In the Mouth of Madness 25th Anniversary Retrospective
This year marks the 25th anniversary of John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, so what better time to look back at one of Carpenter’s most underrated, sadly misunderstood, and criminally overlooked gems in his filmography.
John Carpenter’s seventeen-year stretch, writing, directing and producing films from 1978 all the way up to 1995 is easily the most impressive of any American genre filmmaker. After making Dark Star, a 1974 low-budget Sci-Fi movie that went largely unnoticed, the legendary filmmaker went on to direct various classics including Assault on Precinct 13, They Live, The Fog, Christine, and yes, the 1978 slasher Halloween— a historical milestone that single-handedly shaped the future of an entire genre. It wasn’t until 1982 however, that Carpenter would direct The Thing, his first theatrical film for a major studio (Universal) and the first part of what Carpenter would later dub the “Apocalypse Trilogy”. Over the course of the following twelve years of his career, Carpenter would go on to make the remaining two movies that would comprise this unofficial trilogy: Prince of Darkness (1987) and his 1995 sleeper, In the Mouth of Madness.
Reality isn’t what it used to be…
There tend to be two camps in Carpenter fandom, one which lauds In the Mouth of Madness as a masterpiece, the other which claims it’s an incoherent mess that set his career down a path in which he would continue to make one bad movie after the next. The truth, however, lies somewhere in between. In the Mouth of Madness is far from a masterpiece but it’s easily the last great film directed by John Carpenter, and while it doesn’t fire on all cylinders, it’s one of Carpenter’s most diverse films, filled with bizarre psychological twist and turns, and plenty of memorable scenes bursting with wild imagination.
In the Mouth of Madness Cinematic Influences
In The Mouth of Madness is just one of many movies from the ’80s and ’90s that taps into Hollywood’s fascination with exploring the line between fiction and reality and sanity and insanity. I wouldn’t be the first to mention how it bears a resemblance to other films of the time including A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Videodrome, and The Dark Half, to name just a few. In Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street, for example, the dream world provided the doorway into Freddy’s world. In Hellraiser, it was a puzzle box guarded by Pinhead that opened another dimension. In David Cronenberg’s masterpiece, viewers become incapable of distinguishing the difference between reality and fantasy as they slip into a hallucinogenic state of mind when watching the Videodrome signal. In George Romero’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Half, the ultra-violent novels of a respectable author soon come to life and haunt him. With, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, the entryway comes by way of novels written by a hugely popular pulp horror novelist whose work takes on the power to alter reality.
Written on spec by New Line Cinema exec Michael De Luca, In the Mouth of Madness follows John Trent (played by the great Sam Neill), a psychiatric patient who recounts his tale of descent from no-nonsense freelance insurance investigator to raving lunatic. Structurally the film borrows extensively from Don Siegel’s 1956 classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which to be fair, is a structure frequently found in the work of H. P. Lovecraft). It begins with our crazed protagonist locked up in an asylum and unfolds as an extensive flashback seeking to explain his current predicament. We quickly learn Trent was hired by the head of a publishing company (played by Charlton Heston) in hopes that he could locate their missing star writer, Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) and recover the unfinished final chapter of Cane’s new novel titled, Horror in Hobb’s End. Cane’s books are said to make some readers suffer extreme psychological and physical side effects such as disorientation, memory loss, and paranoia— and it doesn’t take long before Trent notices how much of an impact the writer’s books have on his fans. With the delay of his latest (and final) novel, his rabid fanbase grows more and more anxious by the day, and soon, his legion of fans begin to break out in mass hysteria. At first, convinced it is all just an elaborate publicity stunt, Trent quickly discovers the boundary between fiction and reality is thinner than he had realized.
