. Ron Hubbard. How does “Madness” reconcile in a supposedly post-literate world? ] ^ During the rewrite stage, that’s why we introduced the idea that Cane’s book would be made into a movie. We end up watching that movie in the end. It’s pretty strange, but it finally poses the question of whether Trent is crazy or the rest of the world is. That might be pessimistic, but the film becomes so absurd by that point that…(Laughs) Yeah, there’s a certain degree of pessimism there.
[ You were quoted as saying “Halloween” was your take on Dario Argento’s “Suspiria”. Could “Madness” be in any way compared to “Tenebre,” Argento’s film about a writer whose books are being used as a blueprint for murder? ] ^ I love “Tenebre,” what a great movie. But not really. You see, Dario’s stuff is so dream-oriented. I don’t know if you are familiar with how he works, but Dario will have a dream and write that into a screenplay – he works like Buñuel – so, it’s so…strange. An unearthly strange. “Madness” is driven by a totally different engine, it’s a very traditional film of sorts, so I wouldn’t compare them.
[ The setting for “Madness,” Hobb’s End, is a typically American small town. Do you think audiences more readily accept that freaky shit happens in small towns? ] ^ I think so, but you can do it just as well in the city if you do it right. Audiences do accept that though because Lovecraft’s work has become cliché now – we all know it so well – so it is more acceptable. We’re going over ground we know. We have a horror writer and we have our hero encountering things that are from his novels, some of which will seem generic, which it part of the structure of the movie. To twist those familiar things differently.
[ There’s a very interesting passage in which Trent and another character discuss the psychological nature of horror fans and the “need to be scared” that foreshadows the rest of the film. Has that need changed at all since you made films like “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Halloween”? ] ^ Movies, roller coasters, thrill rides, books, they all create emotions – thrills, chills…fear. It’s delicious to be scared, it’s fun, so long as it’s safe and not something real happening right in front of you. Then it’s different. But you have to know the difference. I decided to find that out for myself and years ago became a helicopter pilot. Part of the training for that is to shut off the engine and try to make a safe landing, so I quickly found out that difference. It’s a whole different ball game
[ There is a lot of talk about audiences being jaded and needing more to be entertained. Do you as a director find that to be true? ] ^ Do you think audiences going out to see “The Flintstones” are jaded? They go to see Disney movies, family movies and recycled TV shows – does that sound jaded? Not to me. They’re not lining up to see any of the more avant garde stuff that’s out. They’re going to see mindless stuff. No, I don’t think they’re jaded a bit. The business has changed so much since I got into it that it’s really tough to figure out what people will see anymore. With cable and video there are so many choices now. But it’s changing everywhere. Las Vegas has become very family oriented, Disney is taking over the world and the adventurousness in Hollywood is completely gone. We get thing like “Jurassic Park,” but that used to be something called “King Kong,” wasn’t it? It was terrifically fun, but…I just don’t see this “jaded” business at all. People are so conservative in entertainment and want the same thing over and over again. The way to get a hit is to gear your movie to their middle class tastes. Don’t try to challenge.
[ Is that feeling sort of a conflict since we now have a more liberal government running the country? ] ^ We do? I think it’s more of the same. I haven’t really seen any change, but I do see people becoming more frightened out there. You might think I’m cynical, but I’m just being realistic.
[ Sutter Cane has a familiar line recalling John Lennon remark that the Beatles were “bigger than Christ.” Cane’s fortress is a former church. Trent at one point is captive in a confessional and ultimately tries to protect himself with crosses. When you use Christian icons in a film, is there any particular weight you give them in order for them to remain emotionally effective and not just empty symbols? ] ^ I think religion is a very powerful force, one of the most powerful on the planet. So when you use it in a film, you should do it seriously. I know there is a lot of criticism because films often put down religious people, and there’s a lot of irreverence toward religion, but I don’t look at it that way at all. Just the contrary, I think it’s a very powerful force of both good and evil. That’s what fascinates me about religion. People believe in it without any factual proof, very strongly to the point where it motivates their lives to the extent that they believe that there is an afterlife and they are going to be reunited with their loved ones. That’s powerful stuff. That’s not something to fool around with. I suppose I have that feeling because I was raised in the middle of the Bible Belt, but there’s a definite logic problem there in regard to the existence of evil. God is absolutely powerful, absolutely good and evil exists. Well, those three statements can’t coexist, which creates the problem. And we know evil exists, it’s all around us.
