From the archive: In the Mouth of Madness (part 2): "The sooner we're off the planet, the better"

In our last post, I discussed the various literary influences apparent in In the Mouth of Madness.  Today, I’m delving a bit deeper into some of the tropes and philosophies that informed Lovecraft’s work, and this film in turn.

In the Mouth of Madness opens with John Trent being admitted to an insane asylum, where he recounts his story to an investigator (David Warren). One of the most common tropes in Lovecraft’s work is the notion that some truths are so terrible as to cause the knower to go insane. Consider this noteworthy opening quote from “The Call of Cthulhu”: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” In some Lovecraft stories, acquiring forbidden knowledge not only causes insanity, but forces bodily mutations upon the victim. This is apparently a trope within Sutter Cane’s fiction and also happens to unfortunate readers  of his newest novel, In the Mouth of Madness. In some respects, these mutations are reminiscent of transformation scenes in John Carpenter’s earlier film The Thing.

An ominous painting foretells the fate of residents of Hobb’s End

Misanthropy was rampant in Lovecraft’s fiction. In a letter to Edwin Baird, editor of Weird Tales, Lovecraft wrote of a young writer who wished to pen a story of a mad scientist who strives to conquer the world by unleashing a plague. To Lovecraft, this vision unoriginal and simply did not go far enough. “Good and evil, teleological illusion, sugary sentiment, anthropocentric psychology–the usual stock in trade, and all shot through with the eternal and inescapable commonplace…Who ever wrote a story from the point of view that man is a blemish on the cosmos, who ought to be eradicated?…I told my friend, he should conceive of a man with a morbid, frantic, shuddering hatred of the life-principle itself, who wishes to extirpate from the planet every trace of biological organism, animal and vegetable alike, including himself…Only a cynic can create horror–for behind every masterpiece of the sort must reside a demonic force that despises the human race and its illusions, longs to pull them to pieces and mock them” (Quoted in Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror) .This attitude is rampant in Sutter Cane’s work, and John Trent offers a similar opinion at one point when he tells Linda Styles, “The sooner we’re off the planter, the better.” However, Trent is ultimately unable to maintain that stance–or perhaps it was mere posturing all along–because he tries desperately to save humanity in the film’s final act.

“I think, therefore you are.”

The last and perhaps most important Lovecraftian trope is identity-based horror. (And here I spoil the best scene in in the movie.) In “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” Lovecraft writes, “No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which flows from a loss of identity.” Savvy viewers would know that John Trent is set up for such a fate, given his arrogance and frequent comments along the lines of “I’m my own man; nobody pulls my strings.” The revelation that he is not his own man and in fact has no free will is expected, but the specific nature of this revelation delivers a gut-punch arguably superior to similar twists penned by Lovecraft himself. In a confrontation with between Trent and Sutter Cane, Cane reveals, “This town didn’t exist before I wrote it, and neither did you…You are what I write!” Trent sputters and protests that he is not, in fact, a “piece of fiction,” Cane responds, “I think, therefore you are.” Trent is not even left with the solace of having once been human. He simply never was what he believed himself to be, and technically, was never real.

I will further discuss the notion human existence as puppet existence in our final post on In the Mouth of Madness and its religious implications, and in my review of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

From the archive: In the Mouth of Madness: “Reality is not what it used to be” (part 1)

Today we discuss In the Mouth of Madness, John Carpenter’s final entry in his so-called apocalypse trilogy. It’s also my favorite of the three films. It has layers of complexity that allow for multiple viewings. As a result, I decided to break up my commentary for this film over multiple entries. Be advised that I will be spoiling every major plot point and trope in this film. But, I will be discussing aspects of the film that aren’t generally known or discussed.

In the Mouth of Madness is a 1990s meta-horror film about an insurance fraud investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) who is hired by a major publishing house to find missing author Sutter Cane, and deliver his newest manuscript, In the Mouth of Madness, for publication. It’s a big deal because Cane outsells all others.

With a name like Sutter Cane, it may seem that he is based on Stephen King. However, it’s quickly apparent that he is actually modeled primarily on H.P. Lovecraft. As you can see from the covers below, and others glimpsed in the film, the titles are derivative of Lovecraft titles, including “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” “The Color out of Space,” and “The Shadow Out of Time.”

