In The Mouth Of Madness – John Carpenter – 1995


John Carpenter’s In The Mouth Of Madness is so easy to love. First off, my favorite type of story is a story about the power of storytelling because in its very nature the tale convinces you of the effectiveness of its own ability to enchant. Add to that that the film is essentially a love letter to King and Lovecraft by an American director who wears Master Of Horror on his sleeve as easily as anyone, and you have a recipe for success. It’s sad then to learn that the film was a severe flop upon its release, (like many now classic Carpenter films), only barely recouping it’s cost domestically. Which is a damn shame because this is one of his best efforts and maybe his last truly great film.

The film is told through a very Lovecraftian device that mutates into a King device later in the story. Initially we start with the ravings of Sam Neil, an inmate in an asylum. He recounts his descent into madness as all great Lovecraft characters do. Neil is an investigator specializing in fraud. The most famous horror writer in the world, Sutter Cane, has gone missing. It’s up to Neil to find him.

The film moves quickly from unsettling set piece to insane practical effects. As Trent goes looking for a town that does not exist, he finds himself drawn into the fiction, much like what happens in a number of King stories, (Secret Window for instance). The film handles these shifts with simplicity and Carpenter expects horror fans to keep up. I personally see this smart handling of the audience as an enormous plus, but perhaps it is one of the reasons the film didn’t find its audience to begin with.

Sam Neil is stellar as always. He really is in a class alone, and his cycle of reason to chaos is beautifully layered and nuanced. Cocky and arrogant at the beginning and mad as a hatter at the end, his performance is one of the reasons I always come back to this film. Another is the threat the film provides. Cane is using his fiction to change the minds of his audience. If enough people are convinced of his reality it becomes reality. The walls come crashing down and a wall of indescribable monsters loom just at the edges of our reality.

These monsters are created in this film in what is probably the best plethora of unnamable horrors ever committed to film. Carpenter mostly keeps them out of focus and we see them only in flashes, but boy, they are cool and numerous. All shapes and sizes, tentacled and clawed, these nasties pursue Trent back into what he thinks is reality.

Like The Thing, and Prince of Darkness before it, this third chapter of the Apocalypse trilogy focuses on people possessed by a singularity. In each film, individuals are driven by a radical outside influence, be it the thing, an ancient evil canister of green goo, or the writings of Sutter Cane, the fear of a mob of evil is not only natural, it is Carpenter’s bread and butter. Carpenter loves to beg intelligent questions of his audience.

How real can stories be? What influence does narrative have on the reader, particularly the readers/viewers of horror stories? If enough people are convinced of a false reality does your reality become false? What if we are but characters in a story, slaves to the writers’ ego? He packages all of these metaphysical gymnastics into a gory and sticky horror picture. The creature that the old lady becomes is one of my favorite movie monsters of all time!

By the time Trent gets back to the world from Hobb’s End, he begs Jackson Harglow, Canes’s publisher, not to publish In The Mouth Of Madness. Harglow tells him that not only did Trent deliver him the manuscript months ago, but that the film comes out in a few weeks. This news drives Trent to kill a Sutter Cane fan with a pickaxe, thus landing him in the asylum.

Flash forward. The asylum is empty. Trent walks out of unlocked doors into an empty world. He finds his way into a cinema with In The Mouth Of Madness on the marquis. He sits and watches the film. It is the film the viewer has just seen.

That the world is empty suggests that the film was a phenomenon, and where the book could only make people who read victim to Cane’s enchantment, the medium of film reached a much larger audience. And at that point, it was to late. The film is really about the concept that an idea, or a story can infect the world, and once the infection is rampant, there is no turning back.

Maybe it’s a good thing that no one went to see this movie when it came out. They might have all left the theater looking for a pickaxe.


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