Any enthusiastic reader will attest to the power of books, how they can transport you to other worlds and open doors to new realities. John Carpenter’s In The Mouth Of Madness takes that idea and whips it up into something terrifyingly literal, deliciously meta, relentlessly gruesome and thoroughly addictive for any horror fan whose tastes are rooted in pop culture.
It starts off with a crazed Sam Neill being shunted off to a remote asylum, raving like a loon about things that go bump in the night. This is cool because inherently Neill seems like a collected, pragmatic fellow onscreen so it’s especially disturbing watching him come apart at the seams and go ballistic. As he tells his story to a state appointed shrink (the great David Warner) so too do we learn of how he was once a hotshot insurance investigator hired by a publishing tycoon (Charlton Heston in an awesome extended cameo) to find their golden goose horror author Sutter Cane, who has gone missing. Cane is of course a spiritual avatar for Stephen King here but King also exists in this universe because they proudly and hilariously proclaim that Cane outsold him by a landslide, the first little meta touch of many. Neill heads off to Hobbs End, a town in one of Cane’s books that doesn’t seem to actually exist… until it does. He finds a whole lot there including Cane himself, now gone mad and played by ever intense scene stealer Jurgen Pröchnow in a devilish turn.
I’m not sure why this didn’t make as big a splash as some of Carpenter’s flagship works but for me it’s one of his very best. As Neill realizes the kind of chaos that his visit to Hobbs End will cause the audience gets to experience a medium shattering dose of immersive horror that breaks the boundaries of screens in front of us and feels both hilariously and eerily alive all it’s own (think Last Action Hero in the horror realm). That’s not to mention some truly spectacular special effects to almost rival Carpenter’s The Thing and sly, tongue in cheek performances from all involved including Julie Carmen, Peter Jason, Bernie Casey, Willhelm Von Homburg, Frances Bay and John Glover as the freaky deaky asylum administrator. You can’t ask for much more from a horror film as far as I’m concerned; reality bending narrative, gore to spare, atmosphere in bushels and humour as well. Grab the Shout Factory Blu Ray if you can because the single DVD release is a grainy, cropped affair and this film deserves to have all its gristle, guts and Lovecraftian glory shown in HD. Horror classic.
Isn’t it always kind of more fun when the protagonist of a film is an utter scumbag? I think so, and Brian Helgeland did too when writing Payback, my favourite Mel Gibson film (outside Mad Max of course, but that’s a high pedestal to breach). There’s something so engaging about Mel’s Porter, a street rat career criminal who’s betrayed by his treacherous partner (Gregg Henry) and junkie wife (Deborah Kara Unger), left for dead in an alley. After a rocky recovery he comes back with vengeance on the mind, hunting down those who fucked him over and anyone who profited from it. The first thing he does to set tone for his character is steal cash from a panhandling hobo, which is just about the starkest way to inform your audience of what’s to come. What does Porter want? He wants his 24k from the job he got shafted on, not a penny less and, hysterically, not a penny more either, which becomes the beloved running joke of the film as he prowls streets, poker rooms, titty bars and all kinds of lowlife establishments to get what’s his. Henry is off the rails as his former partner in crime, taking his usual brand of scenery chewing to new heights and picking fights with anyone who makes eye contact with him. He isn’t even the main villain either, that honour goes to a stone-faced Kris Kristofferson as the sadistic head of a shadowy mega crime syndicate who are soon alerted of Porter’s ongoing rampage. There’s uber corrupt cops (Bill Duke, Jack Conley), a weaselly bookie (David Paymer), a bureaucrat desk jockey villain (William Devane), a high class escort with a heart of gold (Maria Bello) who brings out the faintest of softer sides in Porter, a sneering assassin (the great John Glover) and others who all get caught up in the commotion this guy causes just to get his modest 24 grand. A young Lucy Liu also shows up as a sexy S&M hooker with ties to the Triads and enough scary attitude to either turn me on or freak me out, I’m still not sure. My favourite has to be James Coburn as another organized crime hotshot who seems more interested in his elaborate accessories than putting a step to Porter’s nonsense. “That’s just mean, man” he bawls after Mel puts a bullet in one of his designer alligator skin suitcases. So damn funny. This is the epitome of jet black humour, one of the meanest, gnarliest, bloodiest and most entertaining neo-noirs that Hollywood has ever produced. Mel has played so many heroes and upstanding family men that it’s refreshing to see him go for the contemptible asshole shtick, and I’ll be honest I’ve never rooted for one of his characters harder than I do for Porter and his deranged urban crusade every time I rewatch this, which is a lot. Fucking brilliant film.
Mark L. Lester’s Night Of The Running Man, not to be confused with the Schwarzenegger classic of a similar moniker, is a mean spirited little urban thriller with Scott Glenn in one of his primo amped up psychopath roles. In the spirit of Scorsese’s After Hours, a hapless cab driver (Andrew Mcarthy) finds himself being hunted through the Las Vegas nightscape after one of his fates is murdered right in front of him, but not before leaving behind a suitcase full of millions. The hot man called in to pursue the funds is David Eckert (Glenn), a sociopathic monster with a heavy artillery, bent on retrieving the case and killing as many people along the way. One is reminded of the cult flick Judgment Night as the poor cabbie is forced to run all willy billy through the urban hustle, constantly evading Glenn’s lunatic presence. Further villainy is provided, albeit of the more hammy variety, by a scene stealing John Glover as an associate of Eckert’s who also casts his net to catch McCarthy, his scenes are so arch and bizarre that they almost swerve the thing into slapstick comedy territory. You can do way worse in budget B movie land, and this one clearly seeks to entertain with it’s broad characteristics and blatantly trashy tone. Plus, Glenn is, quite literally, killer good.