Excerpts of Cane’s writing are distinctly Lovecraftian: “Trent stood at the edge of the rip, stared into the illimitable gulf of the unknown, the Stygian world yawning blackly beyond. Trent’s eyes refused to close, he did not shriek, but the hideous unholy abominations shrieked for him, as in the same second he saw them spill and tumble upward out of an enormous carrion black pit, choked with the gleaming white bones of countless unhallowed centuries. He began to back away from the rip as the army of unspeakable figures, twilit by the glow from the bottomless pit, came pouring at him towards our world…”

That said, many viewers may not recognize that this film borrows concepts from a ’90’s meta-horror short story collection…An 1890’s meta-horror story collection, that is. Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow was published in 1895 and influenced Lovecraft’s own mythos. The King in Yellow is a collection of interconnected short stories about a book called The King in Yellowwhich is a best-seller that spreads “like an infectious disease.” Consider the excerpt below from “The Repairer of Reputations”:

“When the French government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterwards with more awful effect.”

As with In the Mouth of Madness, characters who read The King in Yellow go insane, become convinced they are characters in the book, and meet a variety of nasty ends. One of the characters in The King in Yellow is even named J. Trent. Adding an additional layer of complexity, The King in Yellow borrows concepts and characters from Can Such Things Be? by Ambrose Bierce.

When watching this film, there are a few ways to interpret it. One is that the book is a type of mind-virus, and everyone who believes it becomes convinced that they are characters in the book. Another is that Sutter Cane has indeed been promoted to a god-role and can write reality as he wishes. Or as Cane’s editor Linda Styles states, “What scares me about Cane’s work is what might happen if reality shared his point of view…Reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane were to become a majority. You would find yourself locked in a padded cell, wondering what happened to the world.”

In the next posts, I’ll discuss the film’s relationship to other Lovecraft tropes and its religious implications.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was the first meta-horror I had ever seen. My young self found the concept mind-warping. Instead of being a sequel or even a remake, the film had the main actors from the original film, along with New Line Cinema executive/producer Bob Shaye, and Wes Craven all portraying themselves. This movie acknowledged that all of the preceding films in the franchise were fiction, but that somehow Freddy Krueger is now real and is terrorizing his creators. An especially mind-bending moment occurred when Heather Langenkamp meets with Craven to discuss his new film script. At the and of the conversation, a close up of his computer screen reveals that their entire conversation was already part of the script.

Craven’s script is revealed to include the scene we just watched.

I still like this core concept very much, even though it turns out that Lucio Fulci had done something very similar years earlier with Cat In The Brain. There are other good things about New Nightmare. Freddy has a new look and is no longer cracking bad jokes with each kill–something that Craven despised about the other sequels.

Robert Englund appears in full Freddy makeup to please his adoring fans in New Nightmare.

However, in some respects, this movie hasn’t aged well for me. There are many aspects I view very differently now, and maybe adulthood has poisoned my perceptions. I now find the acting cringe-inducing in some scenes. And to some extent, I find the characters less sympathetic, which is especially weird since most of the people involved played themselves. I wonder if Craven made a deliberate decision to troll his own industry by portraying filmmakers as a bit bitchy, superficial, and flakey. Am I projecting my own experiences on to these characters? Most of the filmmakers I know are decent people, but I’ve met all types at this point. Then again, Craven took those stereotypes to an extreme in Scream 3, in which filmmakers were not only overly bitchy, superficial, and flakey, but rapists and murderers to boot. Many of the non-filmmaker/actor characters in New Nightmare were downright awful and creepy, especially the medical personnel who are ostensibly concerned for the welfare of Langenkamp’s son.

Freddy pierces the veil between fiction and reality.

Some aspects of the film are just odd in retrospect because societal attitudes have changed. While rewatching it, I had to remind myself of the stigma horror films carried in the 1990s. As bizarre as it seems now to watch a scene in which a doctor threatens to have child protective services take Langenkamp’s son away because mayyyybe he was exposed to horror films, there was a lot of hand-wringing on the part of so-called “experts” along these lines. As someone who openly liked the horror genre, I felt stigmatized back then too. On one occasion, a virtual stranger scolded me (during a Bible study of all things) that people like me were responsible for the Columbine massacre. Of course, Craven returned to the issue of movies influencing real-life violence in the Scream franchise , but I never hear that issue discussed these days. Thankfully. If there is a moral to this film, it’s the idea that the the act of telling stories can keep real monsters at bay.

Despite my issues with the film, I appreciate the fact that Craven was one of very few directors of that decade who took his subject matter seriously. 

