One of John Carpenter more endearing traits is his dislike of the self-effacing clown. That’s not at all to suggest that Carpenter’s films aren’t funny – rather, it’s that the living legend of the genre often chooses to play familiar B-movie scenarios completely straight, whether it’s a confrontation laconic between gangs rendered as a modern western confrontation. (Assault on Compound 13one of the most influential films of the 20th century) or a masked killer, devoid of any overworked psychological motive, terrorizing the inhabitants of a sleepy all-American suburb (Halloween, sure). While Carpenter indulged in satire (They live) and conceptual fantasy (Big problem in little China) over the course of his career, which now spans several decades, the grounded nature of his approach is often its own reward. The Escape from New York The director pretty much perfected a tough, economical creative philosophy that influenced an entire generation of filmmakers interested in sci-fi, horror, and beyond.
In the mouth of madness, Carpenter’s glorious 1994 cult masterpiece, might be the most obvious exception to this rule. The story of an insurance investigator who begins to lose his grip on reality while investigating the mysterious disappearance of a lucratively popular horror author named Sutter Cane. In the mouth of madness is an unapologetic meta-exploration of the creative act as a form of hypnosis. It’s not just a film whose central plot conceit is unique to the moral panic that defined much of the decade in which it was released (the idea that exposure to certain media ” corrupt” might warp one’s brain and possibly even compel someone to commit violent acts, etc.), it’s also a cautionary tale about giving in to artifice and fantasy, and a clever but never obnoxious about what it means to be considered the master of a small craft.
Sure, John Carpenter knows a thing or two about being unfairly labeled as the master of a low craft. Carpenter, who is known for his say-as-is-it-is attitude, once joked, “In England, I’m a horror director. In Germany, I am a filmmaker. In the United States, I am a tramp. movies like the Jeff Bridges– featuring star man and the memorably wicked high school bloodbath Christina might be considered totemic cult objects today, but many of Carpenter’s most beloved works were initially decried as rubbish in their day. As such, Carpenter and screenwriter Michael DeLuca (Yes this Michael DeLuca) round In the mouth of madness’ most important character, Sutter Cane, in the Ernest Hemingway airport novels. Obviously, the obvious allusion with Cane is Stephen King (or perhaps, to a lesser extent, Clive Barker), until mouth of madness ultimately takes a narrative detour to Hobb’s End: a kind of bastard stand-in for King’s own sleepy and spooky fictional borough, Castle Rock.
Third film in the Apocalypse trilogy
In the mouth of madness opens with at Sam Neil John Trent admitted to a psychiatric hospital. He seems to have gone completely insane, as evidenced by the demented look in his eyes and the vaguely occult marks he has scribbled on his face. In a gesture that seems borrowed from a tale of HP Lovecraft (Carpenter’s reverence for Lovecraft is well documented at this point), Trent begins to recall the story of how he got mad. We learn that when Trent was working in insurance, his employer (Charlton-Heston) assigned him to investigate the Sutter Cane case. For all intents and purposes, Cane seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. After its macabre prologue, mouth of madness settles into a deliberately routine rhythm, only to disappear further and further down the proverbial rabbit hole as Trent and fellow editor Cane (memorably played by Julie Carmen), find themselves lost among the otherworldly horrors of Hobb’s End.
In the mouth of madness is the third and final film in John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy”, which also includes The thing and underrated criminals Prince of Darkness. In all three films, evil manifests as an essentially unseen, unseen force, often warping familiar things like dogs, books, and human bodies into horrifying new and never-before-seen forms. In The thing, Kurt Russell and his ragtag team of researchers cower in the frigid isolation of the Arctic, fending off the malevolent energy of a shapeshifting, violently hostile alien parasite. In Prince of Darkness, a group of students occupy an incredibly ominous old church, where they proceed to discover a tube of neon green liquid that, if mishandled, could unleash the devil’s very literal fury. Both movies are steeped in Lovecraftian imagery and primordial dread, and both amplify the built-in claustrophobia of their settings to spooky degrees.
In the mouth of madness is a funnier, sillier, and more stylistically gonzo effort than its two predecessors in the trilogy, mainly because it purports to stand outside the workings of its superficial narrative, to some degree, and actually comments the art of what it means to scare people for a living. There is something wickedly ingenious about the idea of a popular novel whose content is so ungodly that reading it would spiral into some kind of monstrous abyss. If that one idea was all the movie was about, In the mouth of madness would still rank among Carpenter’s most enjoyable late-career works. And yet, as always, the director is keen to deepen the subtextual resonance of his story, turning what might otherwise be a creepy 90s chiller – the kind of thing you might have seen on reruns on TBS in the 2000s. — in a cheeky, compelling commentary on the pantheon of horror itself, and Carpenter’s place in it.
We live in a time when people willingly and enthusiastically engage in fictional “universes”. Whether it be wonder, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, or perhaps something more obscure, we now inhabit a time when individuals willingly indulge in elaborate forms of corporate mythology. In some cases, that kind of fanboy devotion can engulf you. In the mouth of madness is concerned with this very subject. It’s no wonder the film was met with such indifferent critical reviews upon its release: as always, Carpenter was light years ahead of his time. The scariest thing about In the mouth of madness is that, in the world Carpenter has created, Sutter Cane himself isn’t even considered a mere junk book writer – when he’s finally revealed, he’s literally and tellingly portrayed as a prophet.