In the Mouth of Madness

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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, October 19th, 2017 at 11:49 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

28 Responses to “In the Mouth of Madness”

  1. Easily the most influential Carpenter film on me. One of the movies that made me want to make movies. Absolutely love this one.

  2. The character Jeff Daniels plays in SQUID V WHALE: DAWN OF JUSTICE was based on an old professor of mine, Jonathan (Father of Noah) Baumbach. He was a cool guy but definitely a snob about genre shit. He was a post-modern writer teaching a class on post-modernism, so we read stuff that was LIKE a crime novel or LIKE a thriller, but discombobulated and reconstitutes into something else. Genre was just the source of the raw material to transcend, subvert, or comment upon. That’s what he was into. Somebody like Elmore Leonard who gave you the story straight with no pretensions would hold little interest for him, even if he had to reluctantly admire the prose on a technical level.

    Also this movie is good and I should watch it again.

  3. The Music Box of Horrors showed this but I came in late from dinner (and watching the main event of UFC) and missed the beginning and then fell asleep because it’s hard to stay awake for 24 hours even if it is only 11:00 at night. I’m old, leave me alone. The stuff I did watch was fantastic on the big screen. I think the movie going public really don’t know what they were missing with John Carpenter movies. I think if he came along today he would be a hugely celebrated movie director to the general public and people would pay tickets to see the latest Carpenter movie because it’s a John Carpenter movie. When he came along, and even though his last name was before movies, I don’t think directors of genre films were as celebrated with the movie going public as much. There were exceptions.

    I really don’t understand why John Carpenter has so many bombs in his film career as those bombs are still some of the greatest movies of all time. It’s possible that he has run out of things to say in the world of cinema but the movie going public really ruined it for the rest of us.

  4. Yes…the Music Box of Horrors! 8pm til 6am was a great run…The Funhouse, In The Mouth of Madness, Hellraiser, Ginger Snaps, and Tales From the Hood.
    It just astounded me how much more enjoyable horror movies are with a crowd. A few of the above movies I tried to watch alone, late at night, and wound up liking them but not reallly digging them…until I saw them on the big screen with a crowd.
    The difference was night and day.
    The Funhouse was probably my favorite, it seriously reminded of a great carny ride. I’m super surprised Vern hasn’t reviewed it. One of the things that make it stand out to me was the cast. Usually these kind of kids are annoying slasher fodder, but I was really able to relate to these kids. They were just normal kids up to no good (lots of pot, sneaking out of the house, peeping in the peep show and “breaking” into the ride)…bad but harmless. When the carnival started to close for the night and the camera floated back and up over the midway I got chills. Plus creepy animatronics, a hell of nasty killer cut from the same cloth as Leatherface, and bodies cruising the ride made for a movie that lived up to it’s bizarre namesake.

    The crowd also ate up In the Mouth of Madness, I think it’s a fantastic midnight movie, or one late in a movie marathon when your brain has absorbed all this weird shit and just kind of melts to that funky place where you sort of accept anything as reality but where reality itself seems off. You can put yourself in Trent’s place, start to accept where the movie takes you, and then feel a release when at the end he just says fuck it and sits down with some popcorn. We were giddy.

    Also, Ginger Snaps was hella clever and it felt like people in the crowd were feeding off of the enjoyment of others.

  5. I always tell people that THIS is a writer’s movie from top to bottom. Hands down Carpenter’s best from the 90’s.

  6. Carpenters Anthology album is out now.


  7. This and Prince of Darkness are 2 Carpenter movies that I like a little more every time I watch them. Neither is quite up there with his best stuff, in both cases I think because the stories are awkwardly structured and maybe don’t come together as a satisfying whole, but Carpenter’s filmmaking is on point and the movies are packed with great individual moments and cool ideas.

  8. I definitely dig this one a lot more the more I watch it. But now I kinda wish there was a version directed by Tony Randel. Hellbound still gives me some nightmare fodder, and I would like to see what he would have done. Lambert, too, actually.

  9. This one has grown on me, too, over the years. As a kid I remember being really bothered by- of all things- the idea that the movie takes place in a world where a Stephen King analogue is explicitly described as being a *bigger* writer than Stephen King. (Like, why not just have no mention of Stephen King and we can assume that Sutter Cane is the Stephen King of this universe?) But whatever.

    It’s a fun movie. I like the ******SPOILER******* twist that Sam Neill is fictional. I like that it ends with a deliberately absurd scene of him going to see the movie version, and that when he sits down to watch it he has popcorn with him. He stopped to get popcorn!

