As you can see, I chose John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. In hindsight, I’m not sure Mouth is all that underrated per se. It has had its vocal fans, including a number of professional critics, and – as often seems to be the case with once-maligned horror films – has attained a strong cult standing. In other words, it’s a film which has its audience. Prince of Darkness (1987) – a quieter, smaller-budget affair, lost between the action-fantasy bluster of Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and They Live (1988) – would perhaps be a more deserving candidate from Carpenter’s back-catalogue for the title of Most Underrated.
Sam Neill, in yuppie-lite mode, plays John Trent, an insurance investigator employed to track down Sutter Cane, a horror writer whose work we’re told outsells (and outscares) Stephen King’s. Along with editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) Trent sets out to locate Hobb’s End, the mysterious New England village they suspect Cane has retreated to. As they progress aspects of Cane’s books seem to blur into the narrative: the village they arrive at appears to be an uncannily exact replica of the setting of Cane’s latest novel, they stop at a hotel seemingly run by one of his characters, the suspicion that they may have wandered into a piece of fiction creeps in.
For all the Lovecraftian schlock and rubber monster japery that follows, it’s this self-narrating component which distinguishes In the Mouth of Madness, at times pulling the film into Dennis Potter country. ‘Cane’s writing me,’ Styles tells Trent during a botched getaway. ‘He wants me to kiss you. It’s good for the book.’ This combination of B-movie fun and dizzying meta-fiction makes the film something of a companion piece to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, another mid-90's tale of lowbrow storytelling intruding onto the everyday. I’d hazard it’s also one of the reasons why the film, although critically panned in the U.S. on its original release (‘a really bad movie’ was how The Washington Post summed it up), was relatively well received in Europe with Cahiers du Cinéma even going so far as to list it as one of 1995’s best films.
Carpenter claims In the Mouth of Madness to be the final installment of the Apocalypse Trilogy, preceded by 1982’s The Thing and 1987’s Prince Of Darkness. Aside from an interest in the end of the world and similar critical maulings, the most obvious thing which unites these three films is Carpenter’s knack for surreal imagery, the shock of which lingers long after the end credits. Here: a reader of Cane’s latest book crying tears of blood after finishing it; a gang of children with distorted, rotting faces; a naked, quivering man shackled to the ankle of homely octogenarian Frances Bay (a David Lynch stalwart).
But it’s actually the quieter moments which have the most lasting impact. As any fan of the film will attest, the film’s most disquieting moment is simply an elderly man riding a bicycle.