Do you read Sutter Cane?
It’s become common belief that the ‘90s were a down time for director John Carpenter. While it’s true that after They Live Carpenter didn’t have any box office smashes, box office receipts are no true measure of quality. Scream Factory, the horror imprint of Shout! Factory, has dedicated themselves to reissuing the works of John Carpenter, be they universally beloved or overwhelmingly maligned. In their latest batch of new special editions, Scream Factory has issued the underseen TV movie Someone’s Watching Me; Memoirs of the Invisible Man, which is possibly the nadir of Carpenter’s illustrious career; and In the Mouth of Madness, Carpenter’s twisted homage to the works of H.P. Lovecraft and a film from Carpenter’s filmography that has grown in stature since it was met with a cool reception upon its release in 1995. Scream Factory revives In the Mouth of Madness with a new 4K transfer of this crazed, unique horror film which represents one of great movies from Carpenter’s later works.
Sam Neill stars as John Trent, an investigator that Carpenter himself compares to Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe in the audio commentary. He’s a freelance investigator often working for insurance companies, busting fraudulent claims. John Trent is a rational man. There’s no trick he hasn’t seen, no scam he hasn’t busted. So when he’s hired by an insurance company to investigate a claim from a publishing house whose top selling author has gone missing, Trent’s suspicions are piqued. After all, the missing author, Sutter Cane, is a horror writer who has created a bit of media fervor over his works, with reported instances of mentally unstable readers being oddly affected by the billion-dollar author who outsells Stephen King. With Cane’s latest book running behind schedule and with a lot of hype surrounding it, the entire ordeal sounds a bit too much like a publicity stunt to Trent. Cane’s publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) assures Trent that it’s not a prank and sends the investigator on the road with Cane’s editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) to find the missing author and his overdue tome.
Their journey in search for Sutter Cane takes them to the quiet little town of Hobb’s End. There’s just one little problem: no such town exists outside of the books of Sutter Cane. For Trent, this is just confirmation that everything is publicity hoax, an intricate recreation that will serve as tourist trap for Cane’s devoted readers. For Styles, this is a living nightmare, a physical manifestation of Cane’s delirious words. Eventually, Trent and Styles come face to face with Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), and the reality is that reality is not what it used to be. Hobb’s End is a town on the brink of reality, a cozy little burg that resides on the border of fact and fiction.
It’s not hard to see why In the Mouth of Madness didn’t find its audience on its initial release. First of all, it was released in the first week of February (the same week as The Jerky Boys movie), hardly a time known for horror films about tearing up the very fabric of reality. The box office patterns of 1995 don’t match up with today where smash hits like Get Out or Black Panther are released early in the year. Another aspect that led to In the Mouth of Madness struggling at the box office is the fact that it’s a horror film that has no interest in holding the audience’s hand. What is happening? Is this reality or is this fantasy? Those are questions that swirl around the mind of the viewer during this Lovecraftian nightmare but Carpenter and screenwriter Michael De Luca are uninterested in providing neat, simple answers. The lack of answers makes the film more and more unsettling as it gets weirder and weirder but also is something that general audiences often reject because it’s always so much more comforting when everything is explained with a nice little bow to wrap it all up.
In the Mouth of Madness is filled with horrific images of demons from beyond and murder most foul. Sutter Cane summons fantastical creatures from a realm unknown and the effects from the legendary trio of Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and Robert Kurtzman are stellar, be they demonic creatures or the bloody aftermath of murder. And yet most of the horror of In the Mouth of Madness comes from the existential doubt at the heart of the film. We’ve all seen monsters and murders on the screen before, but what’s terrifying is not understanding the very nature of the reality that you occupy. Is John Trent a person in the real world or a creation of hack horror writer whose words have transcended the very nature of existence?
How the film deals with the unanswerable questions of existence only escalates the terror, such as the scene where John Trent is dreaming on a bus after escaping Hobb’s End only to have the crazed author enter his dreams. “Did I ever tell you my favorite color is blue?” the author asks Trent before the investigator awakes from his dream to a bus overflowing with blue, as Carpenter utilizes some fantastic filters to shade the enter sequence in Sutter Cane’s preferred color palate. Carpenter further disorients the audience and the very nature of the film’s reality by having horrific moments repeat themselves with slight variations that amplify the mystery and horror. It’s a clever film that utilizes cinematic conventions to further its unsettling ambiguity.
In the Mouth of Madness also transcends its medium, and in turn becomes a fascinating commentary on fandom and how people interact with art. The film spends so much time on the idea of words springing to life with its mad creator run wild and in the film’s frenzied finale the words come to life in the most fitting way possible – Cane’s mad novel becomes a movie. As society has crumbled at the madness unleashed in Sutter Cane’s novel, John Trent finds himself at a movie theater playing the film based upon the book, which just so happens to the movie we’ve just sat through. It’s one of the great endings in Carpenter’s career, a whirlwind of demented delirium that practically breaks the fourth wall without a single character speaking to the camera.
The special features on this new edition of In the Mouth of Madness features two audio commentary tracks, a new one with Carpenter and his wife and producer Sandy King Carpenter as well as an old commentary track with Carpenter and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe. There are brand new interviews with Julie Carman, who plays Linda Styles, and makeup artist Greg Nicotero. Another feature is behind-the-scenes footage that Nicotero shot while making the film. As with Someone’s Watching Me, this edition also has a Horror’s Hallowed Grounds featurette where host Sean Clark features the filming locations in Canada. Rounding out the special features are an old making of featurette from the film’s initial release as well as trailers and TV spots.
Much like it took a while for John Carpenter to recognized as one of genre’s great filmmakers, it has taken a while for In the Mouth of Madness to be recognized as one of Carpenter’s finest works. Either way, better late than never. Now In the Mouth of Madness has its long overdue Blu-ray special edition that honors the film not as some kind of oddity but as the legitimately great film that it is. Scream Factory will continue to reissue Carpenter’s films with a new slate of releases announced at Comic-Con last month. If those upcoming releases are half as good as In the Mouth of Madness, they’ll certainly be another batch of special editions.