John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
Time to revisit another classic John Carpenter film, this one from the early 1990s. If you look at Carpenter’s work in the 80s, you’l understand why the man is considered one of the masters of horror. Starting in 1980 with the fantastic film, THE FOG–just completely forget about the cinematic abortion of a remake–Carpenter then went on to make ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), THE THING (1982), CHRISTINE (1983), STARMAN (1984), BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986), PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987), and THEY LIVE (1988). All great films that I’ve seen at least a dozen times each. Carpenter’s record in the 1990s wasn’t quite as strong, but it is nothing to scoff at either. He gave us the wildly fun VAMPIRES in 1998, and the VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED remake in 1995, but perhaps his best film from that decade is IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, an HP Lovecraft-inspired film that even takes the title from one of the master’s most famous books, At the Mountains of Madness. I don’t think this is as overlooked quite as much as Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS, but IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is a classic Carpenter film that deserves another look.
The film is about John Trent (Sam Neill), an insurance fraud investigator who is tasked by his boss to investigate the disappearance of Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), a Stephen King-like horror writer who has mysteriously disappeared without a trace. The first person Trent talks to is Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), the owner of publishing house that exclusively publishes Cane’s books. Cane is a billion dollar industry and he owes the publishing house his new book, but is nowhere to be found. Harglow asks Linda (Julie Carmen), Cane’s editor who knows the man pretty well, to aid in the investigation.
Like most of Carpenter’s films, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS grabs you right from the beginning when we see Trent being placed in a mental hospital. Trent has clearly lost his mind, and little by little we come to understand that the madness Trent is experiencing is spreading like an epidemic across the globe. Dr. Wrenn (David Warner) is brought in to evaluate Trent and this is how we learn about the events that lead up to Trent’s madness.
Trent believes that Cane’s “disappearance” is a publicity stunt to sell more of his books, but Linda tells him that over the last year, Cane’s books had became more bizarre and strange and that Cane started believing that his writings were real and no longer fiction. Trent buys Cane’s books and after reading them, immediately starts having hallucinations and nightmares of people killing each other and trying to kill him. Trent pieces together some clues he believes he found in Cane’s writings, and this sends Trent and Linda on a road trip to a location up in New England where Trent believes they will find Cane.
We get a lot of discussion about the nature of reality and what kind of impact, if any, the written word could have on reality. Linda tells Trent that Cane came to believe that his writings were no longer fiction, and that he believed he tapped into a kind of horrific reality that was trying to break into our reality. All the horrors and horrible things Cane used to write about are now writing through Cane in order to enter our world. Cane has become like a god, and whatever he writes in his books is now reality. Once Trent and Linda hit the road to find Cane, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS veers off into some truly weird areas. After driving all night, the two find themselves in Hobb’s End, which is also the title of one of Cane’s novels. Trent, now more than ever, believes that this is a publicity stunt and that the publisher created this town and all the people living in it were paid to act like certain characters from the novel.
But Trent is wrong.
It seems Trent and Linda entered into some kind of alternate reality and are actually in Hobb’s End. Linda is an expert on Cane’s novels–she did after all edit them–and knows what is going to happen at certain times. At first, Trent plays along, but he soon comes to realize that all the strange and scary things happening in Hobb’s End are happening for real. There are indescribable, tentacled things trapped behind a door which seem to be using Cane to enter into our reality; there are children possessed by an ancient, unseen evil; old ladies are killing their husbands in grotesque ways; and a general sense of madness has infected all the people of Hobb’s End.
Once the characters reach Hobb’s End, Carpenter takes us deep into Lovecraftian territory. There are unseen horrors and unnamable evils that are threatening to break into our reality, and it seems like Sutter Cane is the only one standing between us and them. The problem is, he wants to let them into our reality. Cane is essentially writing his new novel from inside of it. Whatever he writes happens, and Trent, it turns out, plays a large role in Cane’s plans. Once Trent returns to the city, Cane’s new novel is already released and is a huge hit. It seems that the more popular it becomes, the more cases of the unexplained madness are being reported. Even non-readers aren’t safe from Cane’s new novel because it was turned into a movie and has opened world-wide.
Yup, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is an apocalyptic movie that Lovecraft himself would give his seal of approval on. The acting is strong all around, and Neill, as always, gives a great performance as a man unknowingly thrown into the driver’s seat and who helps to usher in the end of the world. Neill always has a knack for playing characters who teeter on the edge of insanity and who sometimes pull back and other times fall right in (check out Sam Neill in EVENT HORIZON).
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS was written by Michael De Luca, who also wrote 1991s FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE, and he takes what could’ve been a convoluted mess and keeps it sharp and focused. There may be a few places where you scratch your head, but if you stick with it, you’ll be greatly rewarded. A friend of mine who also watched this film recently thought it didn’t hold up well over all these years. I disagree with him. It is not a perfect film, but the story has the same impact in 2015 as it did in 1994. Solid acting, fun special effects, a terrific atmosphere, and some genuine scares makes IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS one of those films I revisit every so many years and enjoy re-watching. If you haven’t seen this film yet, by all means check it out. I think you’re going to like the energy and the Lovecraftian story. If you haven’t seen this film in a while, it is time to check it out again and remind yourself why John Carpenter is one of Horror’s Masters!!
Director: John Carpenter
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 5 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Scott Shoyer