From the archive: Targets

targetsposter

For this last day of November, it seems fitting to wrap up Boris Karloff Month by discussing Karloff’s last great film, Targets (1968), directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

Targets follows the story of two very different characters whose lives intersect by chance. The hero is Byron Orlok, portrayed by Karloff and clearly based on Karloff’s real-life persona. Orlok is an elderly horror star who is on the verge of retirement because he feels his brand of gothic horror is outdated, being replaced by the all-too-real horror of serial killers and mass murderers.

karloff-targets

The other is Bobby Thompson, a young Vietnam veteran who superficially appears to be a clean-cut, productive suburban citizen (portrayed by Tim O’Kelly). Modeled after real-life University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman, Thompson buys several guns and large quantities of ammunition, murders his wife and mother, and then kills several strangers in sniper attacks. Thompson’s final shooting spree takes place at a drive-in theater where Byron Orlok is scheduled to give a final public appearance before retiring from acting.

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The final confrontation between Orlok and Thompson is satisfying on a number of levels (beware of spoilers in this paragraph), beyond the simple enjoyment of seeing Karloff bitch-slap the young villain until he’s reduced to sniveling in fetal position. An optical illusion in which Thompson cannot differentiate between the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok and the real man advancing to disarm him may symbolize Thompson’s inability to differentiate his own twisted fantasies from reality. Orlok’s triumph may also signify that fictional horrors can serve as a protective factor against real-life horrors by exposing them for what they are. Having subdued Thompson, Orlok muses, “Is this what I was afraid of?”

While we can gain some insight into Charles Whitman’s motives through his journals, Thompson is a frustrating character because his motives are never explained. However, the contrast between Orlok and Thompson can also be examined in light of psychological theories of the time. In The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues about the So-Called Psychopathic Personality (1941) and its subsequent editions, Harvey M. Checkley argues that whereas many openly neurotic people are deeply good and loving at their core, psychopaths cause tremendous harm because they are able to effectively fit into societal norms. This argument perfectly parallels these characters. Orlok has made a career by nurturing the appearance of evil, albeit on a superficial level. In his personal life, he’s plagued by insecurity. Yet, at his core, he’s a kind and heroic person. In contrast, Thompson has only the appearance of goodness, trustworthiness, and normalcy masking terrifying schemes of destruction.

targets-1968-villain
The young villain and his sterile surroundings.

Erich Fromm’s theory of the necrophilous personality, first introduced in The Heart of Man: its Genius for Good and Evil (1964) and further detailed later in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness , is also pertinent in explaining Thompson’s character. Fromm’s definition of necrophilia is not simply a sexual attraction to corpses, but an attraction to death and destruction for their own sake. Some of the features of character-rooted necrophilia include authoritarianism, the desire to tear apart living things, and fascination with all things mechanical (in this film evidenced by Thompson’s fetishization of guns). As with his inability to differentiate the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok with the man himself, it seems that Thompson doesn’t view his victims as real, or at least not as human. At one point he tells the gun store clerk that he’s going to “hunt some pigs.” Thompson’s use of firearms to dispatch his victims is cold, distant, clinical, and impersonal. This is visually represented by the icy hues and sterile surroundings in Thompson’s scenes. In contrast,  Orlok fits within Fromm’s description of the biophilous (life-loving) personality, reflected by the warm, earthy hues in his scenes. Orlok’s home is a bit more ornate, messy, and flawed…as he is. Extrapolate Orlok’s characteristics to the genre he represents, and again, there is an indication that the horror genre is on the side of life.

Review: How to Make a Monster (1958)

While many people credit Wes Craven with inventing the meta-horror film, it’s been around for quite some time. In some cases, the meta elements of early films were cut or rewritten, likely because they were too confusing. For example, the original ending of The Black Cat (1934) depicted the “final couple” meeting the film’s director, who tells them he spent the last week filming  (As described by Jon Towlson in his excellent book, The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films, 1931-1936.)

In 1958, American International Pictures decided to satirize its own image and reputation. AIP had attempted to put its own unique spin on Universal-style monsters by making them into teenage monsters. It’s debatable as to how successful it was. How to Make a Monster was certainly the best of this cycle, precisely because of its penchant for self-mockery.

The villain is Pete Drummond, an FX makeup artist who will soon be fired because studio executives have decided that teen monster movies are waning in popularity and are a black mark on the reputation of the studio. Instead, they want to be known for rock and roll musicals.

So Drummond decides to teach the studio executives a lesson in fear. With the help of a mind control drug and a lot of bullshit philosophizing, Drummond uses his FX skills to transform two teenage actors into teen monsters and have them kill the studio head and others who threaten his livelihood. In an especially nice meta touch, Gary Conway, the actor from I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, portrays the young man whom Drummond transforms into the teenage Frankenstein monster. After the mind control drug wears off, the young men have no recollection that they committed murder.

in the final scenes, the film shifts from black-and-white to full color, as Drummond invites the teen actors into his private shrine where he introduces them to his “children,” the wax busts of movie monsters used in previous AIP films. At this point we find out that Drummond doesn’t view these horror films as a mere means to a paycheck, but as an actual religion.

