Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Newsploitation: In the Mouth of Box Office Sadness

Normally I wouldn’t be posting about a box office anniversary for a film that is only twenty years old.  One, it would lead to stuff like me writing up the 20th anniversary of the American release of the third HIGHLANDER film (I restrained myself on the hallowed anniversary last month).  Two, it makes me feel really old.  Tom and I were just discussing how when we were kids, twenty years in the past seemed like ancient history. Now looking back and going, “Damn, that was only twenty years ago” certainly singes our synapses.  Of course, we’ll make an exception and we have to today as February 3, 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.

It goes without saying that Carpenter kicked ass (after running out of bubble gum) in the 1980s.  It is a veritable classic upon classic with the seven films he released in that decade. Apparently he also had a decent flick in the ‘70s called HALLOWEEN (1978) or something; heard it isn’t as boss as the Rob Zombie one.  All kidding aside, Carpenter was killing them, starting the decade strong with THE FOG (1980) and finishing even stronger with THEY LIVE (1988).  So it kinda sucked when he didn’t have a film release for four years.  Sure, he worked on plenty (SHADOW COMPANY, PIN CUSHION, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON remake) but it wasn’t until March 1991 that he started filming MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN (1992) with Chevy Chase.  Carpenter had his biggest budget to date, but the film failed to attract audiences when it came out on February 28, 1992 (full disclosure: I like the film; that sound you hear is Tom screaming, “What!?”).  

Despite MEMOIRS poor performance at the box office in February, the year of 1992 was a busy one for Carpenter.  In January, he and his producer/wife Sandy King signed a deal with Universal for one film (the resulting film would be his remake of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED [1995], which ended up coming out just two months after MOUTH).  In March, Variety reported that Carpenter was helping retool his script MELTDOWN, which was going to be an action vehicle for Dolph Lundgren and directed by Yves Simoneau (Variety, March 3, 1992: "MELTDOWN from Braunstein and Hamady Prods. Featuring Lundgren as a terrorist-busting strongman, MELTDOWN was written by John Carpenter, who is currently working on a rewrite with Robert Roy Pool").  In August there was renewed interest in Columbia’s sci-fi flick PIN CUSHION, which Carpenter was attached to direct with talk of Sharon Stone in the lead (replacing Cher!).  And in November 1992, Showtime announced Carpenter would be co-directing, producing, and hosting the anthology BODY BAGS.  Finally, as if all that weren’t enough work, news arrived in early December 1992 that Carpenter had signed on to direct New Line’s on/off project, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.

Although released halfway through the 1990s, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS was actually a project New Line Cinema had since the late 1980s.  The script was written by New Line’s then Vice President of Creative Development, Michael De Luca.  Among the first directors he sent the script to in 1988 was John Carpenter. The first public mention of the film came in February 1989 at the American Film Market where New Line advertised it on their slate of upcoming releases (see art to the left).  The script was again mentioned by the company in Variety in June 1989, where the script was oddly attributed to one Desmond Cates (I assume a pseudonym) and they promised a February 1990 release.  The director attached at this time was Tony Randel, who had just helmed HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II (1988).  Mary Lambert, the director of PET SEMETARY (1989), was also attached at one point.  Unfortunately, New Line didn’t know the horror at the box office was about to bottom out and the company soon put the brakes on horror for a while, even going so far as to put cash cow Freddy on ice for two years.

The first official mention of Carpenter on the project came in Variety on December 7, 1992.  Naturally, the title changed from IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS to John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.  The director spent January 1993 filming his stuff for BODY BAGS and then spent several months preparing for MOUTH’s late summer shoot.  Although De Luca retains sole credit as a writer on the film, Carpenter did rewrite the script with Evgenia Citkowitz (an as yet unpublished author and Mrs. Julian Sands) as evidenced by a copyright filed on August 13, 1993. Carpenter assembled one of most diverse casts while reuniting with Sam Neill from MEMOIRS; a bit of a casting coup as Neill had just headlined JURASSIC PARK (1993) that summer.  Supporting roles included Julie Carmen, Jurgen Prochnow, Charlton Heston, David Warner, John Glover, Bernie Casey, and Peter Jason.  Filming took place in Canada from August to October 1993 on a budget of roughly $7 million.

MOUTH was originally slated to be released by New Line on September 9, 1994.  However, something happened and it got bumped to February 3, 1995. Not a good sign as the first quarter is usually considered a dumping ground for films that the studio had little faith in.  That would be weird in this case as the film was written by a New Line exec at the time.  Anyway, the film opened almost five months later and didn’t fare very well. It debuted in 5th place with $3,441,807 and was behind the week’s other two new wide releases, BOYS ON THE SIDE and THE JERKY BOYS.  Goddang, that’s a lot of boys. The film stuck around in U.S. theaters for about a month, earning a domestic total of $8,924,549.  This would be the lowest grossing film of Carpenter’s career since HALLOWEEN (1978) made him a name director (a dubious distinction later seized by GHOSTS OF MARS [2001]).

Not surprisingly, the film wasn’t initially looked upon that favorable with Fangoria calling it “disappointing.”  It wasn’t until about a decade later that folks started to appreciate and re-evaluate it.  Perhaps a critical rethinking occurred at this time after fans had experienced some truly bad Carpenter flicks.  Or maybe it took fans a while to accept the more cerebral elements.  Either way, people began to notice the strong thematic connection MOUTH had with films like PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987).  As it stands now, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is considered the last truly great John Carpenter flick and I wouldn’t disagree with that. When I fired up my laserdisc (damn, I really am old) for a revisit recently, I found myself enjoying it even more.  It is Carpenter's 40s detective film and is easily the best H.P. Lovecraft film not based on any Lovecraft story. Like fine wine, some of Carpenter’s films need a chance to age (let’s not forget that THE THING [1982], now considered a masterpiece, didn’t get a warm reception either).  

3 Reactions:

  1. Really a brilliant film, my favorite Carpenter film in fact. One that epitomizes the term "under the radar" I don't even recall seeing TV spots for this one. Actually I wasn't even aware of it until I saw the trailer on the VHS for Wes Craven's New Nightmare. Still one of the greatest trailers ever.

    I've always seen this film as sort of Carpenter channeling Lynch by way of Lovecraft and Stephen King. Legitimately frightening in spots, an excellent aura of weirdness and stunning direction/photography.

  2. Still creeps me out to this day, I've always been a fan of this movie. It's definitely in the HP Lovecraft mode, but Carpenter made it his. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. still a great piece on this film. amusing the number of "why"s in this article though - why the rewrite? why the pseudonym? why the change of release date? the answers are all old news. but without them, reality would be different.


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