This is the final installment in Fear Flashback‘s look at John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. What horrors await us all In the Mouth of Madness?
“God’s not supposed to be a hack horror writer.”
This is the third movie in Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy,” following The Thing and Prince of Darkness. More thematic siblings than a real trilogy, these three films all trade in a sort of collective nihilism – we’re all doomed, and how we go out is just a matter of details.
Where The Thing deals with personal destruction – like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the subsuming of self standing in for the eventual destruction of the human race by conversion – and Prince of Darkness deals with an invasion of our reality by an ultimate evil from outside, In The Mouth of Madness is about the destruction (or reconstruction) of reality itself. While you can fight aliens and even demons how do you fight a change in consensus reality? Especially if you’re one of the people creating it?
I was disappointed in In the Mouth of Madness when it came out. I feel like I say that a lot about Carpenter’s films, and that’s probably down to him having hit such home runs early in his career. Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Thing – these were movies that stood out, that became classics. That later films seemed to not quite reach those heights is probably inevitable, but I still feel a little bad about my reactions. It’s a little like lists of Stephen King books where The Stand always gets put in the number one spot. How does it feel to know people think you peaked so early? That nothing you’ve done since was ever quite so special? Probably not too good.
I’ve watched it several times since then and my assessment of it remains complicated. It’s a much better film than my first impression suggested, but I feel like it’s another Carpenter film where the budget and schedule led to a compromised vision.
I have a copy of the Warner Archives Blu-ray and the picture is decent. Carpenter has some great sets and locations to play with in this movie and they benefit from the clearer picture. Shout! Factory released a collector’s edition, featuring a new 4k scan and a bunch of extras. The Warner Archives edition has a lackluster commentary track and not much else, so Shout! Factory is the way to go if you’re looking to pick it up.
You can’t really talk about In the Mouth of Madness without at least mentioning H. P. Lovecraft. His influence is all over the film, from the title (reminiscent of At the Mountains of Madness) to Sutter Cane’s books (many of which are slight re-workings of Lovecraft titles) and even more specific references like the Pickman Hotel. If there’s a real genius to the film, though, it’s the way it manages to capture that sense of creeping cosmic doom that permeates Lovecraft’s work. The universe is vast and, at best, indifferent – and if we were to become aware of the things beyond our little corner we’d probably go mad.
The always watchable Sam Neill does a great job as John Trent, a freelance insurance investigator who is hired to investigate a claim by the Arcane publishing house. It seems one of their authors, the best-selling horror writer Sutter Cane, is missing. Convinced this is some sort of publicity scam, Trent wants to go looking for Cane.
Carpenter pulls a great trick on us by introducing Trent to us as he is at the end of the story, raving mad and confined to a mental institution. It’s a nod to H. P. Lovecraft and an unsettling note that follows us and Trent throughout the entire film. We know things go bad, just not how it got there or how bad it is.
Trent gets paired with Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) – his agent has already gone mad in a great scene involving a coffee house and an ax – and heads to New Hampshire to find Cane’s fictional town of Hobb’s End – the location for The Hobb’s End Horror (here Carpenter is throwing out another Nigel Kneale reference, Quatermass and the Pit again). Seems the covers of his books can be spliced together to form a map of the state – which I thought was a neat bit (I wondered what all those red lines were for). After a hallucinatory journey, conveniently only seen by Styles, they finally arrive in the eerily deserted town.
There are a lot of great horror moments along the way. The nightmares about the cop in the alley. The kid on the bicycle who will, apparently, be riding that bike his entire life. The old lady at the inn (and her poor husband). Carpenter does seem to really like the “wake from a dream only to realize you’re still in a dream” trick, but given the nature of the film’s reality and the way those payoff in better and better ways as the movie goes along, I’m willing to go along.
Things really get cranking when we finally get to meet Sutter Crane, a disturbingly cheerful Jurgen Prochnow. He claims to have created the town and its denizens, that his work is actually becoming real. And that his writing will open the door an ancient race of horrifying beings that intend to reclaim the earth. (Hey, it’s Lovecraft again!)
I enjoy Madness (I can’t use an acronym because it’s ItMoM, and that’s just silly), but like Prince of Darkness it doesn’t quite come together for me. It’s like a sneeze that never quite happens. Part of that is the budget. There aren’t enough extras, for one – every outside scene feels abandoned. One or two scenes of city streets filled with crazed Sutter Cane fans would go a long way towards creating the impression that things are falling apart. (The few scenes that are set in crowded city locations really pop – like the axe wielding madman at the coffee house.) The effects are also a little bit of a letdown. There are great ones – the back of Sutter Cane’s head is freaky perfection – but the ‘old ones’ are (wisely) never shown in detail because they’re not that believable. Even the transformed old lady in the inn comes off stiff and fake. It pulls you out of the narrative (and in the latter case is unnecessary, because she’d be ten times as creepy on her own with an ax).
The other part is just a sort of subjective dissatisfaction on my part. I just can’t quite buy the whole ‘rewriting reality’ thing. I love the idea of it – and there’s a scene with the publisher late in the film that I like a lot, where Trent discovers just how little control he’s had over things – but it’s all left a little too vague for my taste. I’d love to have a scene or two with Cane writing scenes that happen, or even rewriting things that have already occurred.
This time around, having watched all three of the Apocalypse Trilogy in a relatively short space of time, I was struck by the main difference between this movie and the previous two – that being that the apocalypse actually happens! In The Thing and Prince of Darkness we get the idea that the end of the world has been… postponed, at least, if not averted completely. At great cost, yes, but humanity survives. In the Mouth of Madness doesn’t give us that comfort. Reality is being rewritten, our hero goes mad while watching the same movie we’re watching. There’s no happy ending, conditional or not. I think that’s a direct result of our main character. Trent is a misanthrope whose opinion of humanity is pretty dire. “The sooner we’re off the planet, the better.” With that attitude it’s no wonder he can’t summon the wherewithal to fend off the reality Sutter Can is writing for him. I can’t image Mac taking that kind of bullshit lying down.
The Bottom Line
As always, I feel like I’m hard on Carpenter films because they’re so close to being great. It’s almost perfect. There are great scenes, ideas and performances. And I did like the movie a ton more watching it this time. I dunno, I just feel like a little more money and time would have benefited this film greatly. As it is we get a fairly good horror movie that has some interesting themes and set pieces, and that’s more than a lot of directors can give us.
The Bottom Bottom Line
So here we are – it’s the end of the end of the world! Hopefully you’ve enjoyed our little ramble along the edge of all there is. I certainly enjoyed the smell of brimstone and treacle and the creeping sense that my actions may not be my own. I think I’m going to like it here – though that may just be what THEY want me to think. See you next week for another cinematic horror!