[ “Prince of Darkness” had a similar theme of a long-contained evil in danger of being released, but dealt with the issue on a quantum physics level. Is “Madness” another chance at that kind of material on a more accessible level? ] ^ Those were my experimental days. (Laughs) I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right. It’s probably a bit more entertaining and graspable in “Madness”. Also, instead of an ensemble cast you have two or three characters, which it easier for audiences to follow. It helps too that the story is closer life as they know it, dealing with ideas they’re already familiar with, like horror novels. My next movie will be a remake of “Village of The Dammed,” which is about as far away from being experimental as you can get but has an interesting resonance since it deals with evil children. There’s a hint of that in “Madness,” but there will be more coming soon. We’re doing blond-haired, glowing-eyed children from outer space – which is always fun.
[ Is there a special challenge for you to remake films well? ] ^ If I’m going to remake “Village of The Dammed,” like I did with “The Thing,” I’ll go back to the original source material, which in this case is “The Midwich Cuckoos” by John Wyndham, a science fiction book from the 50’s. That’s what I’ll work from. With “The Thing” I went to the original story “Who Goes There?” instead of the Hawks original because that film was too great, you can’t touch it. Any movie is hard to do because audience expectations change so fast. The success of an action picture like “Speed” give me some hope. It has kinetic energy. I like John Woo’s movies, and if you haven’t seen his film “Hard-Boiled,” I’d recommend it highly.
[ In talking about changing audiences, is there one of your films from the past that would do better today? ] ^ I don’t know, what do you think?
[ I’d say “The Thing”. ] ^ That’s what I would say too. That film was released in a very “let’s feel good about ourselves” time, but now we’re in the middle of a “who are you?” time. But hey, what can you do?
[ Was the recent New Line video re-release of “Escape From New York” a possible prelude to the long-rumored sequel “Escape From LA”? ] ^ Yes, we’re working on it now. Kurt Russell, (original “Escape” producer) Debra Hill and I have partnered up and are trying to get it together. The business side of it is very complicated and there’s a rights question involved. I think it’ll happen. Right now we don’t have a studio behind us, though New Line would like to do it, but we’ll see. We’re all capitalists here, so something will be worked out.
[ Was this film any easier to get done since you had Mike De Luca, also a studio executive, so involved in the creative process? ] ^ The problems involved in the creative process are all the same. The things that you battle are all the same. Personally, I battle physical fatigue more than anything else. It doesn’t have anything to do with the budget, you just have to fight. But we’ve had good reaction to the film in screenings, a lot more screams than I expected. People were jumping and bumping and laughing – so I’m extremely happy with it.
Check out FILMTHREAT.com’s INTERVIEW ARCHIVES and read hundreds of fascinating in-depth interviews with directors, filmmakers, actors and celebrities from the world of film!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. […] It was a really scummy building and a scummy area and I just started to think that all the homeless people lying on the floor and hanging around the Port Authority, and a lot of New Yorkers in general, were a different species. Late at night it got pretty scary and I started to think, “What if everyone wandering around me is part of this otherworldly conspiracy to replace the human race?” So, I combined that with a Lovecraft myth about a race of ancient beings who controlled the earth at one point and then were banished and have been trying to claw their way back in ever since. It took off from there and the last thing to gel was the idea of this writer being like a combination of Stephen King and L. Ron Hubbard —so popular that his fans constitute a religion. —Michael De Luca […]

Join our Film Threat Newsletter

Newsletter Icon