In the Mouth of Madness

John Carpenter links old and new schools of horror

by Donato Totaro Volume 1, Issue 9 / November 1997 5 minutes (1247 words)

Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, though not based on any specific work of H.P. Lovecraft, is one of the most Lovecraftian films ever made. It makes a nice companion piece to fellow horror-auteurist Wes Craven’s New Nightmare as films that explore the line between fiction/reality, sanity/insanity. Carpenter is slowly establishing himself as the premier American horror auteur and one of the fine no-frills American filmmakers of his generation. In a career dating from 1974 (Dark Star) his oeuvre is mounting considerably with a consistency that outshines his contemporaries Tobe Hooper, Craven and, arguably George Romero. Looking back at his career, one notes only a few weak chinks (Memoirs of an Invisible Man 1992, Village of the Damned 1992, Escape from LA 1997). Most of his horror-science fiction films are in the good (Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13 1976, Escape to New York 1981, Fog 1980, They Live 1988) to excellent range (Halloween 1978, The Thing 1982). Carpenter stands as a link between the old and the new school of horror. His allegiance to classic “invisible” stylists such as Howard Hawks and John Ford shapes the reserved approach to horror found in Halloween and Fog (a film intended in the spirit of Val Lewton). His austere visual and editing style was charged by the groundbreaking visual effects of The Thing, which set a new standard for surreal-gore imagery. Halloween, now associated with the gratuitous exploits of the slasher film, is marked by great self-control and inventive use of suspense that is never fully released through facile gore pay-offs. While Halloween recalls the restraint aesthetic of the pre-Hammer days (Universal, Val Lewton, Robert Wise, Jacques Tourneur), The Thing looks ahead to the gore extravagance of the 80’s “body-horror” films.

In the Mouth of Madness sits comfortably in between these two poles. Moments of graphic violence are fleeting (in super fast Natural Born Killers-style montage sequences) or alluded to (shadows, blood on the wall, etc.) and never gratuitous (Michael Medved and Jeffrey Lyons, who said the opposite on their show “Sneak Previews” are assholes). Because of the current state of the horror genre, which has been emasculated by cheap comedy (marketable, one-line spouting monster-villains), commercial spin-offs and, not least of all, the MPAA, this films comes across much better than it is, perhaps very good, maybe even great. I qualify the accolades because the film merely does what “old” horror films used to do, or used to try to do: scare its audience. Even though the film is derivative (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Videodrome, Lovecraft, Craven’s latest Nightmare film) it abides by its genre (we expect familiarity) by setting up rules that are governed by its generic-narrative world.

Sam Neill plays a skeptic insurance investigator, John Trent, who is hired by publishing magnate Jeffrey (Charles Heston) to search for his missing meal ticket, horror novelist extraordinaire Sutter Cane. Cane is modelled as a cross between Stephen King and L. Ron Hubbard, a writer whose text inspires a religious cult-like following. Trent slowly becomes a believer as his search leads him to a Lovecraftian town, Hobb’s End that exists as created in Sutter’s novel “The Horror at Hobbs End.” Trent discovers that Hobb’s End, where the “elders” began their domination of the earth (what was rightly theirs according to Lovecraft lore), is the chosen spot for the next step in the evolutionary ladder. Beginning first with the children, the elders have slowly taken over the minds and bodies of the town’s occupants. Carpenter adds (though does not explore) a nice philosophical level by implying that humanity’s time on earth has ended and these slimy, gargoyle-like creatures are the next step in the evolutionary ladder (shades of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End?).

What raises this film above the level of recent horror films is that its intend is purely to frighten, and it succeeds by coming up with some of the eeriest (and primal) images that have quivered the screen in years. Witness the first horror moment. Trent and his boss are sitting by the window in a cafe, with his boss praising Trent’s ability to sniff out insurance scams. The shot is composed in depth with them in the foreground, a busy street in the mid-ground and a cinema\video shop in the background across the street. Oblivious to the outside, they continue to talk while in the background people come running out of the cinema followed by a blood-stained, crazed, axe-bearing psycho. The image speaks volumes. A smile came to my mouth to acknowledge Carpenter’s sly satirical jab at the whole debate concerning the effects of fictional violence on society. Cause and effect, it’s that simple: a guy watches a movie about an axe-killer then comes out of the cinema as one! In one shot Carpenter efficiently introduces the film’s theme, a major issue surrounding the horror genre (“image-blaming”), while moving the narrative ahead (the crazed killer turns out to be Sutter’s agent). Pure Carpenter classicism. Other unsettling images include the night time shots of a lone cyclist riding along the jet black road; the image of the creature inside the greenhouse; the shot of the old husband shackled to his wife’s ankle; and the sequence where Cane transforms into one of his written pages, torn in the middle and opening up to an expansive “Lovecraftian” gulf of unspeakable, unnameable (etc.) proportions.

Structurally the film borrows extensively from the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It begins with our crazed protagonist in an asylum (in the hospital in Invasion) then cuts to a flashback of the events leading to his current predicament. The narrative catches up to the opening then continues on as the creatures spread across the earth. Trent is able to walk out of the asylum, as all hell has broken loose. People are running mad in the streets, radio announcements (a la Night of the Living Dead) proclaim a mass epidemic of crazed hysteria, schizophrenia and body transformation, urging those non-contaminated to remain indoors and not read the book. The film ends with Trent walking into a cinema (echoing the crazed psycho who exited the cinema in the beginning) that is playing the film we are watching. Trent begins to laugh hysterically while watching images we have already seen play on the movie screen (shades of The Man with a Movie Camera (1928) and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare). In Invasion the body take over occurs during sleep, while in In the Mouth of Madness it occurs after reading Sutter’s book.

In the Mouth of Madness does for fiction what Videodrome (1983) did for television-video. In Cronenberg’s paranoia masterpiece viewers watching the videodrome signal slowly lose their ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy and slip into an hallucinogenic mind-state. A similar progression takes place in Carpenter’s film, with the triggering device being fiction. What struck me about this plot element, and in a sense dates the film, is the possibility of such an occurrence in this post-literate society where the computer would have seemed like a more likely environment for such a scenario. The film falters slightly at the end by relying too much on lifted elements and steering away from the first half’s schizophrenic build-up. Once Trent is convinced and the events become narratively cogent (ie. the reality of the elders is confirmed and their take-over in progress) the film shifts from the “Fantastic” to the “Fantastic-Marvelous” and becomes less unsettling, too rational.

<i>In the Mouth of Madness</i>

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 1, Issue 9 / November 1997 Film Reviews   genre_horror   h p lovecraft   horror   john carpenter   mind fuck