John Carpenter’s In The Mouth Of Madness

The final part of John Carpenter’s apocalypse trilogy (preceded by The Thing and The Prince of Darkness), In The Mouth Of Madness could well be John Carpenter’s last great film.

Now I am partial to a bit of Vampires, and even have a guilty soft spot for Escape From L.A., but this film is the last time he nailed a subject. Carpenter adapted Stephen King’s Christine for the screen, but here he does a film that is about Stephen King; a twisted King meets HP Lovecraft world, filmed by John Carpenter!

And by this of course we mean the fictional novelist Sutter Kane (Jürgen Prochnow). His novels have become so popular that they’ve caused violent epidemics across the world. With his latest novel due out it comes as a shock to the publishers when their cash cow goes missing. Sam Neill’s detective, John Trent, is called in to investigate. With publishing editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) in tow, they go off in search of the writer only to end up in his fictional world.

In The Mouth of Madness does rely on jump cuts and loud noises to get a response, and some of the creature effects are very rubbery – but it is the loving passion for the subject that needs to be admired here.  Any fan of creature horror fiction will be ticking off boxes as this film plays out. It doesn’t have a huge body count, but it is a film where death and madness is in the air. It’s about the circular nature of madness and how the laws of reality can all too easily fall away around even the most sane mind.

Sam Neill plays the stereotypical cocksure detective all too well. And the journey towards the insane is one he delves into with relish. There are a few cameo spots along the way from the likes of Charlton Heston, David Warner and John Glover.  Jürgen Prochnow plays a smaller role, but makes an impact when he’s on screen. We’re never sure if he is genius gone mad, or just pure evil from the get go.

It is commonplace for a film to set up and then deliver a weak third act, and this film has chopped about so much, it’s frankly astonishing that it manages to deliver a third act that is better than the rest of the film.

We’re given a hint of how it will all end at the beginning where we meet an already committed John Trent retelling his story to a psychiatric doctor (David Warner). Carpenter’s choice of shots and the production design convinces you that this is something with a decent budget (although only $8 million). And yet it ‘s the opening that is at its weakest as it is all about setting Trent off on his journey – but it is never a dull affair – and seeds of what is to come are planted in his own nightmares about encounters with deformed killers in alleyways, as well as inspecting ripped posters on walls. Not all is as it seems.

The second act gives as the bulk of the meat which tells us that the world has gone mad – but the killer third act accelerates as Trent tries to make his escape. And he encounters so much on that attempt to escape. A possessed Styles (who constantly attacks him, and rather disturbingly in one scene tries to swallow his car keys); an aging child on a bike (who isn’t allowed to escape the town of Hobb’s End); the crazed towns folk chasing him; and Sutter Kane himself who persistently appears in the most unexpected of places. Even when Trent is out, the madness never ends (the Bus Bus being quite a joy). The film looks as if it’s about to cop-out when we discover that, despite his attempts to destroy the final manuscript entrusted to him by Kane, he’s informed that he already delivered it, Styles never existed and that a film is due out soon! But thankfully we jump to a street riot where Trent has, it seems, given into the madness and delivers one of the film’s comedic highlights by axing a devoted fan to death outside a bookstore rush.

This brings us full circle and Trent finds himself walking out of the now deserted asylum and back into the city – which also seems deserted. He finds a theatre playing the film version of the book (note the poster actually lists several of the crew, including Carpenter). And it’s here that the film delivers its final crowning glory as Trent watches himself on screen with the exact film we just watched taking place on screen. Trent laughs himself into final and authentic madness.

Oddly enough this film was scripted by a big Hollywood producer and studio head, Michael De Luca (who was in his late 20s at the time) but the film didn’t do too well at the box office – only making its small budget back. It’s a shame that so many of Carpenter’s best works have not done so well at the box office (including his most recent effort, The Ward). But, thankfully he has had a long shelf life and In The Mouth of Madness is one that deserves more recognition as the cult film it clearly is.

Steven Hurst

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