Like so much of my semi-recent foray into horror, John Carpenter’s last good film, 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness, came to my attention due to its Lovecraftian connotations. As the final installment of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (which also includes The Prince of Darkness and the classic science fiction film, The Thing), Madness is another direct riff on Lovecraft, channeling many elements of the old bigot’s style, tone and themes. Even the film’s title is a play on one of Lovecraft’s most famous texts, the riveting 1936 novella At the Mountains of Madness.
The craft on display throughout Madness is impressive, and it also makes one lament the fact that Carpenter’s career as a director would largely sputter to halt shortly after the failure of 2001’s Ghosts of Mars. With impressive editing, cinematography and lots of slimy monsters covered in withering tentacles, Madness merits at least one viewing by anybody interested in horror, Carpenter or Lovecraft. This is true even if the proceedings are let down slightly by the questionable work of Sam Neill and Jürgen Prochnow, and a middle section that feels like its stuck in the goop dripping off its cosmic horrors.
In Carpenter’s film, Sam Neill plays John Trent, an independent insurance investigator who is a beacon of rationalism. Over lunch with a friend one afternoon, he is persuaded to go interview for a job with Arcane Publishing, one of New York’s largest publishing houses. Arcane’s publishing director, Jackson Harglow (played by the wizened Charleston Heston), is desiring to verify the whereabouts of his most lucrative author, horror writer Sutter Cane, who has recently disappeared. Trent’s lunch is interrupted when an axe-wielding maniac breaks through the restaurant’s window and nearly kills him. But even after experiencing this trauma, and even after learning that the maniac was actually Cane’s agent allegedly driven insane after reading the author’s latest book, Trent still decides to attend the interview. He receives the job and, upon discerning Cane’s location, sets out to track him down with the help of Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen).
The pair drives to a place on the map that is alluded to be Hobb’s End, a fictional location where Cane sets many of his stories. Although neither Linda or John believe that the town exists, after a surreal night of driving, they stumble upon a Hobb’s End that, by all appearances, seems to be very much real. They then begin to investigate the local haunts, which inexplicably mirror actual locations described in Cane’s work, and eventually cross paths with the author himself, whose disappearance has a more nefarious purpose than anyone could have possibly imagined.
In the Mouth of Madness sets up the parameters of its story and tone with great efficacy. John and Linda’s journey to Hobb’s End acts as a showcase for Carpenter the stylist, and the results are genuinely unnerving and impressive. It’s not everyone who can take something as seemingly ordinary as a nighttime drive through rural New England and hurl it into the realm of the uncanny. Yet Carpenter achieves that here, and in doing so, he establishes the world of Madness as being one that truly lives up to its title.
Much of the credit comes down to editor, whose quick cuts create a disorienting cinematic reality, and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe, who is able to generate a sense of visual dynamism despite the limitations of the setting. In fact, Kibbe’s and Warschilka’s influence is felt in many parts of In the Mouth of Madness. Whether it be the amazingly stark long shots of a church that John and Linda investigate shortly after arriving at Hobb’s End, or the disjointed editing employed by Warschilka as John falls further and further into madness, the two craftsmen expertly convey the paranormal nature of the film’s world and the disintegrating mind of the story’s protagonist.
In the driving scene, one must also mention the eerie menace provided by Carpenter’s score. Although nothing will ever match the sheer memorability of Carpenter’s musical stylings in the original Halloween, the minimalist theme – which sounds like wind whistling through a metal pipe – that accompanies the driving sequence is incredibly menacing, complimenting and amplifying the unsettling, bizarre phenomena experienced by the characters. When taken together, this whole segment of the film functions as a case study for how, in horror, the mere suggestion of the unnatural, the uncanny and the weird is exponentially more effective than any visceral depiction of blood and guts.
Probably the greatest thing about the first quarter or so of In the Mouth of Madness is how seamlessly and inventively it gets the story up and running while simultaneously establishing a palpable tone of dread. However, unlike Carpenter’s masterful The Thing, Madness is unable to fully capitalize on these auspicious beginnings. Once the characters arrive in Hobb’s End, the story slows down and the “scares” become more conventional. From rabid dogs to deformed children with blood-soaked mouths, in its mid-section Madness feels like it loses a step or two, transitioning from the realm of uneasy, subjective dreams to objective nightmares. It also doesn’t help that, as the film’s lead, Neill never seems to be fully comfortable in the role, capturing nothing that feels like real terror or insanity. And while Jürgen Prochnow as the infamous Sutter Cane postures well enough as a Lovecraftian mad scientist, his deluded ramblings of how the doom that may await the film’s world, and the direct role he may be playing as a harbinger, is more obtuse than scary. More hair-raising is the performance of Julie Carmen, whose Linda undergoes a major change about midway through the film.
But even with this halftime lag, In the Mouth of Madness remains intriguing for how it interweaves Lovecraft’s mighty influence but also makes novel contributions to the author’s cosmicism. From the naming convention of Sutter Cane’s books and discussions of the “Great Old Ones” to the gradual destruction of the protagonist’s sanity upon his encounter with the unknown, Madness is full of both visual and verbal homages to Lovecraft’s corpus. Carptenter pairs these with meta-film touches, which bring the film to a compelling conclusion. These touches include a subtext that Hobb’s End, the events take place within it and even John Trent’s own identity are merely the aspects of Cane’s feverish imagination and features of his latest book, which is also called In the Mouth of Madness and slated to be turned into a film.
While its never made entirely clear what the exact rules are for this story-within-a-story format (like, is everything we’re seeing part of the story or just select elements), the approach allows Carpenter to explore Lovecraftian themes of human arrogance in the face of a still inscrutable universe in a more modern context. He suggests how our conceptualization of “reality” is often merely the product of our media consumption, signaling a bleak truism about human nature. Despite having made it to industrial/post-industrial state, and despite having elevated science and reason to being the dominant forces shaping human affairs, our grip on objective reality is, at best, tenuous. This is true at least when one is faced with the awesome, infinite nature of the cosmos, a dark void where humanity is insignificant and monsters may lurk.