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Fright Fest 2019: In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

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Directed By: John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing, Prince of Darkness)

Starring: Sam Neill (Event Horizon, Jurassic Park), Jurgen Prochnow (Dune, Das Boot), and Julie Carmen (Fright Night Part 2, Kiss Me a Killer)

Written By: Michael De Luca (Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, Judge Dredd)

Release Year: 1994

Review by: Andy Taylor

I’ve always loved the title In the Mouth of the Madness. In fact, I loved it so much, I adopted the name for family get togethers years ago because if anything will bring you to the brink of madness, family will be that thing. With that being the case, it’s no wonder I’ve watched the tale of Sutter Cane’s madness inducing stories several times, but it wasn’t until deciding to review it that I learned something new, and I love learning new things. Looking into the film’s production, I discovered that In the Mouth of Madness is part of a trilogy of sorts that includes The Thing and Prince of Darkness. John Carpenter called these three films his “Apocalypse Trilogy”. My apologies if I’m just learning something that most people already know, but discovering this little factoid actually added an extra level of enjoyment for me, and that enjoyment extended to re-watching the other two as well. I’ve always thought they had a similar theme, so it made for a nice surprise to know they were meant that way. So how does this film stack up against its thematic brothers? Let’s find out.

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When rambling lunatic John Trent (Sam Neill) is brought into a psychiatric care facility, it seems like any other night at the understaffed hospital, but John is only one of many people brought in for the night. The country is in the middle of an epidemic of sudden psychotic breaks, and Trent is only the latest to suffer the type of madness that causes otherwise healthy people to slaughter random strangers. In trying to get to the root of the problem, Dr. Wrenn (the always wonderful David Warner) is brought in to assess the facility’s newest patient, and it seems that Trent might just have some answers about how everything began. An unspecified time ago, John Trent was the best, and possibly most cynical, insurance fraud investigator in the business, and his portfolio receives even better padding when he takes a job involving Arcane Publishing.

The large publishing house has quite literally lost their biggest cash cow, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), a horror author said to be more popular than Stephen King. Cane was supposed to be finishing up his latest and most terrifying novel when he vanished, and the only lead they had, Cane’s publicist, went insane after reading the little bit that was written. Since the disappearance could lead to the publishing house losing millions of dollars, Arcane plans to claim the multimillion insurance policy on their star author’s head. That’s where Trent comes in as both he, and the insurance company he’s currently working for, believe this to be nothing more than a publicity stunt.

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At the insistence of Arcane head Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), Trent takes executive Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) with him on a trip to locate Cane’s fictional town of Hobb’s End, which Trent believes may be a real place. As the pair delve deeper into Cane’s writing looking for clues that might lead them to the real Hobb’s End, reality begins to unravel around them. People becomes twisted shadows of their former selves, landscapes morph into hellish nightmares, and the words of Sutter Cane take on a life of their own, leaving the pair wondering if they’re still in the real world or the mind of a twisted author bent on bringing about its end.

In the Mouth of Madness is an amazing film that delves into the nature of reality and how we perceive it, and it does so without requiring the viewer to have a college degree in philosophy. It’s just a shame the underlying meanings and philosophical overtones are overshadowed by a debate that is far more vicious than I would have expected over such a nonissue. Don’t get me wrong, I’m used to the internet being the worst place in the galaxy this side of the Mos Eisley Cantina, a place where minor disagreements become battlegrounds of epic proportions, but I wasn’t prepared for the level of vehemence and hatred each side was willing to send the other’s way, especially when I can see where both sides have their points. So, what’s the pointless debate that has stirred the fires of unwarranted passion in so many? It’s this: Is the story’s antagonist, horror author Sutter Cane, based on Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft? After giving the film a second watch where I paid more attention for clues, I’m kind of leaning toward Lovecraft, but I can see why people think it’s King as well. I’ll lay down the backing points of each and let you be the judge. 

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The main points for Cane being Stephen King are his name (Sutter Cane works better as a Stephen King pseudonym than does H.P. Lovecraft), the setting of Cane’s stories (Cane used Hobb’s End while King uses Castle Rock), and the fact that Cane does kind of seem like King if King lost his mind and decided to drive the world to madness. It’s somewhat flimsy evidence to be sure, but it does work, more so when you add in the fact that Cane inspires the same kind of rabid devotion as the King of Horror (see what I did there). They even mention that Cane is more popular than Stephen King at one point in the film, putting the man’s name in your mind and letting you make the comparisons from there. Lovecraft has a couple of similar points going for him. Hobb’s End could just as well be a stand in for Arkham (the asylum from the beginning would work as the place where Herbert West perfected his necromantic arts), and Cane’s madness certainly mirrors that shown from Lovecraft’s characters, but it’s the numerous Lovecraft references that led me into that camp. Among the references, and this is only a small list, are: 