The films is available for purchase as the double feature,  How to Make a Monster/Blood of Dracula, but is also currently available to watch on Youtube.

Review: The Dark Tower

First, let me confirm that the new film The Dark Tower differs significantly with the sprawling series written by Stephen King. Major plot points are truncated, and key characters are left out entirely. Rolan’s ka-tet doesn’t exist. The story is told primarily from Jake’s perspective, not Roland’s. Purists may be driven crazy by these omissions and changes. As someone who has read the entire series, I think that aspects of the film adaptation may not be friendly to outsiders, perhaps not relatable.

That said, I don’t understand the negative reviews this film is getting.  Again, I’m glad that I don’t allow such reviews to influence my decision to see movies. The Dark Tower has a mere 18% positive meta-critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, yet has a 63% positive rating from audience members. This is a big discrepancy. But more importantly, Stephen King liked the adaptation. Keep in mind that King disliked the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of The Shining, which earned near-universal praise from critics. The Dark Tower is true to the spirit of King’s work while The Shining was not.

In the linked article above, King also discusses his approval of casting Idris Elba as Roland. predictably, some fans in the dark corners of the internet disapproved of casting a black actor as a character who is understood to be white. In the book illustrations, Roland is portrayed as white, and this is further reinforced in dialogue in which Detta Walker calls Roland a “honky” and other racist slurs (The Drawing of the Three). However, Roland’s race really isn’t an important factor. The fact is that Idris Elba did a phenomenal job in this film, and I hope he will be in the TV series as rumored.

Roland as portrayed in The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands

Matthew McConaughey is also terrific as the Man in Black. I remember when McConaughey used to be considered conventionally sexy, but gradually transitioned into creepy. I like it.  He’s perfectly cruel in this role.

Matthew McConaughey torments Roland as the Man in Black

Although I had hoped that there would be a film adaptation for each novel, similar to the Harry Potter film series, The Dark Tower included the most essential concepts from the series. If there is to be a TV series, I hope it includes Eddie Dean and Susannah (a.k.a. Detta/Odetta Walker), because the the relationship between Roland and his ka-tet really is the soul of the series.

So yes, I do recommend the movie to anyone with an open mind.

And since we are reviewing “meta” works this month, I have to recommend the Dark Tower novels as well. The film adaptation is not truly meta (although it does give a nod to Pennywise from IT), but the books became increasingly so. In The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands,  we learn that fictional works are windows into very real worlds. One such work is an unsettling children’s book called Charlie the Choo Choo by Beryl Evans, featuring nightmare-fuel illustrations and a story about a sentient train. The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah takes things further by having Roland as his friends meet Stephen King himself. In an especially self-deprecating touch, King gives Roland a copy of his novel Insomnia and Roland promptly throws it in the trash.

Until next time, long days and pleasant nights…

The Final Girls (2015)

Today we wrap up Final Girls Week with my favorite meta-horror film about the subject, Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls, starring Taissa Farmiga, Malin Ackerman, and Adam DeVine. I had the pleasure of seeing this movie in early 2015 at the Stanley Film Festival, where it won the audience choice award for best film. The Final Girls surprised the audience because it was so unexpectedly funny and sweet, and actually left many viewers openly weepy.

The film is about Max Cartwright, a young woman who lost her mother, Amanda, in a car accident. Amanda Cartwright was an actress best known for her appearance in a Friday the 13th-style slasher film called Camp Bloodbath. As bad as that film was, it’s a primary way for Max to feel connected to to her late mother. When Max agrees to be the guest of honor at a Camp Bloodbath screening, a strange turn of events causes Max and her school friends to be sucked into the film itself. Max relives her grief when she meets the doomed character played by her mother. Other tear-jerking moments occur when that character realizes she is a fictional character and that she will never accomplish her dreams because she will be “written out.”

Another commendable thing about The Final Girls is that it acknowledges the inherent awfulness of 1980’s slasher films without displaying the typical snarky contempt common of most meta-horror films, which tend to show disgust for both the films they parody and for the fans who watch them. Instead, the filmmakers of The Final Girls just get it. As a good friend of mine observed, some films (especially campy horror films) are so bad that they transcend their badness and become something else entirely. In The Final Girls, fans are portrayed as intelligent cinephiles, and the bad writing and acting in Camp Bloodbath are simply more reasons to love it.