John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is as much a vibe as it is a story. It’s bewildered paranoia, fear of an impermanent reality, and the mystique of imaginary horror books with language so powerful it alters minds and taps into an ancient evil.
It starts in an insane asylum, where insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill, DAYBREAKERS) swears he’s been brought by mistake. He’s not crazy, he says. Later in the movie (and earlier in time) the idea is introduced that reality could change for everyone else, but not you, and then all the sudden you’d be crazy without having had to go crazy. Seems like just some bullshit philosophizing when he hears it, but we’ve seen into the future.
He tells a psychiatrist (David Warner, MONEY TALKS) his story. It all began when he was hired to find the missing author Sutter Cane. Cane is a giant Harry Potter sized phenomenon, described as “bigger than Stephen King” (who he shares a font with) but his stories sound more like H.P. Lovecraft with their unleashings of indescribable evils and what not. This all takes place during a rash of riots and mental health incidents across the country, one of which Trent happened to be a victim of.
In the movie’s most memorable scare, Trent and his friend (Bernie Casey, CLEOPATRA JONES) have a lunch meeting to discuss the Cane case, completely oblivious to something we see in the background: a ghoulish man with an ax stumbling across the street toward them to break the window and ask “Do you read Sutter Cane?”
A number of fans have gone nutso after reading his books, but this is his agent, we’re told later. Shit.
Charlton Heston (OMEGA MAN) plays the publisher who hires him to find Cane and pairs him with Cane’s editor Styles (Julie Carmen, FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2), who he develops a bickering sexual tension with during the search. He figures out that Cane’s cover paintings improbably fit together to form a map to Hobb’s End, the previously-thought-to-be-fictional town where the books take place. There they find places and even people described in the books, as well as Cane (Jurgen Prochnow, BEVERLY HILLS COP II, HURRICANE SMITH, JUDGE DREDD) typing up a storm and acting like a mystical weirdo in a spooky “Black Church.” As the movie goes along, things get weirder, random people in the streets get crazier, reality gets shakier.
Carpenter is one of my favorite directors, but he has two widely loved ones – this and PRINCE OF DARKNESS – that I’ve had a hard time getting into. It’s the precision I love in Carpenter’s storytelling, so they always seemed to me to start out strong and then lose me as the weird shit escalates. Please don’t tell my younger self how literal I’ve become, or I’ll be in trouble. But it’s the difference between the HALLOWEEN theme and a version of the HALLOWEEN theme where he starts a show-offy keytar solo in the middle and never finishes. In general I’m not a big fan of the strung-together-weird-incidents form of horror unless they can create a full-on top-to-bottom surreality like, say, Argento’s INFERNO, where the music and atmosphere and everything are at least as heightened as all the dream-logic crazy shit that happens.
Luckily IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is closer to that second category, and on this viewing I got into it. It’s fun to watch Neill’s incredulous reactions and slow unraveling in the face of what surely is a corny publicity stunt (viral marketing?), I mean do these people really expect him to oh my god Sutter Cane turns around and there’s a wrinkly mutant dude growing out of his back and at one point Styles turns her head around and then drops backwards and walks around on all fours like a fucked up dog monster. I mean, this is not a good spot for a vacation. And Trent doesn’t even see everything going on – only we see that the sweet old hotel manager has her husband chained up naked behind the desk. (They should do that at The Standard.)
One interesting filmatistic technique I noticed is the use of sound effects that echo each other: playing cards in bicycle spokes, the spinning blades of a windmill, the clicking of a film projector. I’m not sure what it means, but focusing our attention on these sounds encourages a heightened sense of awareness appropriate for navigating shifting realities.
I intentionally watched this back-to-back with THE DARK HALF, but just because I wanted to celebrate two of the great directors – I didn’t consider that both are about popular writers whose books you might buy at the airport getting into some supernatural business. Maybe Cane needed a dark half to channel his creepiest shit into. But then again he was basically a phony, a ghost writer for cthulus. And he benefited from isolation. If this happened now, his publisher Arcane would’ve made him have a social media presence, and people would’ve noticed there was something wrong with the dude. I guess it would be a true test of the demons, though, to see if they could write something dangerous in 140 characters or less.
I get a kick out of Trent’s snobbishness toward “that horror crap.” He talks condescendingly about the books even after he reads them and is clearly blown away by them. He recognizes that the words are literally so powerful they’re messing with his mind, but he has to start by showing that he’s above them: “Pulp horror novels. They’re all pretty familiar. They all seem to have the same plot.” Only then can he admit that “They’re kind of better than you’d expect. They sort of get to you in a way.”
It reminds me of Jeff Daniels in THE SQUID AND THE WHALE having to call Elmore Leonard’s books trash before he can compliment them. (That’s actually a guy who deserves to get chased by mutants and locked up in an asylum to draw on himself with a crayon.)
In a way, the exaggerated description of Cane’s writing is a tribute to the power of horror writing – to words that can disturb you, rattle your world view, alter your mental state. With Cane, it’s not only his ideas that challenge your reality, it’s his vocabulary and sentence construction. The sound of the words, or the style of the movie, can get you just as much as the concepts.
Cane taking dictation from demons is a step further than the conventional wisdom that horror works by mining our primal fears – things that have scared humans since long before movies or books or pants to be scared off of you. A good book can channel the power of these ancient instincts. That’s why they’re effective to fans, dangerous to others.
It’s funny, there have been these notions over the years that entertainment will damage kids’ minds. First comic books and black music, then heavy metal, Dungeons & Dragons, horror movies, NYPD Blue, video games, whatever. And now there’s almost a subgenre of movies that plays along with those notions, like how LORDS OF SALEM has actual messages from the devil backmasked on heavy metal records, like the crazies used to say. This is a version of that – horror books that literally warp people’s minds – but it treats it as something extraordinary. That these books are so powerful means that the ones in the real world ain’t shit. So don’t worry about them. At least your kid’s not reading Sutter Cane.
Writer Michael De Luca was better known as the president of production at New Line Cinema during the era of SEVEN, FRIDAY, BOOGIE NIGHTS and BLADE. He was seen as a movie buff executive thanks to his role in the rise of Paul Thomas Anderson, but he started as an associate producer of LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III and a writer on Freddy’s Nightmares. He also wrote FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE. So it makes sense that he was a fan of horror writers and had this story inspired by them.
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS stands out from other Carpenter movies. I mean the rock ‘n rollin score is of a piece with VAMPIRES and the hard-to-even-describe bizarro creature effects by Greg Nicotero and KNB are in the tradition of THE THING. But it’s much more cerebral and meta and reality-shifting than anything else in his filmography. Maybe that’s why he initially turned the script down in the late ’80s. But after MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN and BODY BAGS, and after Tony Randel (HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II) and Mary Lambert (PET SEMATARY) failed to get it off the ground, Carpenter circled back and apparently said “Ah, what the hell, why not?” I’m glad he did.
Note: There’s a scene at the end where he talks to a paperboy, and it’s Hayden Christensen. I didn’t recognize him at all because he’s real young and doesn’t look like Jake Lloyd.