Film Reviews

In the Mouth of Madness: John Carpenter’s Lovecraftian Mindfuck

This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch at least one horror movie a day. Today’s theme is H.P. Lovecraft, in this case an homage, not a direct adaptation: John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness.

Remember that movie Stranger than Fiction? You know, the one where Will Ferrell realizes he’s just a character in an Emma Thompson novel? Now, imagine that as a horror movie. Toss in Lovecraftian monsters, Sam Neill in his prime, and a little New Hampshire hamlet so creepy it would make even Stephen King start looking for the first exit out of town.

That’s In the Mouth of Madness, John Carpenter’s 1994 mind-fuck thriller about the potentially corruptive influence of horror novels and movies on the real world.

If that year and premise sound oddly familiar it might be because Wes Craven was up to something similar in ‘94. His New Nightmare took a very meta approach to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, re-imagining Freddy Krueger as simply the mask worn by an ancient, supernatural being given form and power by the popularity of the films. Underappreciated in its day, New Nightmare is now a cult classic. In the Mouth of Madness, in my estimation, isn’t as good, but it’s still a bit of a trip watching the godfathers of horror grapple with their responsibility as storytellers.

The plot, as described on the back of the VHS box: “Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow, The Seventh Sign) is the best-selling author whose newest novel is literally driving readers insane. When he inexplicably vanishes, his publisher (Academy Award-winner Charlton Heston) sends special investigator John Trent (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) to track him down. Drawn to a town that only exists in Cane’s books, Trent crosses the barrier between fact and fiction and enters a terrifying world from which there is no escape. Inspired by the tales of H.P. Lovecraft, this shocking story is, in the words of its acclaimed director, ‘horror beyond description!’”

Yep. I’m in this movie…for like two scenes.

The backstory is New Line executive and noted horror fanatic Michael De Luca wrote the screenplay in 1988 as a Lovecraft homage (the title is a reworking of Lovecraft’s At the Mountain of Madness) for Carpenter to direct. When he declined (“I was doubtful I could pull it off,” he would later say), the script passed from director to director before finally finding a match with Pet Sematary’s Mary Lambert. When she eventually dropped out, Carpenter took over and produced something which is incredibly faithful to the script. It’s thus a film which reflects both Carpenter and De Luca’s view on the old chestnut about TV, movies, and books creating killers.

In crafting that message, De Luca created a deceptively simple plot. For all of its twists, dream sequences, dreams within dreams, apparent time loops, and crazy, mixed up Lovecraft monsters, the story ultimately boils down to a man who starts out as one thing (cynical) and ends it as another (newly wise to the truth of the world).

Talking to Gilles Boulenger in the interview book John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness, the no-bullshit director keyed in on this aspect of Madness: “[Trent] doesn’t believe in this horror crap, and he doesn’t believe that a horror writer can become God, and suddenly he finds himself caught in this horror writer’s world, realizes it’s true and goes crazed mad from it. So it says both that horror is a kind of cheesy on one level but at the same time, if you’re tracking it, you can become crazy. That’s in the premise and I just pulled every bit of that idea out as much as I could.”

This does mean that for around 55 minutes of this 95 minutes movie, Sam Neill is stuck playing a bit of an arrogant prick. We meet him proudly busting a fraudulent insurance claim (“You want to pull a scam, don’t make your wife a partner. And if you do, don’t fuck around behind her back,” he slyly taunts). Two minutes into his job interview to help track down Sutter Cane, he bad mouths not just the author’s work but pretty much everything his prospective new employers (Heston and Julie Carmen as Styles) do for a living. Once he’s in Hobb’s Landing, he persists in the belief that it’s all just an elaborate PR stunt. They’re all just actors playing their parts, he rationalizes, even that nice old lady behind the counter who seems to have her desperate, dying husband chained to her ankle.

When Styles, who travels with Trent to the town, goes off on her own we quickly see that everything about this town is so wrong. Little kid armies shouldn’t be surrounding Styles in the middle of the night, for one thing. And they definitely shouldn’t look like this:

As a result, we learn the truth about Hobb’s Landing before Trent does, which lends his ongoing denials an interesting, potentially annoying dynamic. With any scenario like this, there’s the fun of being let in on the secret before the characters, but then there’s the risk of knowing the secret so long that it grows slightly annoying. Like, why isn’t this guy getting it yet? He doesn’t have to immediately leap to Stranger Than Fiction/Dark Half/New Nightmare territory, but Trent should at least accept the increasing strangeness in front of him. Instead, he clings to his cynicism for reasons that only become clear later.

Neill somehow manages to make this obstinance endearing, though, and when the WTF imagery is unleashed his reactions prove to be fairly priceless:

In the Mouth of Madness, however, is by Carpenter’s own admission “somewhat elusive as a movie.” It’s the work of a director laughing at the “won’t someone think of the children” horror critics. He’s poking them right back in the eye with a straight-faced, but hilarious-minded depiction of a horror book or movie being so popular it literally transforms its audience into hideous creatures, coming for the children first, of course.

It’s not perfect. There are too many dream sequences. The script rushes the explanation for how they end up in Hobb’s Landing. The meta-commentary and absurdist ending feel, at times, slightly underdeveloped. But it’s still a trip watching Carpenter do his best Lovecraft impression.

Favorite Line

“Reality is not what it used to be.”

A Brief Reflection on John Carpenter’s Career

Film critic Martin Sutton once described Carpenter as “basically a frustrated old-time studio contract director,” and anyone who’s seen the infamous curmudgeon interviewed knows that’s about right. As he has so often admitted, he never wanted to become a horror movie director – he wanted to make westerns instead. Howard Hawks was his idol, not Alfred Hitchcock.

And in the decade after Halloween, he managed to stretch himself and explore different genres. The 80s, as a whole, was thus a remarkably diverse period for him: The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness and They Live. Repeated financial failures, however, limited his choices after that, leading to two decades of remakes (Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Village of the Damned), sequels (Escape from L.A.), and whatever you call Vampires and Ghosts of Mars.

Now, he’s a literal rock star touring the world, and he’s been giving conflicting reports to the press about whether he’ll ever make another movie. There might be a Prince of Darkness TV series, maybe even a They Live 2. Or he’ll just keep touring and be his old, badass self. For now, though, it’s relatively safe to say In the Mouth of Madness will go down as one of the weirdest entries in his filmography. Weird in a good way, of course, but weird nonetheless.

In the Mouth of Madness is currently available to stream for free with ads on Vudu in the United States. Scream Factory also put it out in a new Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray earlier this year.

Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far:

Tomorrow: Stuart Gordon’s classic Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator

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6 comments

  1. On the other hand, In The Mouth of Madness you’re cleverly left wondering whether there were ever really ancient evil beings that set it all in motion or if humanity created them through their mass belief, while New Nightmare bluntly tells you “it’s definitely just this one evil dude behind it all” and you better watch out because if he gets loose he’ll stab AT LEAST 3 OR 4 PEOPLE!

    1. Better concept (in the mouth of madness), weaker execution. New Nightmare feels like a personal film for Wes Craven to me; In the Mouth of Madness feels less so for Carpenter. In his telling, he was just executing De Luca’s vision.

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