    Carpenter’s execution on this one is on point, too. Sometimes I think his filmatism can feel a little lazy (Village of the Damned, ending of They Live) but the storytelling here is really well-thought out and smart. No wasted shots.

    Anyway I like it.

  10. John Carpenter often has trouble with the set up to the end of his movie but his finals minutes are pretty good.

  11. I feel like this is the Adaptation (2002) of horror films. Both lean into genre trappings by the end in a very purposeful and self-aware way. I love how Sam Neill has to piece the map together with bits of the book covers. It’s so pulpy, and the first time I watched it I thought it felt a bit cliche (along with some other earlier parts), but later I realized how it was all of a piece.

    I do enjoy Prince of Darkness a bit more though. It’s one of my favourites from Carpenter. Just wall to wall scares, awesome music and incredible atmosphere. I’m super down with the whole, series of weird scenes connected by vague dream-logic approach though.

    Lastly, I really really liked this bit “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 totally agree, and it reminds me of how David Lynch uses sound in something like Twin Peaks as well. Great review, Vern!

  12. I like this movie a lot, but to me “what if Stephen King got his ideas from the Lovecraftian Old Ones?” is one of the best premises for a horror movie ever, it’s a totally genius idea that the movie doesn’t QUITE live up to, but it’s close, though like Daniel Strange says the movies hurts itself by actually mentioning King, when Sutter Cane is clearly just supposed to be this world’s version of King.

    Also funnily enough I first saw this movie at a very young age, like 7, because I was such a JURASSIC PARK fan that I wanted to see any movie that had Sam Neill in it, so that’s how I saw both this and EVENT HORIZON at a probably too young age, but I remember finding EVENT HORIZON pretty lame (I had already seen ALIEN by that point), however IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS scared me pretty good.

    I wonder what would have happened if instead of seeing the two Sam Neill horror movies at a young age, I instead saw the Sam Neill movie SIRENS, the one with all the naked women in it, instead? That would have been a formative experience of a different kind.

  13. Griff if only you had seen DAMIEN: THE OMEN III back then. You’d have witnessed the full scope of the Sam Neill horror trifecta and how they all end up with him being off his rocker.

  14. I do find it annoying when movies mention the real life people its obviously fictionalising; e.g. the Westboro Baptist Church in RED STATE, Jacque Costeau in THE LIFE ACQUATIC. It takes me out of the movie’s world and just makes me wonder why.

    Only saw this once on a time coded VHS which had seen better days, remember enjoying what I could salvage from the experience

  15. I once dated a girl I met on the internet (before it was common, reliable, and not weird). When I first met her in person I found it highly unusual that she had a tiny Japanese symbol tattoo’d across her eyebrow. It was her name, apparently, and I’d mistaken it for a bit of a smudge on a photo I’d seen previously. I don’t know why I didn’t take this as a dire warning sign at the time.

    We went to her house and over dinner she started to reveal just how crazy she was. She believed the world was going to end in 2011, and that the higher powers (Gods) would only allow the “programmers” to survive. These programmers (whom she was naturally one of) would re-write the gene-code of life and a new world would flourish in place of our current one. While I was listening, trying to figure out if what I was eating was really lamb and mash, I nodded, “oooo’d” and “aaaah’d” and tried not to incite some kind of episode in her.

    Once we finished the meal she said she wanted to watch a film. We both had differing views on what to watch (my choice was Beavis & Butthead do America). Being the gent I was, I let her choose.

    She chose In The Mouth of Madness.

    I remember being in this weird house, with bare-ass walls, no furniture save for a dinner table, a couch and a TV, watching this insane film with an equally insane woman. I recall Sam Neil doing a lot of that confused look he does so well. It was also really baffling. He’d be one place one minute, somewhere else the next. I didn’t get it as an analogy of some guy going mental at the time. However I do remember enjoying that dark ending.

    When it was done, I wished her well and got the fuck out of there. I never saw her or the film again. Indeed, until this review, I’d often wondered if the entire film had been a weird dream. Thanks for dredging up such a harrowing experience for me Vern.

  16. Awesome

  17. You think that’s bad? A girl showed me BOONDOCK SAINTS once.

    That’s the end of the story.

  18. caruso_stalker217

    October 21st, 2017 at 2:02 pm

    This film has what is for me the scariest fucking scene in all of cinema.

  19. Broddie – I have actually seen DAMIEN: THE OMEN III as well, though not at that time.

  20. I once borrowed a friend a VHS of LOST HIGHWAY. It was his first Lynch movie, so he decided to watch it with a girl he was hooking up with. According to him, they turned it off after 40 minutes and she never called him again.