Good Horror Holds Up a Mirror to our Society
From there, Carpenter takes us on a wild rollercoaster ride, the outcome of which is a hypnotic blend between cool, sophisticated and deeply unsettling as it examines our often unhealthy and obsessive relationship with pop culture, something more apparent and relevant today than at the time of its release. Cane as it turns out, is a hybrid of Lovecraft and Stephen King, combining Lovefraft’s literary sensibility with the King’s popularity which has garnered him a massive loyal cult-like following. In the Mouth of Madness is, therefore, not just a love letter to the late H.P. Lovecraft and his tales of cosmic terror, but also an assiduously visceral examination of the influence fictional worlds can have on the population at large. What if a popular novelist was able to tap into this hive-mind consciousness, to the point that his reality becomes interchangeable with our own tangible existence? Well in this world, Cane’s fans are slowly losing their minds because the author isn’t just writing books— he’s actually writing reality.
It’s no secret that In The Mouth of Madness is heavily inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft but according to Michael De Luca, the very plot outline of In the Mouth of Madness (minus the elements of cosmic horror) was greatly inspired by the trajectory of L. Ron Hubbard’s claim to fame. Hubbard, a pulp fiction novelist of the 1950s, went as far as founding the Church of Scientology, a religious movement based on his own fictional writing. And his readers followed suit. Here, Sutter Cane basically acts as a stand-in for any feverish beloved artist, especially those that inspire wild fan theories and lore-driven phenomenon and while the film never traditionally establishes a cult or follows the conventional structure of a cult-like narrative, it clearly questions the power and influence a work of fiction can have. Much like, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, which has a lot to say about the danger of media overexposure and its effect within, In the Mouth of Madness views how people are not only influenced by media but how they can also become addicted to it. At one point, Styles tells Trent: “What scares me about Cane’s work is what might happen if reality shared his point of view. Reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane were to become a majority. You would find yourself locked in a padded cell, wondering what happened to the world.” I once heard someone say, In the Mouth of Madness does for fiction what Videodrome did for television. Not only do I agree, but I think like Videodrome, John Carpenter’s film was in many ways ahead of its time.
John Carpenter’s Direction
What stands out most when rewatching In the Mouth of Madness, is John Carpenter’s direction and how he manages to create a thick unsettling atmosphere of anxiety, confusion, and unease despite some questionable performances from the supporting cast. Aesthetically, this one of Carpenter’s best-looking films thanks to Gary B. Kibbe’s gorgeous cinematography and the director’s use of a 22mm wide-angle lens. There’s plenty of memorable imagery to boot, such as the painting on the wall where the figures come to life; the overhead view seen inside the hotel (apparently Sam Neill’s idea); and the infamous shot of a Russian Orthodox church shown in the background that many believe to be a matte painting due to how dreamlike it looks. Speaking of which, Carpenter uses some effective jump scares throughout the film such as for the dream-within-a-dream sequence and the now-famous sequence in the diner which sees a blood-stained, crazed, axe-bearing psychopath walk out of a video store, cross the street and smash his way through the window of the café. It’s in this scene that Carpenter efficiently introduces one of the film’s major themes by taking a sly satirical jab at the whole debate concerning the effects of fictional violence on society. Carpenter is obviously having fun with the notion that conservative watchdog groups would have you believe that certain films, literature, and other forms of art can cause people to do evil things.
Not only is every shot so well composed but Carpenter and his crew were clearly thinking outside of the box when devising a number of particularly chilling moments such as the nighttime drive along a country road haunted by a lone cyclist (a young Hayden Christensen) or the sweet old hotel clerk Mrs. Pickman (Frances Bay), hiding dirty secrets in the basement and handcuffing her naked husband to the front desk.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the special effects have aged wonderfully due to the liberal use of practical work, animatronics, miniatures, and some good old-fashioned rubber suits. The sequence in which John Trent is frantically running away from a large group of otherworldly abominations, for example, was brought to life by a so-called “full-sized wall of monsters,” which required over thirty puppeteers to operate. The film conjures an impressive array of other creatures as well; raving mobs, creepy children, and Cane himself in classic mad scientist form. I especially love the shot where Julie Carmen’s Linda exits the car with her head spinning around like Linda Blair’s Regan in The Exorcist (an effect accomplished by having a contortionist stunt-double wear an up-side-down prosthetic mask of Carmen’s face). Needless to say, the special effects in this movie are easily some of the best work by Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and Howard Berger; three men who have since become legends in the industry.
