“An insurance investigator begins discovering that the impact a horror writer’s books have on his fans is more than inspirational.” — IMDb
A film that was almost not even directed by John Carpenter (he originally turned down writer Michael De Luca and it passed to Tony Randel and Mary Lambert before making its way back around), In the Mouth of Madness is a fever dream of the best kind. Drawing a bit from Stephen King (on top of it taking place in a sleepy, quintessential New England town, he’s even mentioned by name in the first part of the movie), a whole lot from H.P. Lovecraft (aside from the tentacled beasts that show up here and there we have the theme of insanity, the bulk of the movie taking place in a flashback, and many titular references to Lovecraft’s own stories), and maybe a dash of The Twilight Zone, it’s maddening and dreadful and so, so quotable.
It follows successful freelance insurance investigator, John Trent (Sam Neill), as he’s contracted by a New York-based publishing company to find their most profitable author, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), who has disappeared before the release of his anticipated novel, In the Mouth of Madness. Trent hops in a car with Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), and heads to the questionably fictional town of Hobb’s End in New Hampshire to see if they can track him down, but what they end up finding is much more interesting…
** SPOILERS! **
I’m amazed that it’s taken me so long to see this movie, not only because it’s John Carpenter but also because it’s kind of amazing. I’m always a huge fan of Sam Neill (ever since I saw Event Horizon) and his smirking stubbornness (this dude resists the truth to the bitter end) paired with Prochnow’s creepy confidence really work together.
The music is amazing, as always. Composed by John Carpenter and Jim Lang (who is maybe most well known for scoring Hey Arnold!), it’s heavy on the guitar riffs and very (intentionally) reminiscent of Metallica. It rocks.
I think part of the reason this movie works so well is that it never feels like too much — it never really goes off the deep end. You’re able to pretty coherently understand what’s going on — even if it’s spinning you in circles — and it’s almost that realization, that cognizance, that makes it so horrifying. The scene where Trent is trying to leave Hobb’s End but keeps winding up back in the center of town with the angry mob… it gives you chills. His utter refusal to see what’s going on around him thanks to his profession — sniffing out crooks and liars — convincing him that there’s always a catch somewhere means that you’re seeing him get closer to a revelation but it takes him almost the entire movie to do so, if he ever really does. He’s so blind to what’s happening, so obstinate, and yet the phrases “I see” and “he sees you” are repeated over and over, people having their eyes opened to the new reality.
I loved the idea as a whole, too. Cane being fed the stories from these trapped creatures, barely kept at bay behind these wet, undulating doors — serving as a conduit for their eventual overtaking. Brilliant. At some point you start to really understand that resisting is futile. When Linda comes back to their hotel room after seeing the full manuscript — “you can edit this one from the inside, looking out”, as Cane says — and tells Trent “I’m losing me”… shivers. Same with Trent’s quick encounter with the man at the bar shortly after. Trent STILL thinks the entire thing is an elaborate hoax — he straight up thinks these people are paid actors — and when the man puts the gun under his chin and Trent objects, he says “I have to, he wrote me this way”… oof.
I think, in general, the topic of madness is so terrifying because it’s so real. It’s a fear so many of us share, even if we’re not conscious of it — the fear of losing our minds, losing our sanity, losing reality as we know it. It can come on us slowly, subtly, creeping up and stealing memories and abilities. It’s not an enemy we can fight, it’s too powerful, too pervasive, to avoid… so in many ways it’s as if we were written to be the characters we are and the characters we will become. That’s the feeling that you get while watching this film — that resistance to insanity is useless.
And the entire series of ending scenes. Styles being unable to follow Trent down the passageway — “I can’t, I’ve read to the end”. Him being chased by those brilliant creatures. That false relief when he suddenly appears on a dusty road in daylight. The bus ride — “did I ever tell you my favorite color was blue?”. Yet more false relief as he’s back home, everything seeming normal… until his meeting with the publisher. And the movie theater… THE MOVIE THEATER. Just, again, so much circling around, making you feel like you truly are going crazy… it’s brilliant. Brilliant.
A highly underrated Carpenter film, easily one of his best.
Rating: 8/10 | Director: John Carpenter | Writer: Michael De Luca | Music: John Carpenter, Jim Lang | Cinematography: Gary B. Kibbe | Starring: Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jürgen Prochnow, David Warner, John Glover, Charlton Heston, Frances Bay