The great thing about John Carpenter films is that they offer a unique experience unlike any other film. Even when there are plot similarities, he has a certain touch that gives it his auteurist stamp, setting it apart from the competition. This unique feeling is one that In the Mouth of Madness possesses. Following insurance claim investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) as he looks into the case of missing horror writer Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), In the Mouth of Madness is perhaps Carpenter’s most disturbing work. The third piece of his famed “Apocalypse trilogy’ after The Thing and Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness stares at the end of humanity and laughs maniacally as everything descends into chaos.
The crux of In the Mouth of Madness is simple. Not dissimilar from Stephen King, Sutter Cane is a revered horror writer who largely writes about his small New England hometown, Hobb’s End. However, his publisher has an issue: Cane has gone missing. Now, Trent is sent to find out if their claim is valid or if it is merely a marketing hijinx. Right before he went missing, Cane had become convinced that his stories were not fiction but rather reality, an early indicator that he was losing his mind. As the film descends into the wicked world of Sutter Cane’s novels, it expertly blurs the lines between fiction and reality, throwing everything into question for John Trent. It is a surrealist journey that he is on, one that Carpenter weaves into prior stories written by Cane. Walking down memory lane with his editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), she recounts every detail about every home.
What becomes apparent is that an evil has been lurking in Hobb’s End for a long time. It is one that has grown even more powerful, descending the world into chaos much like the homeless problem in Prince of Darkness. Even in the most quaint place, there is something sinister afoot, and even the church has been overrun with a demonic presence. It is a town that defies every expectation, keeping the audience on edge at every turn. What is more, the film essentially turns into both Carpenter’s attempt at the surreal combined with body horror. It is an effective take on the genre, offering horrifying creature effects, disfigurements, and unsettling encounters with incredible beasts. From the simple beginnings of an insurance investigation, In the Mouth of Madness unmasks the insidious secrets lying within this claim.
Perhaps even more horrifying is how In the Mouth of Madness examines control. In The Thing and Prince of Darkness, characters slowly lost their autonomy, becoming vessels for aliens and demons. In the Mouth of Madness shows much of the same, except not with a monster or even Satan. Rather, it is humans being used as tools for their own demise. The chaotic visions that are introduced via jarring, quick montages of horrific images in John Trent’s mind are a harbinger of things to come, but also of what he will help to create. Many lines of dialogue are geared towards this idea of free-will, with John asserting that nobody “pulls his strings” and Sutter Cane realizing the power in the church writing all of his books.
It is a horrifying twist, one that forces John (and others) to question whether they are real or just characters in a book, and one that strips them of everything they thought they controlled. They are merely tools in a chaotic god’s mission to destroy the world and bring about humanity’s extinction. Worse, there is no way to stop it as they can only stick to the way they are written, often unconsciously going about the actions that will destroy them. It is in here that makes In the Mouth of Madness one of Carpenter’s scariest films. The world it creates and the body horror gore are great, but it is watching the sane John Trent lose every bit of that sanity and seeing the same unfold around him that is most effective. It takes the idea that books or movies can negatively influence people and applies it literally, leaving its characters wondering where the book ends and they begin.
A mind-bending look at the end of the world, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness had the unenviable task of following two stone-cold classics in his Apocalypse trilogy. Yet, it more than holds its own. It is a consistently chilling, inventive, and marvelously ambitious film, one that takes the viewer on a journey deep into the creatively warped mind of an author. Of course, with the added bit of self-reflexivity at the end, it may very well be John Carpenter’s own warped mind that we are exploring, a fact that he and John Trent revel in as they both laugh maniacally at the forthcoming extinction.