Part of me and my girlfriend’s 30-movie Halloween marathon.
John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness has found itself existing on an obscure plane, even by horror movie standards. What modest critical reevaluation it’s been exposed to has still left it divisive with a mixed legacy, where most films of this ilk ordinarily find themselves leaning more positive. I suppose the same could be said about many films in Carpenter’s catalog, most of which I still admittedly need to see. The problem with having a tentpole in your filmography as the rest of the occupants under said tent have a tendency to sink into the ground below.
In the Mouth of Madness is consistently intriguing as it lays the groundwork for an A+ premise. Millions are gripped by the works of horror novelist Sutter Cane, whose latest book has people literally going mad. One afternoon, an insurance fraud investigator named John Trent (Sam Neill) is having coffee with a colleague at a diner when a man across the street brandishes an axe, walks through traffic, and smashes through the window (a harrowing sequence, I’ll add). Later, it’s revealed that the man who lost his mind is Sutter Cane’s former agent.
Soon, schizophrenic behavior in folks who’ve read Cane’s new novel spreads like wildfire, prompting the book’s publisher (Charlton Heston) and editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), to hire Trent to investigate. Why not ask Cane himself? Well, Cane has inexplicably disappeared, resulting in two mysteries that need to be solved. After reading portions of Cane’s works, Trent discovers that pieces of the novels’ covers can be positioned in such a way to reveal a map of New Hampshire, with a place called Hobb’s Corner becoming a point of interest in the process. In no time, Trent and Styles are off to a town that doesn’t even exist on a real map.
Many odd things happen on the late-night drive to Hobb’s Corner — why you wouldn’t drive to such a remote town in the daylight doesn’t make sense to me, but ho-hum — with ghostly apparitions appearing on the road. Eventually, Trent and Styles arrive. They stay at an archaic hotel run by a strange old lady, where they eventually run into more strange creatures.
We eventually do meet Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), who tells Trent that “more people believe in my work than believe in the Bible.” This sort of line encapsulates both the appeal and the issue with Carpenter’s movie. It has a lot of bold visuals, a hell of a setup, and puts a dementedly talented writer with incredible appeal at its center. However, it doesn’t develop a sense of rules nor loan many of these ideas to greater development. What we’re left with is a film open to interpretation due to the fact that it doesn’t give us a lot of concretion.
What Carpenter and screenwriter Michael De Luca do manage is a film that’s never really boring. Trent’s grip on reality loosens, and In the Mouth of Madness ropes you into its design because, to its credit, you’re never sure where it’s going to wind up going, narratively speaking.
Carpenter lifts a lot of influence not only in concept — Sutter Cane and the impact of his novels are both a thinly veiled nod to Stephen King — but in the design of his monsters. The demons we see are Lovecraftian in appearance. They boast that trademarked Carpenter nightmare fuel we’ve come to expect and adore.
They say a merely good movie can be made great by its ending. While In the Mouth of Madness falls short of the latter designation, it is bolstered by a haunting climax and a strong wraparound ending that is mournful in tone and execution. Carpenter’s work of fantastical horror might lack in developing the gritty details of its premise, but it still manages to keep us invested thanks to solid performances and a uniformly engrossing setup.
Starring: Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jürgen Prochnow, David Warner, John Glover, Bernie Casey, Peter Jason, and Charlton Heston. Directed by: John Carpenter.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!