There’s a lot to appreciate in Michael De Luca’s unpredictable script, inspired partially by H.P. Lovecraft and Luca’s own real-life experiences walking the seedy downtown streets of New York City. In fact, it’s hard to believe John Carpenter initially turned it down, not only because it’s a great script but because he himself, is a huge Lovecraft fan and proved to be the right man for the job. What’s even more surprising is learning that the most iconic and thematically resonant image from the film was actually rewritten due to budget limitations. Of course, I’m referring to the climax in which Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) finishes his book and informs Trent that he is a character in the novel and that Trent will ultimately be the gateway in delivering the manuscript to the world. As Cane approaches the doorway to the other realm, he rips himself in half, like tearing a page from a book, thus opening a black hole. In the original script, the whole town is swallowed up into Cane’s book but since New Line Cinema cut their budget from $15 million to $8 million, the effects artist over at Industrial Light and Magic had to get creative and brainstorm a different ending. Thankfully, their idea not only works, but there is arguably no other scene in the film that better embodies that spirit of the movie. As John Trent and Sutter Cane exchange their final words with one another, Trent’s so-called reality is literally torn apart.
The Hardboiled Detective & Ending
Say what you will about the rest of the cast, but Sam Neill is truly excellent as the jaded, chain-smoking insurance investigator with his Humphrey Bogart twitch and hardboiled detective persona. In the Mouth of Madness may be a psychological horror film but it pulls from the pages of classic noirs with Sam Neill delivering tough-guy lines like, “Lady, nothing surprises me. We’ve fucked up the air, the water, we’ve fucked up each other. Why don’t we finish the job by just flushing our brains down the toilet?” Here, the whole concept of the movie rests on his shoulders but he’s fascinating to watch as a skeptic who is finally presented with a challenging case that will truly test his sanity.
In the Mouth of Madness is a film that relies heavily on an unreliable narrator, but Sam Neill does such a great job, it completely works to the film’s advantage. In fact, the biggest conflict of the movie is really the internal struggle Trent falls victim to. Cane’s work is effectively acting as a gateway drug but because Trent is unwilling to listen to that which can’t be explained, he chooses to ignore it. Thus, Trent’s greatest strength, which is his intelligence to see past fabrication and lies turns out to also be his greatest weakness since his bizarre journey pits him against his own logic keeping him blind to the truth until it’s too late. In the end, Trent escapes his cell and wanders the deserted city until he happens across a cinema bearing a marquee and a poster for the movie we have just watched. Trent enters the cinema and as he watches the film, he begins to laugh hysterically. In that final moment, it becomes clear that the film is not about fiction crossing over into reality; instead, it’s about someone realizing that their reality is a fiction. If the film is the film within the film than it is also an adaptation of the book— therefore everyone who read the book or has seen the film within the film was driven mad by the knowledge that once the story is over, they cease to exist.
One would think, In the Mouth of Madness was surely a box office hit considering it was directed by the legendary John Carpenter and starred Sam Neill who was fresh off the heels of the success of Jurassic Park. And if not, one would assume In the Mouth of Madness was at least critically acclaimed— only the numbers say otherwise. As of writing this, In the Mouth of Madness holds a 59% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and it only grossed $8,924,549 theatrically, turning a small profit worldwide after it became available on home video. It’s a shame really, since more often than not, when I ask someone if they’ve seen the film, they usually answer no. Twenty-five years later, it is apparent that this closing installment of the acclaimed director’s self-described “apocalypse trilogy” is one of his most underappreciated films. In the Mouth of Madness, is a stylish, clever horror romp and one of Carpenter’s most thematically complex pieces of work. In the end, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness not only ages well, but it is just as fun to watch on a second or third viewing.
There are many peaks that punctuate John Carpenter’s directorial career. In the Mouth of Madness is one of those.
For more on John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, be sure to check out the latest episode of the Sordid Cinema Podcast.
- Ricky D