  • The hotel where Trent and Styles stay is owned by the Pickmans (Pickman’s Model). 
  • There are several short bits read from Sutter Cane’s books. These are all passages from Lovecraft stories.
  • Cane’s books are all variations of Lovecraft story titles, The Hobb’s End Horror – The Dunwich Horror, The Whisperer in the Dark – The Whisperer in Darkness, Haunter Out of Time – A combination of The Shadow Out of Time and The Haunter in the Dark. Even the title of the film could be a variation of At the Mountains of Madness.
  • Much of the film’s artwork looks very Lovecraftian including images of “The Old Ones”, “The Deep Ones”, and a creature that very much looks like Cthulhu.
  • Some of the locations Trent and Styles find as they research Cane’s books look and sound to have come out of Lovecraft’s stories including The Black Church and a barn that once held the massive spawn of a space god from The Dunwich Horror.

Of course, just because the movie is peppered by these Lovecraft homages doesn’t mean Cane is supposed to be Lovecraft; it could simply mean the movie is inspired by him. That being said, I am of the mind that Cane meets more requirements to be Lovecraft than King. I’m just not ready to say terrible things about someone’s mother on the internet to defend my position. Regardless of who Cane is, In the Mouth of Madness certainly follows Lovecraftian themes of insanity and despair, and that’s another reason I like this movie so much.

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Though madness is a central theme of the film, something shocking to anyone who read the title I’m sure, and despite starting off with a quite insane protagonist, the film’s descent into insanity is a slow one, and it’s a descent that attempts to drag the viewer along with it. It’s this slow build that gives more weight to the shocking instances of insanity Trent and Styles come across on their journey. An ordinary drive can become a terrifying excursion through dark realities where nothing makes sense, an idyllic field can become a grotesque scene of nightmarish horrors, and normal people can become demonic creatures hellbent on infecting you with their evil. Everything you can perceive with one of the five senses is suspect, and that kind of paranoia keeps the viewer on their toes, constantly wondering what’s real and what’s the outpouring of Cane’s diseased mind. I loved it, and I loved it even more because In the Mouth of Madness goes the extra mile in an attempt to make you question your own reality.

A movie dealing with insanity wasn’t a new concept in 1994. Hour of the Wolf, Jacob’s Ladder, and Through a Glass Darkly, just to name a few, are all great examples of film’s that dealt with the subject, but where most films leave it at that, In the Mouth of Madness goes further by making one wonder if reality isn’t already insane, at least so far as in how one perceives it. A question repeatedly asked throughout the film is, “What is the nature of reality?” In other words, does your own insanity dictate how you see reality, meaning each of us is living in our own personal world where reality is simply a concept instead of a rule, or is reality a straight line from which none of us can deviate. There is something Linda Styles says at one point that really resonated with me, “A reality is just what we tell each other it is, sane and insane could easily switch places…if the insane were to become the majority…you would find yourself locked in a padded cell wondering what happened to the world.”

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For myself, I’ve been wondering what happened to the world for years now as it seems to me that insanity has been humanity’s guiding force since we first started crawling out of the caves in distant times past, but I am an old man that occasionally shakes his fists at clouds. Still, I think the statement has a lot of truth to it, and it’s philosophical elements like that which made me enjoy In the Mouth of Madness so much. I did have one complaint of course, because once again, fist shaking, cloud yelling old man, and that’s the tendency for the film to occasionally go a little overboard with the metaphysical elements. I’ll admit that this might be more of a personal problem for me as subtilty has never been one of my strong suits, but the movie occasionally gets a little too “Schrodinger’s Cat” for my taste, and that stuff just goes over my bald head. No, that cat is not both alive and dead, it’s one or the other, and a person wondering otherwise doesn’t change that fact. Hold on, I think that cloud just insulted my programs!

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Now that we’ve gotten the philosophical gobbly goo out of the way, gobbly goo being the Webster’s Dictionary description of philosophy, we can get to the trifecta that makes this movie as spectacular as it is, the acting, the effects, and the atmosphere. You know you’re in for a treat when you see a cast that includes Sam Neill, David Warner, Jurgen Prochnow, and even Charleton Heston in the role he was born for, asshole publicist. Sam Neill is just such a fantastic actor, near everything the man touches is bound to be much better for his involvement, and In the Mouth of Madness is no different. He does an amazing job with the character, both with his portrayal of an insane and broken Trent and with Trent’s journey getting there, making his descent into madness an absolute treat to behold. The world keeps turning upside down on him, nightmarish horrors manifesting before his very eyes and reality warping into something unknown, but he refuses to believe it’s real until it’s too late. Once he gets there though, once his mind and soul can no longer deny the hell that’s broken out into the world, his breakdown is heartbreaking, uncomfortable, and intense. 