    People don’t talk enough how important it is to pick the right movie on the first date.

  21. STATE OF GRACE. And we’ve been married for 25 years now.

  22. I also gave this another Chance recently and got more into it. It’s sort of like a Last Action Hero for a fake Stephen King. That makes Sutter Cane Jack Slater.

  23. What works about IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS for me (Carp’s last great movie) is that it taps into the idea of the creative power that authors can have on society/pop culture.

    Think of these names. George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry, Stan Lee/Jack Kirby, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and so forth. People who didn’t just create popular entertainment medias, but created whole worlds and universes that fans absolutely lose themselves to and care enough in some ways to treat it like its real or want to make it happen in some way, like fans dressing up as their favorite characters at conventions or write fan fiction epics (usually as an excuse for gratuitous sex scenes between characters in different franchises) smart people trying to replicate fantastical technology. (Think of Trekkies who created cellphones and computers playing music because they saw comparable tech on STAR TREK, or news items you read once in a while where scientists build an “Iron Man-like” exploration robot or U.S. military working on their own Iron Man-like battle technology*) and so forth.

    *=Which is morally unfortunate considering that first movie’s anti-proliferation of weapons message but alas….

  24. In the Mouth of Madness also has a lot of similarities to Jonathan Carroll’s first novel, The Land of Laughs (1980).


  25. caruso_stalker217

    October 23rd, 2017 at 11:06 pm


    Your LAST ACTION HERO comparison is especially apt, seeing as Jürgen Prochnow played Arnold in that shitty T.V. movie.

  26. Crazy, I was inspired to pick up a handful of Carpenter films, including this one, and on the same run I was in the mood to revisit LAST ACTION HERO. Funny to see others making a connection between these two films.

    Believe it or not, I’d never watched this one until. I knew it was a bit more divisive and not regarded as an unqualified classic–perhaps a cult classic at best. I had a great time with it. I enjoy the Lovecraft vibes, the meta- elements of art and literature blurring, and the overall weird MC Escher circularity to it all. Good creature effects and body horror. It’s kind of dream logic-y and has that NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise surreality. Sam Neil is a fun choice. Kind of like Chevy Chase’s Fletch meets Russell Crowe or something. I like the ending they went for.

    I think the atmosphere could have been stronger. Perhaps somewhat risky for a mid-budget studio affair with Sam Neil fresh of JURASSIC PARK, but like a lot of Carpenter, there’s a somewhat broad, playful, colorful quality to the characters and their dialogue. It’s fairly brightly lit and can be jokey or flirty and generally tending gleefully unhinged. Shockingly enough, it’s Charlton Heston (and good ole Bernie Casey) who offer some of the more grounded performances. Not super scary, but fun, and it has some good moments and ideas. Works well as an extended TWILIGHT ZONE episode.

    There really was something in the ether with this, LAST ACTION HERO, NEW NIGHTMARE, and then eventually SCREAM, where the time just seemed right for this self-aware, deconstructiony, meta-fiction. I dig it.

  27. I just watched this last night and saw PRINCE OF DARKNESS for the first time earlier this week. I have an easily disproveable and not-even-Wikipedia-researched theory that Carpenter’s best films started to wane when he abandoned the Alan Howarth electronica and started rocking out.

    I think ITMOM (haha) is a better overall film than PRINCE OF DARKNESS but POD’s score carries it so far.

  28. Yesterday I watched it for the first time in something like 20 years and it was even better than I remembered it. I would go so far (although I might have to rewatch a few things) and say it’s the best Carpenter since THE THING, especially because his direction is so razor sharp here. It’s a movie that isn’t making sense on purpose, yet it’s very clear that this is clearly controlled chaos, where even the smallest sound effect was the result of a whole lot of planning. The structuring is just amazing and something that today’s arthouse horror can learn a lot from. It’s a slow burn that suddenly motherfucking explodes in your face without warning before it ends in a long, but uncomfortable breather.

    And one thing that I love is how casually funny the movie is at times. Like when Sam Neill screams from out of his cell: “I’m sorry about your balls!” or in the last scene shows up with a bucket of popcorn. Or when the axe maniac bursts through the window and politely asks: “Do you read Sutter Cane?” as if he tried to make smalltalk on the airplane. When the credits rolled, Amazon Prime recommended me MALIGNANT next and yeah, if I would’ve been more awake at that point, I totally would’ve taken that double feature! They are not exactly the same, but offer the same mix of real horror and playful weirdness that is knowingly funny without telling the audience that it’s okay to laugh with it.

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