In the Mouth of Madness

This unspeakably horrific review of John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness originally appeared on Teleport City on October 27, 2009 – as a part of H.P. Lovecraft month..


Release Year: 1994
Country: United States
Starring: Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jurgen Prochnow, David Warner, John Glover, Bernie Casey, Peter Jason, Charlton Heston, Frances Bay
Writer: Michael de Luca
Director: John Carpenter
Cinematographer: Gary B. Kibbe
Music: John Carpenter, Jim Lang
Producer: Michael de Luca

My journey to reviewing this film was a long and tortuous one — but not for any of the reasons you’re thinking of. As Teleport City’s work experience boy, I have to not only put up with the constant torment of my betters, — the other day they sent me out for a left handed DVD remote (ha, real funny guys) — but I also get excluded from some projects. Here, let me explain how it all happened. Doubt of the real facts, as I must reveal them, is inevitable; yet, if I suppressed what will seem extravagant and incredible, there would be nothing left. At the beginning of October, at the start of the H.P. Lovecraft month, I walked into the Teleport City Viewing Centre and found the Keith and Todd were already there and locked in one of the viewing rooms.

I knocked on the door. Initially there was no answer, so I knocked again — a little louder this time. Finally the door opened marginally. Not enough for me to enter the room, but enough to see my colleagues. But something was strange. Todd, well he looked like Todd — always dapper. But Keith, well you know how he likes to live out the movies he watches? He was wearing a ram’s head as a hat, and had a white python coiled around his arm.

“What’s going on,” I asked.

“Nothing you’d be interested in,” Keith answered.

“How do you know?” I questioned feebly.

“Because it’s scary David. You know you don’t like horror films,” Todd interjected — almost sneering at me like I was some kind of freak.

“But don’t worry, Dave,” Keith continued, “we’ve queued up a Alberto de Martino Eurospy film for you in room two.” I almost fell for it and went off to watch the spy film. But then I though about it and it dawned on me.

“Hang on!” I blurted. “You guys are doing a feature, aren’t you?” Todd looked down at the floor sheepishly. I could tell I was right.

“We didn’t think you be interested,” Keith continued.

“Sure, I’m interested. What’s the topic?”

“Lovecraft,” Keith answered.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“H.P. Lovecraft,” Keith said. Then he looked at me kind of weirdly, when he could see that the name wasn’t registering with me. I shrugged. “David stick to your spy films for now okay?” The door was slammed in my face.

I wasn’t going to leave it at that. But I went and watched the spy film (naturally). Later that evening I returned to the Teleport City Viewing Centre only to find that my key no longer fitted the front door. Furthermore, a large, thick padlocked chain had been attached around the handles to the door. Clearly nobody wanted me poking around inside. Still, I was determined to acquire a DVD to watch and review.

Finding a ladder, I climbed up on to the roof. At this moment an unseasonal snowstorm had kicked in. As I clawed my way across the gabled rooftop I was buffeted by intermittent gusts of terrible icy wind; whose cadences sometimes held vague suggestions of a wild and half sentient musical piping, with notes extending over a wide range, and which for some subconscious mnemonic reason seemed to me disquieting and even dimly terrible.

Prying open the skylight, I lowered myself into the darkness. Stumbling about, I made my way to the lightswitch and turned it on. All my years of watching fantastical events and creatures on the cinema screen could not prepare me for what I saw before me. Keith and Todd had been busy. The viewing room had been converted into a makeshift laboratory and staked out on an examination table was some kind of creature. Clearly, it was amphibian, and probably adapted to long airless hibernation periods as well. Vocal organs seemed present in connection with the main respiratory system, but they presented anomalies beyond immediate solution. Articulate speech, in the sense of syllable utterance, seemed barely conceivable, but musical piping notes covering a wide range were highly probable. The muscular system was almost prematurely developed. The nervous system was so complex and highly developed as to leave me completely aghast.

Though excessively primitive and archaic in some respects, the thing had a set of ganglial centers and connectives arguing the very extremes of specialized development. Its five-lobed brain was surprisingly advanced, and there were signs of a sensory equipment, served in part through the wiry cilia of the head, involving factors alien to any other terrestrial organism. Probably it has more than five senses, so that its habits could not be predicted from any existing analogy. It must, I concluded have been a creature of keen sensitiveness and delicately differentiated functions in its primal world – much like the ants and bees of today. It reproduced like the vegetable cryptogams, especially the Pteridophyta, having spore cases at the tips of the wings and evidently developing from a thallus or prothallus. Or so I thought. But I didn’t really have time for this right now. I was looking for a DVD. Feeling alone, and slightly nauseated, I quickly searched the room looking for DVDs. Shunted against the far wall were the discarded television sets, DVD players and an assortment of disks. I grabbed the first disk I could reach. It was John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness and quickly made my retreat before I went insane.

