John Carpenter brings us this story that manages to capture the madness and existential terror of H.P. Lovecraft.
John Trent (Sam Neill) recounts his story to his doctor, Dr. Wrenn (David Warner). Trent was an insurance investigator who was asked to look into a claim by a publisher called Arcane Publishing. When he was first given the request, he was attacked by a man wielding an axe asking if he reads “Sutter Cane.” He discovers that the insurance claim is regarding the disappearance of horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen “Das Boot” Prochnow), and that the axe-wielding man was Cane’s agent, who went mad from reading Cane’s work. Arcane Publishing’s director, Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), assigns Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), to help Trent find the missing author. Trent manages to piece together the covers to all of Cane’s books into a map to a location from Cane’s book called Hobb’s End. Styles and Trent head off to find it.
The two experience some disorienting phenomena on the drive, only to end up suddenly appearing in Hobb’s End. They wander around the town, finding characters and places from Cane’s novels, which Trent claims are part of a publicity stunt. Styles disagrees, admitting that the initial insurance claim was a stunt, but that the town was not part of it. Styles heads inside the church of the town trying to find Cane, who shows her his last book, In the Mouth of Madness. She quickly goes mad for him, literally and figuratively. A mob of the people in the town start to attack Trent, and he attempts to drive away, only to find that any attempts to drive out of the town only lead back into the center of the village. He crashes his car and wakes up next to Styles in the church. In the church, Cane reveals the truth of his work to Trent: Trent is one of his characters, created to deliver the manuscript of In the Mouth of Madness. Once the book is read by enough people, it will open a connection to an extradimensional realm of monsters who will destroy the world. Cane then rips himself open, becoming a portal to the monster realm. Trent escapes through the portal, with Styles staying behind, ending up in reality.
Back at Arcane publishing, Trent reports that he destroyed the manuscript and lost Styles. Harglow tells him that there is no Linda Styles. Trent was sent alone, the manuscript was delivered, the book has been published already, and a movie adaptation is set to come out soon. Trent, going insane with the realization, kills a reader of Cane’s work, getting himself committed to an asylum. After he finishes relaying the story, Trent awakens to find the asylum abandoned and evidence that monsters have overrun the world. Trent goes to see the movie version of In The Mouth of Madness, which is the same film that we just watched. Trent starts to break down when he realizes that he is, in fact, fictional.
This movie is part of John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy along with The Thing and Prince of Darkness. The three movies are about three different concepts of how the world could be destroyed, whether by aliens, by the devil, or, as here, by creatures beyond our reality. Unfortunately, this film is the middle child of those three, with The Thing towering over it as a masterwork in horror and Prince of Darkness being mostly forgettable. In the Mouth of Madness is in-between, with a ton of great and memorable scenes and ideas unfortunately inter-cut with a decent amount of forgettable filler. Hell, I didn’t remember some of it until this re-watch and this is like the 10th time I’ve seen this movie. Still, the good parts so far outweigh the bad that I have to recommend this movie for literally anyone that enjoys horror.
This is one of the best adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft on film and it’s not even a real adaptation. It’s hard to say that this isn’t a film absolutely dripping with love for his work, though. Sutter Cane’s books are all references to Lovecraft, including “The Hobb’s End Horror,” a clear nod to “The Dunwich Horror,” and the film’s titular book being derived from At The Mountains of Madness, one of the most central and broad works by Lovecraft. By playing up the themes of Lovecraftian horror without actually using the author, the film manages to use some of the best parts of it while also avoiding some of the more controversial aspects of Lovecraft’s work.
The racism. I’m talking about the racism.
The central themes of Lovecraftian horror, or cosmic horror, mostly revolve around the idea that humanity is so insignificant that all of existence is pointless or hopeless. Typically this is because of the revelation that the thing we call reality is only a small piece of it, and that we are surrounded by beings that are so much greater than us that their very presence means that all of humanity is rendered but a speck in the eye of the universe. When confronted by this revelation, characters in cosmic horror usually respond in one of two ways: madness or misanthropy. Either you go insane because the human mind isn’t capable of understanding things that exist in dimensions beyond our reality or you decide that the fact that these creatures are out there means that humanity needs to be destroyed by them. This movie has both of those reactions.
However, it adds in a layer that the main character’s existence, and eventually the existence of everyone in the movie, is rendered even more pointless than the Lovecraftian cosmic horror because they become aware that they are only characters in the movie that we’re watching. While the citizenry of Hobb’s end are fictional beings in a fictional setting, by having Trent enter into the “real” world and then witness the film that we’re watching, he becomes a self-aware character who is now aware that the story is ending. When the credits roll, he stops existing. Given the state of him at the time, perhaps this is a mercy. Much like in plays by Tom Stoppard, Luigi Pirandello, or Samuel Beckett, the existence of the self-aware character questions whether or not they have an existence beyond just the show itself, but here we have a character who was created as a fictional entity within the work of yet another character, who was given life in a higher-realm (the film) only for the purpose of bringing about its end. If this is confusing, that’s kind of the point. If you were in this film and facing what Trent is, you wouldn’t just be confused, you’d be standing on ground that doesn’t really exist. Your mind would shatter, like his does.
When it came out, this movie was not a hit. In fact, it pretty well tanked, much like The Thing. While The Thing has since been recognized for the work of genius that it is, In the Mouth of Madness is begging to be reevaluated by a newer audience. This movie came out in 1994 and the only adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft we’d had so far were the Re-animator movies that don’t really address any of those themes (though those movies are awesome). This movie tried to convey a sense of the hopelessness and overwhelming insanity that would be felt by someone living in a Lovecraft story, and that’s just not what people expect from a cinematic narrative. I’m not saying this is a perfect film; it definitely lags in a lot of places and should probably be 20 minutes shorter (though a decent amount of filler IS a Lovecraft trait), but it’s essentially trying to get the audience to imagine something that’s inherently unimaginable, and that’s a hell of an ambition.
Even at the time of release, though, people recognized the strength of Sam Neill’s performance and of Carpenter’s direction. The environment that the two create within the story is dripping with dread. Prochnow’s portrayal of Cane, while brief, is extremely memorable and powerful. The scenes of the impossible geography of the city of Hobb’s End still make me uneasy even now.
Overall, this is a great movie. It’s one of my favorite horror films, and if you’re a fan of the genre, you really need to take a shot at it yourself.
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