In the Mouth of Madness
John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy follows a natural progression. “The Thing” shows an apocalypse beginning, the origins of the end of the world. “Prince of Darkness” is an apocalypse in evolution, one shut down just before breaking loose and even then, only being prevented. “In the Mouth of Madness” is the pay-off to that build-up, a movie that promises Armageddon and delivers. This is how the world ends. And it’s awesome.
“Prince of Darkness” wore its influences on its sleeve. “In the Mouth of Madness” continues this pattern. Lovecraftian elements bled through each chapter of the trilogy but this film takes them much further then any of the others. A good portion of the film is set in a sinister New England town called Hobb’s End, a place that is clearly just a short drive from Arkham, Dunwich, or Innsmouth. Like Innsmouth, the town’s citizens become involved in occult rituals before becoming something other then human. The old woman who runs the local hotel is Mrs. Pickman. Moreover, the film is awash in Lovecraftian visuals. Squamous, eldritch horrors squirm with tentacles and rows of gnashing fangs, just outside the frame of our reality. A painting in the hotel, one of the creepiest elements in the film, progressively grows more disturbing. The happy couple develops the Innsmouth Look, something appearing in the water. Next we see the painting, the man and woman have changed into crawling, octopus-headed monsters, a black church rising from the waters, the appendages of something big in the sky. Most blatantly, the Old Ones themselves are named dropped.
The Lovecraft element goes deeper then just cribbing the author’s style and aesthetic. The film addresses the author’s favorite theme of madness. Violent insanity takes over the entire world in this film. While Lovecraft always stopped just short of showing society totally ripped apart by madnes,. Carpenter dives right in. Moreover, the movie explores the relationship between author and reader, reality and fiction. Millions of people reading the same story make it true, whither they believe in it or not. That belief drags the author’s world out of his own head and into our reality. From a subtext level, “In the Mouth of Madness” is one of Carpenter’s richest films.
At the beginning, “In the Mouth of Madness” almost seems like it will play out like a detective story. Sam Neil’s insurance investigator is presented almost like a hard-boiled P.I., cynical about the world, always getting his man. This is shown in a wonderful scene where Neil breaks down an arson-fraudster with ease. He is hired by a publishing house to track down Sutter Cane, a writer of cosmic horror stories and the best selling author in the world. He’s gone missing and Neil’s quest to find the man soon brings him to Hobb’s End, a town that seemingly only exist in Cane’s head. After that, the line between fiction and reality begin to blur, bleed into and over each other. Neil remains skeptical until he comes face-to-face with the otherworldly horrors, which is probably the reason why he’s resistant to the mind-shattering insanity virus for so long. The same virus that eventually destroys the world. By the end, the film’s meta elements come full circle. The viewer is left to wonder just how much of this fiction is fiction within the fiction.
All this talk of creeping dread and the end of the world wouldn’t matter much unless the film was actually scary. Luckily, the movie is chock full of horror of all different sorts. The creature effects are comparable to “The Thing.” The slimy, slithering monsters are only ever seen in quick glimpses, briskly edited montages of creepy images. The combined effect is unnerving. This is employed several times, each time the horrors growing closer. My favorite moments involves Neil catching a glimpse of Mrs. Pickman in her basement, now more monster then human, a bloodied axe swinging through the air. The film’s main theme is visually illustrated when an author pulls himself apart, pages of a book tearing apart, tearing the walls of reality apart too.
Aside from Lovecraft, Carpenter pays due to the other masters of horror. The careening camera angles in the opening asylum sequences remind me of Argento, as do the close-ups of thrashing blades. Stephen King is referenced by name and Sutter Cane himself seems at least partially based on King. (The Lovecraft elements and meta devices are things King would probably do, too.) The scene of Neil’s love interest twisting herself into a four-legged monstrosity, bones cracking, creaking around, wouldn’t be out of place in a David Cronenberg film. If it wasn’t made three years before, I’d say the close-ups of yellow road lines passing through the headlights is a reference to David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” Either way, parts of the film drip with surreal, Lynchian atmosphere. The long sequence of a boy/old man on a bicycle is there for no reason beyond it’s freaky. “In the Mouth of Madness” captures Lovecraftian creepiness the best since “Possession,” which it seems to wink at a few times. Aside from both films starring Sam Neil, both share a shot of a monster in a person suit standing behind a glass door, an evil force pushing through from one side to another.
The movie indulges in some traditional horror elements from time to time. Neil seeing a cop beating a man in an alley-way is creepy. When it’s repeated in a nightmare, it’s creepy if a little overdone. When Neil wakes up in a nightmare within a nightmare, it gets a little silly. Luckily, the film’s further use of jump scares are a little better. The only horror element that doesn’t work is the Hobb’s End townsfolk being consumed by the evil forces. The make-up is great and, as long as the shots of deformed people are confined to quick edits, they work. However, kids with creepy voices and messed up faces lack the subtle creepiness the rest of the film employs. It might not sound like it but “In the Mouth of Madness” has a darkly comic vein running through. A muzak version of the Carpenters is well-used and a long held shot of an axe wielding maniac walking towards our protagonist is both creepy and oddly funny.
Sam Neil does a great job in the lead, running the gamut of emotions. He maintains an oddly funny edge throughout while never undermining the horror of the situation. Jurgen Prochnow is very creepy as Sutter Cane, doing a lot with just a malicious glance or grin. Julie Carmen is probably the weakest of the leads but she has the tricky goal of playing someone being manipulated by other forces. This considered, I suppose she does an okay job. Charlton Heston, David Warner, and John Glover all stop by for amusing cameos, each one playing the kind of part you’d expect. And a bit of praise must go out to Frances Bay, probably better known as Happy Gilmore’s Grandma, as Mrs. Pickman. She’s the nastiest old lady you’re likely to see in any horror movie and she does it without ever raising her voice.
Powered by one of my favorite Carpenter scores, “In the Mouth of Madness” is the director’s last masterpiece. Genuinely creepy, packed full of plenty of content to chew over, darkly funny, and deeply clever, it’s an underrated and underseen chiller from one of the weakest decades for horror. [Grade: A-]