All the above, of course, is my shameful little H.P. Lovecraft pastiche, borrowing heavily from At the Mountains of Madness (let’s be honest, ‘plagiarising’ – hey, stop throwing things at the screen and calling me a wanker!). I wrote it for two reasons. Firstly, to explain how feeble my knowledge of Lovecraft is (so please be gentle — stop throwing stuff!). And secondly, as it pertains to this review, although it is hard to gauge from the portions I have appropriated above — At the Mountains of Madness bares more than a passing resemblance to John’s Carpenter’s colourful chewing gum horrorfest The Thing.

The original The Thing (The Thing from Another World), credited to director Christian Nyby, but most film critics (and fans) suggest that Howard Hawks, who produced the film, was also the director, is the tale of a group of soldiers and scientists in the Arctic. There they discover a giant flying saucer buried under the ice. The film tapped into the McCarthy Communism paranoia that was prevalent at the time. However, John Carpenter, in his 1980 remake gave the film a darker, colder, and more foreboding edge. Special effects had come a long way by that time too, and Carpenter, in several set-pieces featuring ‘the Thing’ of the title presented some disturbing imagery. Obviously The Thing is not a Lovecraft story, but Lovecraft’s influence can clearly be seen in the way that Carpenter handled the material. The ’50s version may have been an anti-communist allegory, but this version was steeped in a sense of ‘horror’.

It’s territory that Carpenter returned to once again for the film In the Mouth of Madness. Once again it is not based directly on one of Lovecraft’s stories, but Carpenter and screenwriter Michael de Luca draw from the Lovecraftian well and tap into the Cthulhu mythology. But what do I know, I am just the ‘work experience’ boy.

As the film begins, a printing press is pumping out copies of a paperback novel called Hobb’s End Horror by a novelist called Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). On the back cover of the book, the follow-up novel, In The Mouth of Madness is promised to be ‘coming soon!’ Meanwhile an ambulance arrives at a Mental Institution with a new patient, John Trent (Sam Neill). Brought in, wrapped in a straight jacket, Trent is shunted into one of the padded cells. He claims that he is not insane, but he words fall upon deaf ears. Soon after his arrival a specialist, Dr. Wrenn (David Warner) comes interrogate Trent — to find out if he is insane, or simply a man looking for a place to hide. Trent begins retelling his story.

The film flashes back. Trent is a hot shot freelance insurance investigator. He meets his employer Robinson (Bernie Casey) at a coffee shop to talk about his next assignment. It appears that the insurance company is on the verge of paying out Arcane Publishing after the disappearance of the Sutter Cane, their number one cash-cow. Robinson is not sure if Sutter Cane has gone missing, or if it is just a big publicity stunt. As they talk, from across the street, a man walks out of a building holding an axe. He crosses the street and stands at the window of the coffee shop adjacent to Trent. Trent and Robinson, deep in conversation are oblivious to the axeman’s presence, that is until he smashes the glass with his axe. Trent falls to the ground. As the axeman stands above him, he asks, ‘Do you read Sutter Cane?’ Trent is unresponsive. The axeman begins to bring the blade down, but at that moment, he is cut down by a volley of shots from a police officer’s pistol.

After the drama, it’s off to work for Trent. He goes to Arcane Publishing to look into the Sutter Cane disappearance. There, he meets the head guy, Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) who explains that Sutter Cane disappeared two months ago, but sent two chapters of his new book to his agent only two weeks ago. Here, it is also suggested that Sutter Cane’s books have been known to have weird psychological effects on weak-minded readers. This is borne out by the fact that the axeman who had tried to take Trent’s head was Sutter Cane’s agent. It is suggested that the new book is so powerful, that it drove the agent insane.

Trent is not convinced. He thinks it is all some kind of scam. But he chooses to do a little research. On his way home, he stops at a book store and buys Sutter Cane’s previous novels. His idea that it is a hoax gains credibility when he realizes that if you rip the covers off Cane’s books, and cut around the line in the illustrations, that they in fact form a map. A map to the fictitious city of Hobb’s End – the setting for the last Sutter Cane novel.

Trent returns to Arcane Publishing to present his evidence. Harglow claims to be unaware of the hidden map of the book covers. All he wants is either proof that Cane is alive — which is good, because he can write more novels, and Arcane can make more money — or that Cane is dead. Then they can collect the insurance. But what is needed is proof. Trent decides to find Cane. To do this, he is going to follow the map to Hobb’s End. With the assistance of Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), an editor, from Arcane Publishing, Trent goes on a road trip to verify if Sutter Cane is really missing or if this is just one giant publicity gimmick.

