That Time John Carpenter Went Meta With ‘In the Mouth of Madness’
As always, Carpenter was light years ahead of his time.
By Nick L.
One of John Carpenter’s more endearing traits is his aversion to self-effacing clowning. This is not at all to suggest that Carpenter’s films aren’t funny — rather, it’s that the living genre legend often opts to play familiar B-movie scenarios completely straight, whether it be a terse gangland standoff rendered as a modern-day Western showdown (Assault On Precinct 13, one of the most influential films of the 20th century) or a masked killer, bereft of any overwrought psychological motive, terrorizing the inhabitants of a sleepy all-American suburb (Halloween, of course). While Carpenter has dabbled in satire (They Live) and high-concept fantasy (Big Trouble In Little China) over the course of his now decades-spanning career, the grounded nature of his approach is often its own reward. The Escape From New York director has all but perfected an economical, tough-minded creative ethos that has gone on to influence an entire generation of filmmakers dabbling in sci-fi, horror, and beyond.
Going Meta Before It Was Cool
In the Mouth of Madness, Carpenter’s glorious 1994 cult masterpiece, might be the most conspicuous exception to this rule. The story of an insurance investigator who begins losing his grip on reality while probing the mysterious disappearance of a lucratively popular horror author named Sutter Cane, In the Mouth of Madness is an unabashedly meta exploration of the creative act as a form of hypnosis. It is not only a film whose central plot conceit is unique to the moral panic that defined so much of the decade in which it was released (the idea that exposure to certain “corrupt” media could warp one’s brain and possibly even compel one to commit violent acts, etc.), it’s also a cutting cautionary tale about surrendering to artifice and fantasy, and a clever-but-never-obnoxious social lampoon about what it means to be considered the master of a low trade.
Of course, John Carpenter knows a thing or two about being unfairly labeled as the master of a low trade. Carpenter, who is known for his tell-it-like-it-is demeanor, once quipped: “In England, I’m a horror director. In Germany, I’m a filmmaker. In the U.S., I’m a bum.” Films like the Jeff Bridges-starring Starman and the memorably nasty high school bloodbath Christine might be considered totemic cult items today, but many of Carpenter’s more beloved works were initially decried as trash in their time. As such, Carpenter and screenwriter Michael De Luca (yes, that Michael De Luca) turn In the Mouth of Madness’ most important character, Sutter Cane, into the Ernest Hemingway of airport novels. Clearly, the obvious allusion with Cane is Stephen King (or perhaps, to a lesser extent, Clive Barker), right down to the fact that Mouth of Madness eventually makes a narrative detour to Hobb’s End: a kind of bastardized stand-in for King’s own sleepy, creepy fictional borough, Castle Rock.
Third Film of the Apocalypse Trilogy
In The Mouth Of Madness opens with Sam Neil’s John Trent being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. He appears to have gone stark-raving mad, as evidenced by the demented look in his eyes, and the vaguely occult-looking marks he’s scrawled onto his face. In a gesture that feels borrowed from a tale by H.P. Lovecraft (Carpenter’s reverence for Lovecraft is well-documented at this point), Trent begins to recall the tale of how exactly he went mad. We learn that when Trent worked in insurance, his employer (Charlton Heston) tasked him with looking into the matter of Sutter Cane. For all intents and purposes, Cane appears to have vanished off the face of the earth. After its ghoulish prologue, Mouth of Madness settles into a more deliberately routine rhythm, only to disappear further and further down the proverbial rabbit hole as Trent and a colleague, Cane’s editor (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 the criminally underappreciated Prince of Darkness. In all three films, evil manifests as a primarily unseen, invisible force, often contorting familiar things like dogs, books, and human bodies into horrifying and hitherto-unseen new shapes. In The Thing, Kurt Russell and his motley crew of researchers hole up in icy Arctic seclusion, fending off the malevolent energy of a shapeshifting, violently hostile alien parasite. In Prince Of Darkness, a group of college students occupy an incredibly menacing old church, where they proceed to unearth a tube of neon-green liquid that, if mishandled, could unleash the very literal fury of the devil. Both movies are steeped in Lovecraftian imagery and primordial terror, and both amplify the built-in claustrophobia of their settings to phantasmagoric degrees.
In The Mouth Of Madness is a funnier, sillier, more stylistically gonzo effort than its two predecessors in the trilogy, mostly because it purports to stand outside the nuts and bolts of its superficial narrative, to some degree, and actually comment on 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 contents are so unholy that reading it would cause one to spiral into a kind of monstrous abyss. If that idea alone were all the movie were interested in, In the Mouth of Madness would still rank as one of Carpenter’s more enjoyable late-career works. And yet, as always, the director is keen to dig deeper into the subtextual resonance of his story, turning what might otherwise be a spooky ’90s chiller — the type of thing you might have caught a rerun of on TBS sometime back in the 2000s — into a cheeky, compelling commentary on the horror pantheon itself, and Carpenter’s place in it.
We live in an era where people willingly and enthusiastically sign themselves over to fictional “universes.” Whether it’s Marvel, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, or perhaps something more obscure, we now inhabit an epoch in which individuals willingly give themselves up to elaborate forms of corporate mythology. In some cases, this sort of fanboy devotion can swallow you whole. In the Mouth of Madness is concerned with this very subject. It is no wonder the film was greeted with such indifferent critical notices 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 hath created, Sutter Cane himself isn’t even seen as a mere writer of trash books — when he’s finally revealed, he is tellingly and literally depicted as a prophet.