Last month, I had the pleasure of attending a horror triple feature at the Egyptian Theater that was a part of an ongoing series known as “New England Nightmares.” To be perfectly honest, New England has always been the perfect setting for ghost stories and horrifying haunts. It is a landscape where an original way of life was ended in order for another civilization to build their foundation. There’s a kind of history amongst those Eastern shores that may not always be illuminated to the plain eye. Fittingly, two of American literature’s most stalwart horror writers, H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, hail from New England. Even more fitting, then, that the triple feature shown at the Egyptian were three films that revolved around those author’s works, either directly or indirectly. One of them, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, slyly combined the works of both authors in its very original story, taking full advantage of not only that ghostly New England setting, but of this impending sense that civilization as we know it may not be so tightly founded thanks in part to some frightful otherworldly elements.
Released in 1995, Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness has been labeled the third film of Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy, the other two films being his remake of The Thing from 1982 and his Quatermass tribute Prince of Darkness from 1987. Each of these are horror films of a different variety, each exploring a unique way for the world to fall into ruin. As part of an ongoing discussion, I will be writing up essays about each of the films in the Apocalypse Trilogy, working my way backwards towards Carpenter’s seminal work, The Thing – a daunting task in its own right but one that hopefully uncovers a wealth of riches when all is said and done.
In many ways, In the Mouth of Madness is a great place to begin this series, mostly because it’s the one film in the trilogy that comments directly on society’s tendency to withdraw in the face of difficult times. At the recent triple feature, Sandy King Carpenter, the producer of the film, discussed that John Carpenter had wished to direct the film based on his feelings towards the “state of the world.” This was in the mid-90s, and by the time In the Mouth of Madness went into production, the world had witnessed (and almost flatly ignored) the Rwandan genocide. In a rapidly evolving world where technology begun to play a bigger and bigger role in expounding news from around the world, it remains remarkable how resistant we remain to acknowledge the weight of certain situations, especially situations seemingly far removed from us. There’s a philosophy that if you don’t believe in something or think about it, then it can’t possibly affect you. But in reality all you’ve done is pull the wool down over your own eyes. This is precisely what In the Mouth of Madness is all about.
The slow, succumbing feeling of insanity has never been brought to life on film so accurately as it is here. Carpenter deploys a relatively straightforward plot while entangling it with a series of visceral shocks and unexplainable phenomena that dares us to try and accept it on any rational, logical level. In the film, an insurance investigator, John Trent (Sam Neill), is recruited by a publishing agency to try and find their prized author, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), who has gone missing just before he’s due to publish his latest horror novel, “In the Mouth of Madness.” Cane’s work is highly profitable and widely read. At one point, the publishing editor Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) says that more people have read Sutter Cane than the Bible, and that’s an important, frightful claim that will come back to haunt everyone. In an effort to find Cane, Trent and another editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) travel to Hobb’s End, a thought-to-be fictional town from Cane’s novels. Soon, the pair find themselves trapped inside the nightmarish town, a gothic sideshow of Cane’s creations brought to life. Even worse, Cane has found a way to influence existence altogether. His stories become literal reality now, and the world, obsessed with his novels, have given him the permission to do so.
The earliest passages of In the Mouth of Madness prime the viewer for the dark descent into madness, frequently using the well-worn but well-deployed horror tactic of characters believing they saw something that doesn’t really exist. Smartly, Carpenter disorients us as well, forcing the audience to view the world through the lens of several unreliable protagonists. We’re never sure if what we’re seeing is genuinely happening or is just the fabrication of wild imaginations. From the very beginning, Carpenter is having a discussion about how people perceive the notion of reality, but more importantly, how people may believe that notion can differ between each person. During the car trip to Hobb’s End, Linda tells John, “A reality is just what we tell each other it is.” By that logic, there is no governing principle for reality, no foundation that keeps it tethered. Maybe that’s exactly how Sutter Cane is able to infiltrate and influence billions of people, keeping them in the dark as he “rewrites” reality.
The church, and religion, play relatively large roles in the film as well, although they aren’t quite as prominent here as they are in Prince of Darkness. Whereas that film seeks to explore the infernal struggle between reason and faith, this film explores how religious iconography and foundations can easily be warped and misrepresented. Cane’s lair is a frightful black church. He has fancied himself as the head of this monolithic structure, the center of the universe. He corrupts the children of Hobb’s End, he has women murder their husbands, and he unleashes hellhounds upon angry mobs. Most tellingly, he explains his entire plan to John in the end while sat inside a confessional. There’s a discomforting intersection of religion and reality here, a comment on the ways society has rebuked the church as a pillar, removing it as a governing force, expanding upon how choosing our own realities provides us with no real tether.
In terms of horror, Carpenter takes a page from Lovecraft’s book, often suggesting something rather than outright showing it or confirming it. Consider a frightening scene where John runs down a seemingly endless tunnel, pursued by hordes of slimy, tentacled creatures who work for Cane. Carpenter deploys quick cuts and close ups, never showing us full details but clearly letting us know there’s something out there. That was always a staple of Lovecraftian horror, that we don’t have to see something to be horrified by its existence. It helps that Carpenter’s a skillful director, balancing very real visceral shockers with some deeply unsettling cerebral terror. We don’t have to see the apocalypse here to know how horrific it is, that’s just something understood because of the dreary, suffocating atmosphere of insanity that Carpenter works so hard to build up and successfully maintain.
There’s a frightening adage today where people will say something seemingly innocuous like “that’s not my reality.” In essence, people choose to ignore what’s happening around them, with some really believing that if we don’t give power to supernatural elements that seemingly exceed our grasp, then they cannot hurt us — nay, that they aren’t real as a result. This is the same kind of frightening thought-complex that kept the Rwandan genocide out of the public eye while millions suffered – as if the evil in this world and the next needs our permission to act upon our souls. Someone once told me that because they do not give the devil any power, he couldn’t do anything to them. Quite the opposite: because they’ve let their guard down by choosing to ignore what exists, they’ve unknowingly succumbed to that influence. This is the apocalypse that Carpenter is depicting here — one that slips right under our radars because we’re too obsessed with clinging to a false sense of safety, weak walls that we’ve built around ourselves, to realize there’s a very real battle happening around us.
When it was released in 1995, In the Mouth of Madness was largely ignored, but like most of Carpenter’s works, it has slowly been reevaluated as one of the best horror films of the 1990s. This seems appropriate, because despite the films shortcomings, most of which are the result of budgetary restrictions, there’s such a fantastic thematic core that continues to ring true today. It’s an underrated film, even in the canon of Carpenter, and it’s exciting to see that it hasn’t been forgotten years and years later. Our realities would be much poorer without this film in them.