The film is essentially a three act play; the first section looks at mass consumerism and marketing, and here the character of Sutter Cane (although we haven’t seen him in the movie, yet) is presented as a Stephen King like figure. The public is eagerly awaiting the publication of the next book — so much so, that the fans are rioting in the streets an destroying bookstores. Is this hysteria (or marketing push) any different to the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or even Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol (his follow up to The DaVinci Code)? I know they are different genres, but back in the 1980s, Stephen King was the man — he was the ‘Dan Brown’. There was no one bigger. Carpenter even made a film of King’s novel Christine. In the 1990s, when this film was made, some of the gloss had faded from King (I think it had moved across to John Grisham), but King was still big business.

The second act of this movie is the horror part in Hobb’s End — almost encroaching on quasi zombie territory. These are the films weakest scenes. Don’t get me wrong, they are effective and there is some good slimy monster effects, but this is old ground for Carpenter who has made so many classic horror films.

The third act is, if you’ll pardon my French, is the ‘mind fuck’. This is where the story rips the linear story-telling rug right from under you, and allows the viewer to wallow in some manufactured insanity. These scenes are probably too brief and Trent goes from a man fighting to hold on to his sanity to fully-fledged nutter within a few short scenes. This is coupled with Sutter Cane’s assertion that he has become God. Why is he God? He sells more books than the Bible, and if more people believe in him, then as the creator, he is God. Here the film turns conventional story telling on its head.
What New Zealand readers will already know, but the rest of the world may be oblivious to, is that we Aussies tend to claim artists, performers, and even race horses from other countries, as our own. For example; Mel Gibson — he was born in the US, but because he moved to Australia as a teenager and got all his acting breaks here, we claim him as one of our own. As a country New Zealand has borne the brunt of this creative theft. Some of Australia’s most prominent acting talent, are in fact Kiwis. Russell Crowe is a Kiwi, and so is Sam Neill (but we try not to hold that against him).

The thing about Sam Neill though, is that he is always working. He’ll do small Australian or New Zealand films, or he’ll do big Hollywood blockbusters. Naturally it’s the blockbusters that garner the attention, and usually in these films, Neill plays a likable ‘everyman’. He doesn’t get to many action roles. More often portrays thinkers (scientist types), and he often plays a father. Generally the guy is downright likable and morally upstanding. When he was doing promotion for the Australian crime flick Dirty Deeds, he claimed that he only took the role because he got to say ‘fuck’ on screen. This probably illustrates how middle-of-the-road and mainstream his image had become, and how he wanted to shake it up. (Then again, Neill could have just been joking because he also said that he took that role because Bryan Brown stood over him with a crowbar and threatened to break his legs!). But I digress.

Neill’s role in In the Mouth of Madness harks back to his first big break, which was as Damien Thorn in The Final Conflict. The film was the weakest of the three original Omen films, but Neill showed he could be charming, charismatic and devilish too. Here, as Trent, he is snide, sarcastic and cynical — not the nice ‘everyman’ we are used to. His job as an insurance investigator has made him this way after years of uncovering fraudsters and phonies. His view of humanity is somewhat jaded. Yet, somehow, he sees him self as being above this corruption. He also sees himself as a man grounded in reality — at least when the film starts. But then he slowly, after delving into Sutter Cane’s book, begins to have hallucinations. As the story arc continues these hallucinations become a bigger part of Trent’s life until they are in fact reality, and the vestiges of the real world are fantasy.

At the end, the film spins into a deliberate self-referential vortex, where the film In the Mouth of Madness tells the story of a book called In the Mouth of Madness, which is then made into a film called In the Mouth of Madness. Or more simply, the story suggests that the film that the viewer (in this case, me) is watching, is in fact the film version of the novel depicted within the film. Sound simple enough? And therefore, if the characters in the film go insane from reading the book, then by watching the film, the viewer (me) will go insane.

With that ouroborosian premise, there is no way that In the Mouth of Madness can end with a traditional ‘happy ending’ with equilibrium return to its natural state. But the ending is the right one for this film, leaving your mind to connect the dots of the fractured story line. But I don’t think there is a linear story thread to be found. The reality is what you make it. Now we come to the ‘Rox’ or ‘Sux’ part of the review. What did I think of In the Mouth of Madness? I enjoyed it immensely. The narrative, by necessity it choppy and the sum of the films parts don’t really add up to a whole, but a John Carpenter misfire is far more interesting and entertaining than many people’s successes.

And just to sign off on this review, I noticed a strange little bit in the credits, just after the section about ‘no animals were hurt during the making of this film…’ It’s Possibly Carpenter’s last word on the insanity that this film suggests that it invokes — and possibly, what waits outside once you’ve finished viewing the film. It said:

‘Human interaction was monitored by the Interplanetary Psychiatric Association.?The body count was high, the casualties are heavy.’

Did it say that, or did I say that. Or have I gone insane?

1 Comment Posted in Film, Film and Cinema
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One Comment

  1. Paula Ashley Black

    Thank you for the review. Very good job on an awesome movie.

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