ANALYSIS: “Lived any good books lately?” – IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)

Do you read Sutter Cane? Johnny Restall does, and he’s here to unpack the closing chapter of John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy

John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994) is widely viewed as the third instalment of the director’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy, alongside 1982’s The Thing and 1987’s Prince of Darkness. While the loosely-linked trio share no characters or plotlines, they all depict scenarios which could lead to the end of human existence, with distinctly nihilistic conclusions. While The Thing deals with alien infection, and Prince of Darkness uncovers an alternative theological universe, this final film is arguably both the bleakest and most playful of the three. In the Mouth of Madness not only explores the previous films’ themes of disintegration of the self and belief, but the absolute breakdown of any objective sense of reality. This time, there may not even be a genuine world to end.

The choice of opening imagery is our first hint of the film’s mischievously self-aware approach. The credits play as we watch an industrial printing press mass-produce a book; an imaginary text being physically created within a fictional story, in a way that seems realistic. As the credits near their end, we realise that the book does not share the film’s title, as we might have expected. However, its back cover does bear the legend ‘Coming Soon: In the Mouth of Madness’ – the very story we thought we were now watching. Already the film has begun to undermine our certainties to prepare us for its central conceit: that, to quote the unfortunate Simon (Wilhelm von Homburg), “Reality is not what it used to be.”

The plot follows the increasingly sinister misadventures of cynical insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill). Trent is hired by publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) to find the best-selling horror writer Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow). Cane has disappeared, along with the manuscript of his new book. Accompanied by the author’s editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), Trent sets off to look for the errant writer in the mysterious town of Hobb’s End (a reference to Hammer’s 1967 adaptation of Quatermass and the Pit, a significant influence on the preceding Prince of Darkness). However, finding Cane leads to an escalating series of disturbing revelations, as the sceptical investigator realises that the line between fact and fiction may be far more porous than he ever imagined.

While this synopsis explains the basic storyline, the film itself adopts a far more disorientating approach, gleefully playing with audience perceptions until we become as trapped as the protagonists in its twists and turns. We first meet Trent in a straitjacket, being admitted to an asylum. Chronologically, this introduction is actually in the story’s future, with the bulk of the following film told in flashback as Trent reveals the events that led to his incarceration to psychiatrist Dr Wrenn (David Warner). Once Trent’s tale is told, we return to the ‘beginning’ at the asylum for the film’s final stages. 

As if the structure were not unsettled enough, the narrative also includes time loops, near-subliminal visions, dreams within dreams, recurring visual motifs and repeated verbal phrases that refuse to immediately disclose their meaning. Carpenter intentionally heightens this effect by abandoning many of his previous stylistic trademarks. The slow tracking shots that characterised the likes of Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980) are replaced by swift edits and montages, and the score by Jim Lang and the director favours crunching guitars and spells of unsettlingly arrhythmic ambience over his usual driving synths. Like the uncanny cyclist at the edge of Hobb’s End, who looks aged but moves and speaks like a child, the film violates any orderly sense of time and reason. Its darkly witty tone is perfectly symbolised by the joker card we see rattling between the spokes of his bicycle, an endlessly revolving wheel concealing the bleak cosmic laughter at its heart.

Numerous similarly self-aware moments wink at the viewer throughout the film’s duration. The inmates of the asylum are pacified by the soporific sounds of We’ve Only Just Begun by The Carpenters. At first, this simply seems a slightly cheap nod to the director’s name, or a playful reference to our late entry point in the story. However, in retrospect, the moment foreshadows the inverted world of the conclusion: to Trent’s dismay, the patients sing along, the voices of the insane overwhelming those of the rational, mirroring the way they will eventually restructure reality to their own crazed order.

The conversation in the car between Styles and Trent as they search for Cane similarly invites us to laugh uncomfortably, as she unwittingly predicts his fate: “If the insane were to become the majority, you would find yourself in a padded cell wondering what happened to the world.” She also matches his nihilistic opinions to Cane’s, a comparison that takes on a deeper resonance once we learn that Trent (and indeed the entire story) may simply be figments of the missing author’s own imagination. Once Cane himself ‘takes over’ in the final third, the self-reflexive games only increase, with the entire world briefly turning blue following the writer’s mocking declaration of his favourite colour. They culminate in the brilliantly unnerving finale, as a hysterical Trent enters a deserted cinema to watch himself in the very movie we have just been viewing.

Like Cane’s apocalyptic novels, In the Mouth of Madness refuses to be confined within its own fictional world. It includes numerous references to real figures and contains a layer of sly social comment regarding consumerism and commercial success. Cane’s overwhelming position in the publishing marketplace is compared to that of Stephen King, while the names of his books deliberately echo works by the influential cosmic-horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (with the film’s own title recalling his novella At the Mountains of Madness). While the film’s fictional author is a phenomenon, the real Lovecraft died in poverty; despite his posthumous fame, he still seems unlikely to outsell the likes of King.

Adding to the film’s metacommentary, the box office failure of Carpenter’s somewhat Lovecraftian The Thing led to his 1983 adaptation of King’s Christine, a more financially rewarding venture but one subsequently derided by the director as a mere job rather than an artistically fulfilling work. Trent glibly dismisses Cane’s work as “horror crap” only to admit a grudging admiration once he actually reads it, a withering comment on the snobbery and preconceptions that often surround genre work. The ruthless publishing house meanwhile sees the author as a “billion dollar franchise” and even disturbing reports about the effects of his work cannot persuade them to stop exploiting it (much like the venal alien collaborators in Carpenter’s 1988 They Live). No one can escape the commercial stranglehold of Cane’s world, with the eventual movie adaptation specifically designed to scoop up the non-reading audience. 

Cane repeatedly calls his novel the “new Bible” and declares himself God, explaining “I think, therefore you are” to his traumatised creations. Yet it remains unclear who is really in control of the narrative. Despite his claims of omniscience, Cane admits to being told what to write by the Old Gods (or his “new publishers,” as he puts it). However, they can only emerge once his book is written and read, powerless without an author and an audience, posing a fundamental chicken-and-egg dilemma as to who originates who. The story itself is told to us by Trent, who – as an inmate in an asylum – hardly seems the most reliable narrator. To further complicate matters several moments are seen through Styles’ eyes alone, before all trace of her disappears and she is literally written out of the story. If she never existed, who witnessed these moments, assuming that they happened at all? The film leaves the audience with no firm perspective to hang on to; like Trent, we are endlessly returned to the beginning to try and untangle the tale once again. 

In the Mouth of Madness met a tepid response on release, despite its innovative approach and the timeliness of its sharp commentary on the genre. It could not be neatly categorised with either the grisly A-list thrillers churned out in the wake of 1991’s surprise hit The Silence of the Lambs, or the hinterland of franchise sequels and straight-to-video rip-offs that dominated horror in the early 1990s. Like Wes Craven’s 1994 New Nightmare its darkly playful style was probably just a little too ahead of its time. It shares aspects of the postmodern approach adopted by 1996’s ground-breaking Scream, but lacks the youthful cast and easily accessible concept which cemented that later film’s box-office appeal. To this day it remains a strange and somewhat neglected beast even amongst Carpenter’s devoted fanbase, but – like its own Old Gods – the film simply needs to find a receptive audience in order to unleash its full power.

© Johnny Restall

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