Originally published online at 4:3.
There isn’t any other director who defined the cult cinema of the 1970s and 80s more than John Carpenter. His run from 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 up until 1988’s They Live may be one of the most consistent track records of all time. He helped define the slasher genre with Halloween, while The Thing is an unparalleled horror classic that features the all time greatest practical special effects. Beyond that, films like Escape from New York and They Live have undeniably left their fingerprints throughout pop-culture. Unfortunately, like most cult film directors who prospered in the 1970s and ‘80s (Wes Craven, George A Romero, etc.) his output fell to the wayside during the 1990s, with films ranging from average-at-best (Escape from L.A.) to laughably bad (Ghosts of Mars). There is one gem from his later career worth watching, however; the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired and extremely underrated In The Mouth of Madness.
Released in 1994 to mostly mixed reviews, In The Mouth of Madness follows John Trent (played by Sam Neill), an insurance investigator who prides himself on being able to expose any hoax. He’s hired by a publishing company to track down popular horror novelist Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) who has vanished just before his newest novel was due for release. Cane’s writing is “known to have an effect on his less stable readers”, and this delay is causing fans to riot in the streets. Trent, who revels at being the smartest man in the room, thinks this disappearance is a PR stunt and sets out to uncover the truth. During his investigation that Trent discovers something more sinister than anticipation-induced hysteria; Cane’s work isn’t fiction, it’s literal fact, and he’s currently writing the end of mankind. It’s an incredibly pulpy story, which is a perfect fit for Carpenter as he’s a filmmaker who revels in pulp fiction filmmaking – just look at Big Trouble in Little China. In the Mouth of Madness walks an incredibly fine line between being incredibly enjoyable and dangerously cheesy. While I wouldn’t consider it an essential Carpenter film, it’s definitely an underrated one and probably one of – if not the – best examples of Lovecraft’s work being translated onto the big screen.
The film’s screenplay was written by Michael De Luca, a New Line Cinema producer who occasionally dabbled in screenwriting. His other writing credits include Judge Dredd and Nightmare on Elm Street 6: Freddy’s Dead, so it’s safe to say In The Mouth of Madness is easily his best work. That said, the script is by no means a masterpiece, but thankfully Carpenter’s skill as director helps smooth at the rougher parts of the script. De Luca’s writing can be incredibly repetitive at times – he really wants you to know that John Trent thinks Cane’s vanishing act is a hoax, and really wants to drive home the point that this reality isn’t real but a machination of Cane’s writing. It does feel somewhat tiresome at times, particularly early on, but the repetitive nature of the script does pay off. Trent’s constant smug assurance that he knows what’s really going on is obnoxious as hell. He spends the entire film firmly believing that his conception of reality is an absolute certainty, so when he’s finally confronted with the truth – that he’s a character in a novel with no control over his actions – his breakdown hits so much harder. De Luca is also clearly a huge fan of both Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, as the film is peppered with a lot of references to the two writers. The film is narrated by Trent from his asylum cell, a framing device regularly used by Lovecraft, while the film’s setting of Hobb’s End, a fictional New England town, echoes King’s own recurring fictitious location Castle Rock.
Self-reflexive films walk a fine line of accessibility. They exist to show the viewer that they know they exist, that they’re aware of the false reality they present. It’s in placing an emphasis on the difference between reality and Reality that the film runs the gambit of being either too self-absorbed and impenetrable, or being so self-aware that it borders on outright parody. In the Mouth of Madness manages to find a nice sweet spot between the two – it’s a fairly high-concept take on metafiction that by repeatedly explaining the rules of its universe, doesn’t feel daunting or hard to understand. At the same time, it manages to have some fun with the concept, with a few tongue-in-cheek moments of self-awareness, like when a frustrated Trent announces, “God’s not supposed to be a hack horror writer.” It also makes a surprisingly smart observation about the relationship between author and audience, and taking the most literal approach in discussing how the former controls the absolute emotions of the latter – just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it isn’t “real”. The best real-world comparison to Cane’s work would be the fanbase of the Harry Potter series. You no doubt know someone who openly mourned the death of a character (you might even be that person), and while it isn’t exactly rioting on the streets or mass-induced hysteria, it’s a book series that has conjured a lot of people to form a deep emotional investment for someone that doesn’t exist. Hell, look at the Internet when a key character gets killed off in Game of Thrones, you’d think a family member had just passed. It’s a writer’s job to create an emotional response in a reader; De Luca takes this level of control to the absolute extreme with Cane, who isn’t just controlling your emotions when you read his novels, he’s outright creating them. You don’t read Sutter Cane, Sutter Cane writes you.
Carpenter’s strengths as a director lie in his horror work. He knows how to play with the audience’s emotions and keep us on the edge of our seats by maintaining a constant undercurrent of dread running below the surface. One of the film’s best moments occurs when Trent is casually conversing in a cafe; completely oblivious to the axe-wielding maniac slowly approaching in the background. It’s an amazingly tense moment and its framing is distinctly reminiscent of Halloween, where a silent Michael Myers stands menacingly in the background. We also see echoes of The Thing with the film’s monster designs and special effects, grotesque humanoid shapes convulsing with slime covered appendages. Carpenter knows how to make a little go a long way, like a painting of two lakeside lovers who slowly become shoggoths each time Trent encounters the artwork. It’s not a big scare, and admittedly kind of cheesy, but helps to capture just how increasingly uncomfortable and unsure Trent is becoming. Carpenter also knows how to balance large scares with more low-key ones. There’s a great moment where Linda passes a teenage bike rider while heading towards Hobb’s End, only to pass the same bike rider again who has now rapidly aged into an old man, yet still speaks with a teenage voice. It’s a moment that feels almost Lynchian, conjuring feelings of uneasiness as opposed to outright terror.
Even the sets ooze with this amazing sense of terror. The insane asylum Trent begins the film in is a giant industrial fortress, with high ceilings and hallways that seem to stretch into infinity. Cane’s base of operation, the Black Church, is an ominous Byzantine structure whose very existence is shrouded in an aura of evil. Both locations very much feel like something ripped straight from Lovecraft’s works. Carpenter also makes occasional use of a fisheye lens on wider shots, giving them a slightly distorted look like reality itself is warping. Cinematographer and regular Carpenter collaborator Gary B. Kibbe does some amazing work with the film’s look, even contributing a great colour-correction gag when Cane is tormenting Trent.
In The Mouth of Madness doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not; it basks in the fact that it’s an unquestionable B-movie, and despite its existential plotline it never acts like it’s too smart for its audience. Both Carpenter and De Luca clearly adore the works of Lovecraft and King, and it really shows. It’s a well-crafted love letter to two of the most popular horror writers, with tongue. If you’re a fan of Carpenter’s more popular works, or a just looking for a fairly easy horror watch, it’s definitely a film worth checking out.1
1. It’s also the final instalment of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy”, preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness. It’s the second best of the three, although Prince of Darkness isn’t without its charms; it’s more or less The Thing, just replace Antarctica with a church, and shape-shifting alien with Satan himself.