In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
Leave it to horror master John Carpenter to make a film that is part loving homage to H.P. Lovecraft, part parodic social commentary, and part meta-narrational horror. Seriously. While Wes Craven would attempt a similarly themed narrative with his own meta-horror Scream, Carpenter arguably accomplished something weirder, more genre-defying, and more gleefully enjoyable than anything starring Neve Campbell.
Sam Neill is John Trent, an insurance investigator who starts the film being locked in an asylum as he raves about the end of the world. Interviewed by Dr. Wrenn (David Warner), Trent recounts his story. He was hired by a publishing house (run by Charlton Heston, no less) to find the author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), a best-selling horror writer whose latest novel In the Mouth of Madness promises to be a ground-breaking work of horror fiction. Accompanied by Cane’s editor Linda (Julie Carmen), Trent embarks on a journey to find Hobb’s End, the supposedly fictional town in New Hampshire where Cane may or may not have disappeared.
Anyone who has read Lovecraft will immediately recognize certain knowing nods and references, from the asylum opening to “Pickman’s Hotel,” from the titles of Sutter Cane’s novel to certain – ahem – old ones. Still, In the Mouth of Madness is by no means strictly for the fans. The story encompasses what it means to love horror, and to indulge in its dark plots of madness and apocalypse. It does this with a strong parodic edge, aware of itself even as it indulges the grotesque and the dark, serious underpinnings of fear. Cane’s novels supposedly drive “susceptible” readers to near frenzy, and Trent is a perfect candidate – a man who doesn’t believe in such things, yet stays up to all hours reading the books. Is the entire story a product of Trent’s madness (remember: he’s telling this from within an insane asylum), or has Cane’s work opened a facet of the human mind and the universe better left closed? As the film develops, layers of fictional and nonfictional worlds begin to overlap, and Trent’s experiences become more and more convoluted.
Neill is an excellent protagonist here: not quite likable, but not inherently unlikable either. Carmen has less to do, and actually gives the impression of being a bit more gone on Cane than she should be. But as with many horror films, the people are really just there to be enacted upon – the real star is horror, and how the film unravels that horror. Making a movie with a Lovecraftian setting is a difficult venture; Lovecraft’s horror usually lies in the unseen and the barely glimpsed. Carpenter manages it, though, giving us just enough fear beyond the realm of conscious thought, interspersed with ghoulish body horror. It’s an effective approximation of Lovecraft’s prose, and a powerful cinematic technique in its own right.
In the Mouth of Madness is like a fever dream, starting out with a certain element of realism and quickly descending into the realms of, well, madness. The conclusion is both chilling and just a little funny, its terror punctuated by a low-level of humor that brings out that fine line between the terrifying and the ridiculous. Carpenter has done right by Lovecraft, and that’s a feat unto itself.