At last, you're thinking, a periodontal fright flick! No such luck. It's just another horrific construction from director John Carpenter.
Neill, an insurance investigator, is dispatched to find a missing novelist (Prochnow), whose phenomenally popular horror books seem to be having an unsettling psychotic effect on the population at large. Neill and Prochnow's editor (Julie Carmen, in a performance so laughably flat it trickles into deadpan) track the author to a surreal New England town peopled, so to speak, by characters from his stomach-turning books: Chuckie-doll-headed children; a mutating innkeeper; drooling, ectoplasmic creatures, etc. What with the special effects, quick, near-subliminal editing and shrieking bursts of noise, Madness does manage to get under the skin. It's hard to remain indifferent to a little old lady cleaving her husband with an axe while red tentacles blossom from her abdomen. But Carpenter is also trying for slightly more sophisticated head games here. Is Neill actually suffering a cataclysmic nervous breakdown? Certainly there's nothing ooky-spookier than that. (If you want a case of genuine psychosis, go see Heavenly Creatures.) But Neill, an understated performer whose expressive range lies somewhere between skeptical and sour, undercuts the scariness because he never really seems to be in danger of losing his faculties. (R)