John Carpenter‘s 1994 film ‘In The Mouth Of Madness’ is at once an homage to the creeping, cosmic horrors of H.P. Lovecraft and to the time-twisting, film noir world of David Lynch, combing these two seemingly disparate elements into one of the 90’s favourite Horror films. While the film has many champions (Director Ari Aster said ‘In The Mouth Of Madness’ was one of the most influential films to his style and one of his favourite films), sadly it’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as Halloween, Christine or The Thing, Carpenter’s arguably more iconic genre contributions. Written by former head of New Line Cinema Michael De Luca in the mid-80s, ‘In The Mouth Of Madness’ was specifically offered to Carpenter, but initially the director rejected the job, with Hellraiser 2’s Tony Randel attached. Fortunately for Horror fans, the timing didn’t work and it bounced around until De Luca and Carpenter were, in 1992, able to secure a modest budget and the time needed to re-write the script to Carpenter’s vision. What they delivered was a wild ride where the lines of reality and fiction, sanity and insanity blur under the tightening screws of a pulpy, hard-boiled detective story. With so many influences at play, ‘In The Mouth Of Madness’ is both one of Carpenter’s darkest films, as well as his most fun to watch, and as with most of Carpenter’s work, the film has received a cult following and has gained more positive reviews in recent years than it’s box-office bomb release, making it pretty much required viewing for any Horror fan and an iconic addition to our 31 Days Of Horror selections.
The third movie of Carpenter’s loose Apocalypse Trilogy (Which includes “Prince Of Darkness” and “The Thing”), ‘In The Mouth Of Madness’ starts with cynical, skeptical insurance agent John Trent (played by the always amazing Sam Neill) who we meet after being committed to an asylum, proclaiming not to be crazy. He is then introduced to Dr. Wrenn (David Warner in a great little cameo, one of many memorable character actors who pop up throughout) who hears Trent’s story about the events that led to his current situation. Unfolding in an extended flashback, Trent’s been hired to find Svengali-like novelist Jürgen Prochnow as Sutter Cane , currently the #1 Horror writer in the world, who’s disappeared along with his latest manuscript. His publisher, Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston!) at Arcane Publishing (one of many fun Lovecraft references peppered throughout the film) wants to know if it’s a hoax to build publicity, or if their golden goose really has flown the coup, which is strange because Trent’s just been attacked in broad daylight by an axe-wielding ghoul spewing those immortal words: “Do you read Sutter Cane?”. The publisher assigns Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), to accompany him. Linda explains that Cane’s stories have been known to cause disorientation, memory loss and paranoia in “less stable readers”, and that the man who attacked Trent earlier was Cane’s agent.
As his waking dreams become increasingly horrifying, Trent notices that lines hidden on Cane’s book’s covers form the outline of New Hampshire and mark a location alluded to be Hobb’s End, the fictional setting for many of Cane’s works. They set out to find the town. Linda experiences bizarre phenomena in a surreal, Lynchian sequence during the late night drive, and they suddenly arrive at Hobb’s End in daylight. Trent and Linda search the small town, encountering deformed people and bizarre landmarks believed to be as fictional as Cane’s novels. Here the film suffers it’s only, and brief, lag in action, as the two detectives puzzle through the clues Cane’s left behind. Quickly though, ‘In The Mouth Of Madness’ shifts gears again into the final act’s fever dream of 4th-wall breaking, tentacled monstered madness, with far too many twists to go any further in revealing the plot if you’re one of the few who’ve not yet seen it.
One of Carpenter’s most technically impressive films, the effects from KNB (including Evil Dead’s / Creepshow’s Greg Nicotero) are amongst some of the last great practical puppets put to film, buttressed against some, at the time, impressive work from Industrial Light & Magic, and of course, we get another synth-soaked Carpenter score for the film, including his wildly goofy heavy-metal intro that ..somehow.. works perfectly to set the film’s tone. Shot in Toronto by longtime collaborator Gary B. Kibbe (who shot Big Trouble In Little China & They Live!), the film oozes that John Carpenter aesthetic in its excellent use of lighting, shadow and location, while simultaneously keeping the “fictional” feel of ‘In The Mouth Of Madness’ story intact, making great use of local landmarks and clever set dressing in the apocalyptic final act. By bringing together two major influences in style under one story, Carpenter left a lasting legacy with one of his final great Horror films.
‘In The Mouth Of Madness’ is not perfect, but it is very, very close, and if you haven’t seen it yet, there’s really no excuse. Available on a fantastic Blu-Ray re-release from late last year, as well as on Shudder, you can check out the trailer below to put you in the mood for madness.