After an incredible start as a filmmaker, John Carpenter started running into trouble in the ‘90s. The Chevy Chase led Memoirs of an Invisible Man was a total dud, though Carpenter was merely a hired gun. Returning to his roots in horror, Carpenter made In the Mouth of Madness, a Lovecraftian tale of terror. Despite the significant upgrade in quality over Memoirs of an Invisible Man, In the Mouth of Madness didn’t capture the affection of audiences or critics. In its opening weekend, the film ranked 4th, just behind The Jerky Boys movie. In the two decades since its release, In the Mouth of Madness has aged incredibly well, which explains why the film has earned a modest cult following.
Sutter Cane is one of the most popular authors working. He outsells Stephen King and readers are anxiously awaiting his next book. But there’s a catch: he’s gone missing. The president of the publishing house, Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), brings in John Trent (Sam Neill), a no-nonsense private eye. Trent is apprehensive about taking on the case as he believes it all to be a marketing gimmick. However, Trent’s mind is changed when he’s attacked by a random axe-wielding madman who asked, “Do you read Sutter Cane?” before being gunned down by police. When Trent learns that the crazed assailant was Cane’s manager, he takes the case. Teaming with Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), the duo travel to the idyllic New England town where Cane spins his tales of madness. In the town of Hobb’s End, the worlds of fiction and reality collide with terrible results for Trent.
The script by Michael De Luca, who had a story credit on Judge Dredd, is filled with allusions to the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Understanding the tone of the work perfectly, Carpenter doesn’t rely on simple jump scares. The film plays out in a slowly escalating manner of what-the-fuckedness. This is a film that embraces ambiguity when necessary. As he often does, Carpenter slides in his commentary upon those who find a correlation between violent art and real life violence, like the nightmarish visions that motivated Tipper Gore in the ‘80s. In one fell swoop, Carpenter takes the mantle of the mad creator Cane and the man driven mad by a world he didn’t create.
Providing journeyman work as usual, Sam Neill is a driving force in keeping In the Mouth of Madness a non-stop creepfest. His slow transformation from a reason-driven skeptic into a raving lunatic is slow and steady. Neill goes over the top, but not to the point of absurdity a la’ Nicolas Cage. Julie Carmen plays the role of Linda Styles as an opposite to Neill’s Trent. Where Trent is assured of the invalidity of Cane’s disappearance, Styles is assured that her terror is real. As the mad author, Jürgen Prochnow cashes in on the inherent creepiness of the German people. Francis Bay, best known as the grandmother in Happy Gilmore, has a brief but memorable appearance as the owner of a quaint bed and breakfast.
While it’s easy to say that In the Mouth of Madness is a minor film from John Carpenter, it remains likely the strongest of his later efforts. In its own quirky way, In the Mouth of Madness is about creative control and coming to terms with how little control you may actually have. In a nice little meta topper, Trent enters a movie theater and watches the film version of Cane’s novel, the story he’s just lived through. Trent sits through the movie like countless gorehounds out there, maniacally laughing at every little glimpse of horror. Seemingly knowing that the film wasn’t meant to be a mainstream hit, the theater that Trent views the film in is entirely empty. Then again, the world had devolved into chaos following the release of Cane’s novel. Had more people seen the movie, we very may well have dealt with the collapse of society. Carpenter has that effect on people.