Mixtape Macabre: “In The Mouth of Phantoms” Double FeatureColumns,Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
Welcome to Mixtape Macabre, an ongoing column in which FANGORIA examines and recommend cinematic soulmates to horror fans, whether it be through anthology mixes, double features, or other fun moviewatching experiments. In doing so, we hope to give horror fans a new reason to revisit our favorite frighteners, and perhaps even make a macabre mixtape of their own.
For the inaugural Mixtape Macabre, FANGORIA is going to examine a pair of genre films that are both from a very misunderstood and unfairly maligned decade in horror: the ’90s. While scare fare rarely ruled the box office during the decade, that doesn’t mean the genre was devoid of imaginative and fun horror flicks. The decade was a transitional period for horror in tone and resources: practical SFX were phased out for digital SFX and studio horror was combined with either comedy or sci-fi in an effort to draw in a more mainstream audience.
Throughout the odd and experimental approaches to horror, many underrated gems came out of the decade to little or no fanfare. Thanks to loyal cult audiences and critical reassessment, these films have been given a second chance to be discovered for a new generation. In fact, the new life of home media gives this week’s Mixtape Macabre their first similarity, although it’s far from their last.
Upon their initial release, horror fans weren’t quite sure what to make of either John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS or Joe Chappelle’s PHANTOMS. In the case of the former, this was Carpenter’s return to horror following MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN and was more in line with his divisive PRINCE OF DARKNESS than any other project. The latter wa the first Dean Koontz adaptation to be written by the author himself and was the first horror film theatrically released by Dimension Films following the massively successful SCREAM 2. Both films were virtually panned by critics and fans alike, and disappeared quietly until hitting video stores shortly thereafter.
Separately, Carpenter’s thinly veiled take on Lovecraft was unfamiliar to fans while the quality of PHANTOMS is the butt of many jokes. When viewed together however, there’s a certain magic that compliments both films as an overall experience. One might say this is indicative of their common themes and visuals, but perhaps their universes are so similar in design and execution that they could conceivably coexist as one.
Of course, both PHANTOMS and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS are a part of a very special and frankly too rarely examined subgenre known as “God Horror.” This is not horror where a mythological version of God is the antagonist, per se; rather, this subgenre contains supernatural antagonists who perceive themselves to be or inherit the powers of a God. In this sense, each “God Horror” comes with their own mythology as well as a grander scale of mystery than most horror films by comparison.
If you’re going to power through this double feature, you’re better off beginning with IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. Normally, one might save Carpenter’s flick as a “palate cleanser” following PHANTOMS, considering the questionable quality of the film, but this isn’t the case. Instead, MADNESS sets the scene thematically for the double feature, offering creepy, intense horror with a dash of otherworldly craziness and camp to the proceedings. Most importantly, MADNESS touches on some philosophy that carries over to PHANTOMS (in the way of ancient evil being relative to the nature of human fear) and brings things full circle.
What’s more, MADNESS’ similarities sync up quite well with PHANTOMS: abandoned towns with possessed populations, hallucinations and relatively small core casts make up for the bulk of each film. MADNESS succeeds in places where PHANTOMS fails by maintaining a dread-inspiring tone throughout and ramping up the horror slowly but surely, whereas PHANTOMS scariest moments come out of the gate. If anything, PHANTOMS opts to try going bigger in its climax via its sci-fi edge whereas MADNESS truly terrifies in small doses; after all, who could scratch out that demon-faced little girl whispering, “Today’s Mommy’s Day” from their nightmares?
However, once MADNESS sets the stage, PHANTOMS operates at a smoother, scarier pace than when viewed alone. By jumping from one creepy town to another almost instantly, the immediate descent into suspense feels more appropriate and less jarring. Similarly, the characters in PHANTOMS feel less out of place as well, as if they were transferred from MADNESS. And surprisingly enough, the ominous threat and larger conspiracy behind the horror of PHANTOMS carries the tone of MADNESS throughout, which helps stabilize the convoluted third act of the former film.
In fact, PHANTOMS may even have an edge on MADNESS in terms of its conceptually engaging antagonist. While Jurgen Prochnow’s Sutter Cane makes for more of a philosophically driven and colorful villain, there’s little more to his God complex and preaching of primordial horror that is on display. The “Ancient Enemy” in PHANTOMS believes itself to actually be a God, and does not consider itself to be truly evil but rather an all-encompassing advanced life form. “The Ancient Enemy” consumes knowledge, warps reality and preys upon fear, which somehow gives it more pride than Cane, who essentially uses cosmic powers of ancient beings to combine his nightmarish prose to our physical reality.
This first Mixtape Macabre is guaranteed to provide a solid introduction to the “God Horror” subgenre while offering a second viewing to a pair of underrated creepshows. While IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is a bit more sophisticated and convincing in its terror, PHANTOMS is nonetheless a fun tonal successor to the film that also provides some good scares alongside universal similarities. And by combining cerebral, psychological thrills with creature feature fare, the double feature offers a nice encapsulation of ’90s horror: inconsistent, yet undeniably imaginative in a way rarely seen in today’s terror.