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Jurgen Prochnow is almost as charismatic as he is disturbing, and his charisma is a strange thing considering I almost never knew what he was talking about, his dialogue being the stuff I imagine would come out of a howler monkey’s mouth if you gave it LSD…and a vocal cord I suppose. Not that I think that’s a bad thing. David Warner adds his immense talent as Dr. Wrenn, but I was a little disappointed he didn’t have a bigger part. I will watch near anything with that wonderful man in it, even Waxworks, so the disappointment might be mine alone, but I would have loved to see him with a bigger role in the film. Still, he does a fantastic job with his small part. Heston is in the same boat as far as doing a great job with a small role, but I didn’t feel the need to see more of him. I like Heston for starring in the greatest ape based movie series in cinematic history, until the much better ones came out and took that title away, but he’s not someone I adore seeing as his characters rarely seem much different. The only character I didn’t really enjoy was Julie Carmen as Linda Styles, and most of that has to do with her flip flopping between two equally annoying stereotypes, super bitchy executive and dumb schoolgirl. She’s hateful because they needed a hateful bitch, and she acts like a dumb schoolgirl for the same reasons. She was just a poorly written character.

The makeup and FX work were not only incredible, it made me nostalgic for the days before Hollywood decided practical effects were a waste of time compared to CGI. The effects you’ll see in this film are miles above much of what you’ll see in big budget movies today, which is kind of sad considering this movie is almost thirty years old. Not only do the effects look fantastic, some of it manages to be seriously disturbing, and disturbing isn’t an easy thing to achieve when you’re dealing with someone who has seen thousands of very unsettling movies during their lifetime. Some of the ones that impressed me the most were the feral children with the rotted, decaying forms who radiated a sense of menace and wickedness (kids are terrifying enough as is), Styles doing an inverted crabwalk (accomplished by having a contortionist wear a Styles mask upside down), and a wall of monsters that would haunt anyone’s worst nightmares (accomplished using a combination of animatronics, puppetry, and actors in suits). On top of the aforementioned examples, many of the people Trent and Styles come across are people who have had their minds broken by the words of Sutter Cane. These people begin to warp and deform, their exteriors distorting to match their twisted psyches, and they all look amazing. They don’t use an unnecessary amount of makeup either, just touches here and there, and it makes these people all the scarier looking for it. 

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Lastly, the atmosphere they created for In the Mouth of Madness, one which is increasingly creepy and unsettling as the film goes on, produces an ominous feeling in the viewer. That feeling of alarm is only heightened by the fact that the film constantly keeps you off balance, never letting you feel as if you have a firm understanding of what’s happening. I found myself always wondering what was really going on, not to mention what was real, and always worried about what was coming next. It was the perfect atmosphere for a Lovecraftian film, and it was a good thing they did such a great job with it because much of the movie’s fear and suspense relies on that atmosphere. They don’t waste a lot of time trying for cheap jump scares, which makes the few that do happen more jarring, nor do they try to make the monsters, both human and otherwise, overly grotesque. That’s not to say there aren’t grotesque creatures that looked to have stepped out of the dreams of madmen, just that they didn’t go so far as to make them outlandish, some even have a somewhat whimsical, if still disturbing, design.

There was one thing I wasn’t a fan of, because of course there was, my cloud feuding wouldn’t allow otherwise, and it’s that the film was sometimes too dark. I’m sure they did it to increase the tension, and perhaps to hide flaws in the makeup and animatronics, but there were times it was so dark I couldn’t at all make out what was supposed to be occurring onscreen. It wasn’t near enough of an issue to make me enjoy the movie any less, but it did become bothersome at times.

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In the Mouth of Madness is a fantastic film that showcases some of John Carpenter’s best work, so much so that between this, The Thing, and Prince of Darkness, his Apocalypse Trilogy, I think this film ties with The Thing because I couldn’t tell you which I liked better. They are both great films I think every horror fan should see, and even Prince of Darkness, while not one of his better films, is still a good movie, making all three worth the watch. Besides, everyone knows Carpenter’s best was Big Trouble in Little China.

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Andrew Willis Taylor lives in St. Louis, MO with his wonderful girlfriend who doesn’t mind his lengthy diatribes on why Benjamin Sisko was the greatest captain. When he isn’t writing or turning old junk into usable household items, you’ll find him exploring new areas, volunteering downtown, or plopped in front of a television watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. He also has a weird aversion to writing short bios that leaves him unable to figure out what to put down. I think he likes puppies or something too.

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