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MOVIE REVIEW : Engrossing ‘Madness’ a Darkly Humorous Horror Movie

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“In the Mouth of Madness” is a thinking person’s horror picture that dares to be as cerebral as it is visceral. An homage to the master of the macabre, novelist H.P. Lovecraft, on the part of its writer Michael De Luca, this handsome, intelligent New Line Cinema production also finds its director, John Carpenter, in top form and provides Sam Neill with one of the most challenging roles of his career--which is saying a lot.

Charlton Heston, Julie Carmen and Jurgen Prochnow round out the key roles impressively; this is hardly your usual roster of horror stars.

Opening with a captivating prologue, “In the Mouth of Madness” gets off to a decidedly film noirish start with Neill cast as a crack insurance investigator, a cynical guy De Luca has compared to Fred MacMurray’s character in “Double Indemnity.”

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Heston’s commanding Jackson Harglow--now that’s a name it takes a Heston to get away with--is a top Manhattan publisher who has hired Neill’s John Trent to track down horrormeister novelist Sutter Cane, who outsells even Stephen King--and whose new manuscript is due to be delivered in a few days. Heston sends Trent and Cane’s tart, take-charge editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) off to New Hampshire in search of Cane, who lives there in a small town, Hobbs’ End.

That the town is not on the map is not the first weird phenomenon in the darkly humorous film--and there’s a torrent of strange happenings to follow, of course. When Trent and Styles manage to locate the picture-postcard village, it is all but deserted.

When they register at the community’s charming inn, they cannot see that its elderly, Mildred Dunnock-like proprietor (Frances Bay) likes to keep her naked husband handcuffed to her ankle! Carpenter begins in a low key, building tension slowly but steadily, in a first-rate display of style and craftsmanship.

Understandably, Trent thinks that he’s become a patsy in some kind of publicity stunt perpetrated to generate publicity for the latest Cane book. But soon he’s caught up in what seems to be a nightmarish Cane novel, loaded with effective eerie occurrences, courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic, that brings him into a confrontation with the sinister, malevolent Cane (Prochnow), who has become the instrument of an ancient evil force--that is, if Trent somehow hasn’t lost his mind and is imagining all that is happening to him. (You even begin to think that Trent just may be Cane himself.)

“In the Mouth of Madness” is concerned with the power of imagination, the very human tendency to have more confidence in the strength of evil than good, and it may--or may not--be invoking Lovecraft’s notion that we’re engaged in a struggle for control of the universe with an ancient species that is its true ruler. In any event, you’ll most likely be inclined to agree with this engrossing film’s most memorable line, “Reality isn’t what it used to be.”

* MPAA rating: R, for images of horror and for language . Times guidelines: It is not as violent as most horror pictures but is nonetheless too intense for children, yet is suitable for teens.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

‘In the Mouth of Madness’ Sam Neill: John Trent Julie Carmen: Linda Styles Jurgen Prochnow: Sutter Cane Charlton Heston: Jackson Harglow A New Line Cinema presentation. Director John Carpenter. Producer Sandy King. Executive producer-writer Michael De Luca. Cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe. Editor Edward Warschilka Jr. Music Carpenter, Jim Lang. Production designer Jeff Steven Ginn. Art director Peter Grundy. Set decorator Elinor Rose Galbraith. Special makeup effects KNB Special Effects. Visual effects supervisor Bruce Nicholson. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.


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