For my first post-Slashermas entry, I really wanted to do something as unslashery as possible. Years ago, one of my friends gave me a copy of John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. I’d been putting off watching it but I was definitely in a John Carpenter mood last night.
In the Mouth of Madness is the third part of the Apocalypse Trilogy. The first part is The Thing and the second part is Prince of Darkness. If The Thing deals with extraterrestrial biological horror and Prince of Darkness deals with spiritual horror, then In the Mouth of Madness is a Lovecraftian story about mental horror.
Sam Neill stars as John Trent, an insurance investigator. We first meet him in a mental hospital, where his story is told via flashback to Dr. Wrenn (David Warner.) That’s a very Lovecraftian narrative choice, just saying.
I always forget that David Warner can act since I first saw him in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 movie Quest of the Delta Knights.
Anyway, after exposing a fire as insurance fraud, Trent is offered a job with Arcane Press. Publishing director Mr. Harglow (Charlton Heston) and editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) explain that their best author, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) has disappeared. His latest book is being released and he went away to work on another book and he hasn’t been heard from. Trent agrees to take the job but he thinks the whole thing is a weird scam to drum up publicity.
Sutter Cane is a horror writer and he writes Lovecraftian horror. Cane’s book is The Hobb’s End Horror, compare that with “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft. I’m not italicizing Lovecraft’s works because they tend to be short stories. Or, another one of Cane’s books is The Whisperer of the Dark, compare that with Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness.” Cane’s Haunter Out of Time versus Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark.” Cane’s The Thing in the Basement versus Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep.” I can’t find any correlating stories for the Cane titles The Breathing Tunnel and The Feeding but I’m welcome to suggestions if anyone has any. Even the title of this movie is reflective of “The Mountains of Madness.”
Anyway, Trent picks up some of Cane’s books and reads them. He starts experiencing weird dreams and also notices that the book covers form a map of New Hampshire when aligned properly. Trent also notices stories on the news about people acting oddly.
Theorizing that Hobb’s End may be based on a real place, Trent and Styles try to follow the map. Styles has a particularly bad experience driving, when she seems to lose the road during the night.
They arrive in the town, inexplicably in the daylight. It looks like a perfect small town. The only creepy thing is that it seems to be inhabited by characters from Cane’s books. Mrs. Pickman (Frances Bay), the nice old lady who runs the inn is reminiscent of a character who chops her husband into bits (See also, the Lovecraft story “Pickman’s Model.”) There’s even the evil black church.
The residents aren’t as nice as they seem either. The kids are creepy and evil and have bad teeth.
Styles and Trent finally find Cane in the black church. And, holy hell, he’s Neil Gaiman’s evil twin.
It turns out he really did tap some kind of eldritch horror and is now able to affect reality. Are we all just characters in a Sutter Cane story, now? As John Trent says, “Oh, Jesus, this place makes my head hurt.”
I have mixed feelings about this movie. I tend to dislike Lovecraft adaptations. His horrors tend to be things from beyond space and time that we can’t conceive of because we’ve never encountered them before. Yet, a lot of horror and sci-fi monsters are just big versions of Earth animals or chimerae. How do you portray something that’s never been seen before? With tentacles and leftover KY Jelly from The Thing, apparently.
The rest of the effects are pretty good. People are battered, in this movie, since everyone is going mental, and Greg Nicotero does a good job with them. But I’m just never scared when I see the horrors Cane has supposedly unearthed.
The music is also lacking. Carpenter scored this with Jim Lang but, instead of his usual throbbing pulse score, we have this weird modern rock music that just doesn’t add to the horror.
That being said, I really like the idea of memetic horror and think a lot could be done with it today, especially with how fast memes spread on social media. Richard Dawkins pinpointed the concept of a meme in 1976 in The Selfish Gene. It’s like a gene, in the sense that it reproduces itself, but it’s a unit of culture and it exists in your mind. It jumps from person to person as a belief or a pattern. We actually see this idea in an interaction between Styles and Trent. She asks him if he reads, he says “no,” she says he should read Sutter Cane. Imagine this on the level of a society and every person who picks up one of Cane’s books inherits the madness he wrote about and passes it on. Don’t worry, there’s also a movie coming out about the book, to catch all the people who don’t read.
I also like the idea of layers of reality. I remember when I was little, I would lie in bed and wonder if I were really awake or just dreaming about being awake. This movie taps into the unease of whether or not you’re mad or going mad. It’s also fun to see Styles’ and Trent’s positions reversed. At the beginning of the movie, it’s Styles saying they’re in a Sutter Cane book, but, by the end Trent has accepted this and is trying to tell everyone else.
This is kind of an odd thing to notice about a movie, but I really liked the use of space. Look at this shot of the institution that Trent is locked up in.
Isn’t it too neat and orderly?
As Trent spends more time in the town, there are more shots of him from above. They become very claustrophobic, like he’s being physically oppressed by the town, until he’s actually in a confessional.
I enjoy this movie the more I think about it. It’s quite a divisive movie, people either love it or hate it, based on what I’ve read. So I only recommend it for Carpenter completists and fans of Lovecraft.