Often around certain holidays or key dates specific movies get brought back into the conversation and are watched all over again. At Christmas time, folks can watch anything from It’s a Wonderful Life to Gremlins and Valentine’s Day brings out the romance flicks. However, for Halloween, horror movies are put center stage and during this period one director seems to always be at the forefront John Carpenter. It’s not a surprise that Carpenter is so prominent come October; He’s a horror legend thanks to classics like Halloween, The Thing and Christine, which seem to be in constant rotation during the month of October. Despite the love for these films, I see very little discussion or love for what may just be Carpenter’s magnum opus, In the Mouth of Madness. When discussing Carpenter’s filmography people tend to start with Halloween and end with They Live, sadly leaving out this classic film.
In the Mouth of Madness was released in 1994 to ukewarm reception and a fairly poor showing at the box office. This wasn’t exactly a new experience for Carpenter as much of his filmography has received poor initial reception before finding success on home video, such was the case with The Thing. However, Madness wasn’t a spectacular bomb like Big Trouble in Little China or a critical punching bag like The Thing, instead it just kind of passed people by. That combined with its release in what was considered to be the low point of Carpenter’s career probably added to its obscurity. But it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten, especially as its primordial fears become more and more relevant with each passing year.
What’s fun about this film is that it’s not just a horror movie, but a horror movie about horror movies, and fictional terrors in general. It follows John Trent, (played by the great Sam Neil in possibly his best performance) an investigator for an insurance company who investigates the disappearance of Sutter Cane, an incredibly popular horror novelist, a sort of amalgamation of Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft. The movie then follows Trent as he tracks him to Hobb’s End, an entirely fictional village from Cane’s book. From there, things just get weirder and weirder but that weirdness is all anchored in a deep primal terror.
In the Mouth of Madnes is a cosmic horror film, a horror subgenre pioneered by H.P Lovecraft a prominent and very racist American horror writer from the late 19th and early 20th centuries who deals with the horror of the unknown. His books are about the entities we cannot comprehend and the forces of darkness that we will never be able to properly grapple with. There are big crazy tentacle monsters sure, but the real terror comes from the existential fear that these godlike beings can represent. These kinds of stories have been prevelant in a lot of mediums but can be especially difficult in film. Film is a visual art form, where everything needs to be rendered in some form of detail. Cosmic horror is most often associated with literature because these terrors can be described to readers instead of shown. A monster like Cthulu can be terrifying because it is described to a reader and their mind has to fill in the blanks, film doesn’t have that luxury. If a creature is shown to an audience often they lose that cosmic horror edge, if we can see it realised on camera in some ways we can comprehend it. Carpenter sought to tackle this issue with his “Apocalypse Trilogy”, three films connected by loose themes and ideas;his covers The Thing in 1982, Prince of Darkness in 1986 and In the Mouth of Madness in 1994. Each of these films approaches this concept from a different perspective but Madness feels like Carpenter’s ultimate statement on the genre.
The fear in Madness doesn’t come from the creature effects of The Thing or the fear of a loss of free will like in Prince of Darkness, although it has both in spades. Instead, the horror in Madness comes from the thought that we might not be real, that reality can be subjective. In the film’s third act it is revealed that Trent is a fictional character in one of Cane’s books,
he heads back to the real world he discovers that Cane has been able to rewrite reality and end the world through his books and eventually a film adaptation, directed by Carpenter himself. He sits down in the theatre with a bucket of popcorn and watches his life projected back to him as a piece of blockbuster entertainment.
It’s my favourite ending to a film ever because every question it raises is just so chilling. Has Trent always been fictional or did he simply become fictional when entering the town? What happens to the human race? Are they simply now characters in a story? Does the world itself end when the story ends and the credits roll? It’s an incredible twist with real existential terror but it also forces us to confront our very relationship with stories. Are we all simply fictional characters in someone else’s story or do we truly have control over our lives?
Cane’s influence on the world is first seen when regular people who read his work suddenly go rabid and start attacking Trent. As the film continues Carpenter slowly pulls back the layers on the story to show just how powerful Cane is getting revealing that he has been able to rewrite the rules of the world. His stories have somehow managed to change reality, best exemplified in my favourite line from the film, “god’s not a hack horror writer.” That quote is at the core of the film’s ideas. What if someone with enough influence managed to change how we interact with the world? What if our stories have the ability to change reality, that’s the question at the core of Madness and it’s become even more relevant today. In an era where every story is able to be accessed by everyone all over the world, stories actually do have the ability to shape our world. A single artist, writer or person of influence can have a direct impact on how people live their lives. In this film’s case this takes form in how readers interact with Cane’s books, they buy too much into the fiction and start to make it real. Not only that but the technology of today makes reality and fiction even harder to distinguish. Surveillance footage can be doctored and basic consumer tools like photoshop can make us question every image we come across. So in a lot of ways Carpenter’s film has scaringly become even more relevant. Carpenter wants us to question whether how we perceive reality is really objective, or whether it is an entirely subjective experience. It’s not just asking what’s real, it’s asking what real even is and if that is truly fixed.
That’s what I love about this movie, it’s not afraid to ask deeply existential questions but does so with a vigour and an incredible sense of craft. It deserves to be held up alongside Carpenter’s other classics, not just because of its quality but because it’s so multillayered and thought provoking. This was a hard article to write because there are just so many different interpretations and readings of the film and all of them are valid. It’s a truly one of a kind film but I think what makes it really special is how it’s representative of what is great about horror. It not only asks questions about our world but the fears it taps into burrow so deep into your mind that it’s impossible to forget them.