The ultimate explanation for all this narrative game-playing occurs about two-thirds of the way through the picture, when Wes Craven himself appears to explain that horror films fulfill an important function in our society. The act of telling scary stories, he says, literally keeps demons like Krueger at bay; movies like those in the Elm Street series rob evil of its power to do harm. (This might be one of the most astonishingly self-serving statements ever made by a filmmaker; did any other director ever threaten to let loose the forces of hell unless you kept buying tickets to his films?)
To John Carpenter, Hell means more than being menaced by a badly scarred bogeyman, and correspondingly, In the Mouth of Madness pushes the newly forged conventions of the postmodern horror movie to perverse extremes. The self-conscious dialogue consists mostly of the kind of philosophical exchanges stoned high-schoolers have at 3 a.m., ("Reality is just what we tell each other it is!" "What if sanity and insanity changed places?") The picture is a psychedelic slide show, zip-panning and flash-cutting from one freak-out image to the next, and the absurd plotting works against any rational sense of story structure. Once Neill finds himself inside Sutter Cane's book, one illogical thing follows another. At one point, the hero's female companion turns into a freakish beast and then disappears. "Cane," Neill reasons, "must have written her out."
At the end of the movie, we find that Sutter Cane's latest book has become a feature film aimed at bringing even illiterates into the fold. A quick pan across the film's poster reveals the director's name: John Carpenter. When we get a look at the picture, it turns out to be composed of the same footage we've been watching for the last two hours.
On the surface, this seems like the same ending as Wes Craven's New Nightmare. Yet there's an important difference. At the end of Craven's movie, the final Elm Street sequel (the one we've just seen) begins production, thereby preventing fictional evil from crossing over to our dimension. But at the end of Carpenter's tale, the horror film does not save the world; it destroys it.
In her 1989 book Nightmare Movies, Kim Newman offers a new subcategory of horror picture: the "post-genre horror film." Significantly, Newman designates Martin Scorsese's surreal After Hours as the most significant example. Which makes sense: Scorsese's films, probably more than any modern film artist's, show us the cracks between genres. One of the faces that peeps through most consistently is that of the horror film. Taxi Driver degenerates from a hyperrealistic study of an alienated urbanite into candy-colored gore fascination, and the mobster protagonists of Goodfellas share Jason Voorhees' seemingly paradoxical attitude toward murder--energetic but indifferent. ("It's just business," the hoods keep insisting.)
The horror influence is strongest in Scorsese's remake of the 1962 small-town thriller Cape Fear, which transforms the story's villain, Max Cady, from a scary but flesh-and-blood rapist into a supernatural wraith whose persona--right down to his elaborate body tattoos--amounts to a walking collection of icons. When, near the film's climax, the burned, drowned, stabbed, beaten Cady simply refuses to die, the movie begs a chicken-and-the-egg question: by deliberately invoking the style and tone of stalker movies, is Scorsese appropriating horror film devices? Or is he simply conforming to the audience's expectations of a genre, the thriller, that has already infused itself with these conventions?
Stephen King's book The Dark Half asks a similar question: "Am I using horror, or is it using me?" The novel (later adapted for the movies by George Romero, King's collaborator on their cheeky 1981 homage to old EC horror comics, Creepshow) centers on Thad Beaumont, a frustrated "respectable" novelist who makes a good living as a horror writer under the pen name and personality of George Stark. Stark, whose homicidal adventures are putatively autobiographical, is a straight razor-wielding trailer-park thug. When Thad abandons his old pen name and series of slasher books to pursue a more reputable career, Stark springs to life, threatening to kill Thad's friends and loved ones randomly until Thad submits and allows George to write again. (Revealingly, the novel was dedicated to "the late Richard Bachman"--King's old pseudonym.)
Stephen King's continual use of writers as the main characters of his stories, while annoying, seems a natural reaction to his frightening popularity. Like his fellow horror purveyors, King is fascinated with his own power to disturb the masses, and he's consumed with the idea of supernatural horrors leaking into "our world."
But what's going on within the horror genre today isn't really a struggle between the fictional world and our world. More likely, what these movies and books are expressing is a conflict between art and artifice--between pure horror that doesn't consciously acknowledge itself as fiction, and postmodern horror in which the tricks of the trade are served up for the audience's knowing amusement.