In the Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter, 1994)

by Douglas Buck September 16, 2018 6 minutes (1385 words) 35mm Cinémathèque québécoise

“Every species can smell its own extinction. The last ones left… won’t have a pretty time of it. And in ten years, maybe less… the human race will just be a bedtime story for their children; a myth… nothing more.”

Locked away in a psych ward, having marked crosses all over himself and the rubber walls in an attempt to ward off an apocalyptic evil he knows is coming, recently top-notch insurance fraud adjuster John Trent (Sam Neil) tells the tale to a visiting doctor (David Warner, one of my favourite always-a-bit-seemingly-mentally-fragile character actor) of how he ended up here. Hired by a publisher (Charlton Heston, who — yes yes — we all know he ended up a bit gun-toting crazy near the end… but what a supremely cinematic presence he was!) to retrieve the last manuscript owed to his company by the suddenly vanished massively successful best selling horror writer Sutter Cane (the pockmarked-face Jurgen Prochnow, who has been exuding creepiness as long as they’ve been typecasting him in these evil roles; that is, ever since being introduced to American audiences as the ill-fated U-boat captain in the profoundly impactful German anti-war film Das Boot).

I walked out of the Cinémathèque after catching (a slightly scratchy, yet still rich and textured) 35mm print of In the Mouth of Madness wondering what exactly I was thinking about those twenty-five years or so ago when I first saw it that I didn’t absolutely adore this fantastically inspired experience? I mean, from the brilliantly conceived early axe-attack set up (up there as one of Carpenter’s most memorable scenes and, heck, is that saying something – this is the director, after all, that not only created, amongst a whole slew of other cinematic pleasures, the greatest modern boogeyman of all time, the Shape himself, Michael Myers, but that legendary oozingly amorphous thing that we’ve all been gaga over for the past 35 years), to Sam Neil’s perfectly modulated performance as the cynical noir-esque (or –ish, whatever) anti-hero, an unrepentant misanthrope who wears a sly contempt for humanity on his sleeve (hence his quick ability to catch people at their cons), whose perspective is more or less verified throughout the film (a leading reason, perhaps, why most neo-noirs don’t, and this film didn’t, perform at the box office – after all, fragile audiences desperate for a pat on the back aren’t quite comfortable with being told how small, selfish and complicit in the slow destruction of the world they and their loved ones are) and doesn’t change until the last wonderfully clever meta-moment (that wonderful final anti-90’s bleak scene in the movie theater, in which reality has folded so far in on itself that it’s now included our own, the one beyond the movie, with Trent cackling with hysteria as he finds himself watching the same John Carpenter movie we are) where he plunges into insanity, it started to become pretty obvious to me that this is a far underrated Carpenter effort… and that fact had somehow criminally escaped my knowledge all these years.

Perhaps it was the moments with the iffy special effects that turned me off (the wonky optical of Cane pulling himself apart to reveal a book-page fluttering portal into a monstrous ‘Old One’ dimension, or the monsters themselves chasing Trent looking a lot like awkwardly gesticulating prosthetic creations pushed along on dollies), but, seeing it again, it’s the ideas behind them that have grown in resonance and pushed aside any hesitation in acceptance. With the out of control storms, fires and rising sea levels all around, borne from the terrifying reality of climate change and the palpable sense of world wide nuclear devastation in the air, In the Mouth of Madness, with its cheeky yet determinedly bleak envisioning of the end of the world shows Carpenter was, yet again, as with the terrible and unfair initial dismissal of the now-recognized as brilliant The Thing back in the early 80’s, way ahead of his time. No wonder the guy’s bitter (speaking of that, from the often off-putting cantankerous and cynical portrait that’s emerged of the director over the years, while larger-than-life individualists such as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York and professional wrestling phenom Rowdy Roddy Piper might be heroic versions he aspires towards, it’s interesting to consider if the colder-hearted and less heroic John Trent isn’t the actual closest representation to the real Carpenter we’ve ever seen).

Even the wooden acting from Julie Carmen as Linda Styles, the publisher’s assistant who may or may not be a bit of a femme fatale, which I initially found a turn off, has become more interesting when considering what her character ultimately represents in the meta-narrative, where she might not even actually ‘exist’, but be ‘written’. The jump scares (that always annoy me and which I’m sure did in my first go-round with the film) are equally as imbued with an underlying cleverness… Carpenter is winking at us, telling us he knows they’re cheesy; the script has this deftly constructed cheekiness built in.

It’s a world being driven into time-bending, monstrous-portal opening insanity (with the portal including a glimpse at us, the audience) from the sheer terror-inducing power of the written words of worldwide bestselling horror novelist (and Stephen-King stand-in) Sutter Cane. It’s a notion that feeds directly into that reactionary fear us horror fans know all about (as they come from voices shrieking for censorship of what we love)… and, amusingly, is also what rabid horror fanatics secretly pine for (I mean, come on, we’d drop everything and read those books in a second!). It’s a concept both conservative and, yet liberating, all at the same time.

With its travels down literal dark highways where time overlaps and/or repeats, to its overall noir-style conception and characters, I find Madness overlaps more than a bit with David Lynch’s brilliant Lost Highway that would materialize three years later. Both films deal with a stripping away of the codes with which we understand reality, to reveal a terrifying unknowability (represented as literal blackness, repeated ad infinitum, for Lynch) just behind them. Of course, while both films are peppered throughout with inspired dark humor, Carpenter simply isn’t capable of reaching the same levels of unsettling anxiety that Lynch can (that isn’t really a criticism, as no other director is capable of it either – there’s only been, and likely only will ever be, one David Lynch) but Carpenter is well aware of that. His ambitions don’t extend as far as Lynch’s. Carpenter is having fun in his exploration, while still managing a resonant underpinning for sure (one that has grown more relevant) in its considerations of the end of the world, but without an ounce of pretension (always admirably absent in the works and words of Carpenter, which is why even when he’s playing around with intellectual musings that might be slightly over his professional wrestling-minded head – like this film and Prince of Darkness — he comes out ahead).

Ultimately, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness is a noir-esque indulgence, filled with Lovecraftian conceits and more than a bit of meta-madness (with lots of unsettling imagery – the weird demon hand knocking on the glass window of Trent’s cell… I don’t know… it freaks me out) that I somehow dismissed as ‘meh’, when it should be considered up there with the best of his more intellectually ambitious fare (not exactly a heady brew, I admit; as I said, as great a cinematic force as Carpenter was, deep-thinking has never really been a forte). The film deftly adds some welcome tongue in cheek humor amongst the gore and grim forebodings of the coming apocalypse, which was missing from the equally ambitious (and still effective) Prince of Darkness, and while present in his alien romp of a consumerism-critique They Live, just in too over-the-top manner (‘I’m here to chew bubble gum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubble gum’) to fit comfortably into the film’s overall sensibility.

For me, In the Mouth of Madness is a real treat. One of Carpenter’s best.

In the Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter, 1994)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   h.p. lovecraft   horror   john carpenter