In The Mouth Of Madness (1994) | Review

| | Drama, Horror, Mystery | 10 Dec. 1994 (Italy) | 3 Feb. 1995 (USA)

Direction: John Carpenter | Cinematography:  G. B. Kibbe | Music: J. Carpenter, Jim Lang

Screenplay: Michael De Luca

Cast: Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jürgen Prochnow, Charlton Heston


Summary: Horror novels by a reclusive writer begin driving its readers to madness. The author of the novels, Sutter Cane, vanishes. To find him, Cane’s publisher, Harglow, hires insurance fraud investigator, John Trent and partners him with Cane’s editor, Linda Styles. Trent believes that the bizarre happenings are all a set-up by the novelist, Styles and Harglow to generate publicity for the books. Yet when Trent sees things described in Sutter’s novels, he begins to question his sanity.


John Carpenter’s In The Mouth Of Madness opens with rock music blaring over scenes of a printing press churning out copies of a book with the same name as the title of the film. Near the end of the film, the book from the beginning becomes a movie itself.

Metanarrative runs throughout, as does the theme of penitential madness, which finds a host in the clever and cynical John Trent, portrayed wonderfully by Sam Neill who, in the 80s and 90s, was partial to playing smart lads who go mad under harrowing circumstances. [There should be a triple-threat boxset featuring: Possession (1981), In The Mouth Of Madness and Event Horizon (1997)]

The film has some tense, unnerving moments (such as the early axeman/coffee shop scene) but fails to maintain atmospheric consistency, partly as a consequence of the outlandish extra-dimensional creatures which populate it and the ineffective jumpscares which they are party to.

In one particularly bad scene (it was my least favorite in the entire film) Trent sees a grotesque policeman with inhuman eyes. He then wakes up to see the monster leering at him from his couch (the shot hangs far too long). Then Trent wakes up again and this time for good. Fake-out scenes are common in horror films (as when a protagonist discovers someone standing behind them and they think its the antagonist but its merely a harmless side character) but double fake out scenes are pretty rare. One likely reason as to why is that they are 1. lazy (uncreative) and 2. inherently difficult to execute properly since the scene builds up tension for the first jump-scare (the first fake-out) but then has no time to build up tension for the second (since jump-scares must happen fast to have any hope of being effective). That being said, the supernatural author, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) was properly threatening (certainly more so than the fish-squid-dogs and bloody-faced children at whose appearance the viewer is supposed to recoil) and his scene with Styles (Julie Carmen) is nerve rattling… until, that is, the screen pans to a prosthetic monster that gurgles and twitches. Its supposed to be menacing but it comes off as merely cartoonish.

I note the scene mentioned above as the addition of a ridiculous element to an otherwise effective scene is a persistent problem within the film. A further example of this can be found in the scene towards the end of the film wherein Sutter Cane becomes a void into which Trent peers as Styles monologues ominously in the background. Its a terrific scene, one of the best in film, until, that is, the monsters (once more) show up, looking like the subterranean cannibals from C.H.U.D. (1984).

A pity there was not more exploration of the film’s themes — such as popular fiction becoming religion and the fear of the loss of identity (a theme that runs throughout much of Carpenter’s work) — monsters, however terrifying, can be killed, a shotgun to the head, a knife to the heart, but ideas appealing to the basest of human impulses, are another matter entirely, for an idea cannot be bruntly eradicated without likewise eradicating all who hold it. There is in that a kernel of terror, unfortunately, the film chooses to overlook that kernel for rubbery stumble-grumbling spooks.

Metal Wakes

Indeterminable rumblings from the center of the sphere shook the watcher from his reverie.

The thief, time, was there overthrown and the weight of his waste disclosed, along with the true visage of the world.

Searing rays slithered from Ra’s incessant maw, gnawing the surface of a galaxial tomb; bleaching bone and peeling skin. Bacterial-skittering buried deep within the ambling mounds of electric meat. Viruses feeding upon the feaster. Parasite parasitizing the parasite which parasitizes the host. Every corpse, a mausoleum. Cities within vesicles and a great and invariable war beyond the tumbling drops of mildew which stain’d the willfully ignorant eye.

A countless constellation of savagery beyond the sensorium of the sapient.

He spied worshipers gathering about the splendid horrors unveiled, to bewail the deer, gutted and strung.

“Praise the horns and damn he who takes them.”

So they sang, even as they severed their babes from their fleshy beds, smiling toothy rhuem at the liberation of the act. Chasing imagined idylls, thought long-discarded, intangible as the demons which the shamans of old warded with smoke and chant, whose appetites the sorcerers sated with sacrifice upon the bloody altar of the earth, offering up the hearts of their kin to the worms and their brains to the pitiless thorns.

Still the idyll eluded them.

Then a rumbling. Earth shatters and shakes. Pistons shear and steam hisses with the intensity of a thousand mythic wurms.

Metal wakes with emnity and roughshod runs incarnadine.

The Euphoric Problem

The thought of my “present reality” was plastered on the front side of a coin with a backside insisting, “Try to escape.”

Notice, while the backside literally read, “Try to escape,” the front side did not read, “Present reality.” Instead, the front side listed that which was, at the moment, my present reality. More often than not, the front side of the coin featured only a single word. For example, at any given moment, it might say, “Hungry,” or “Tired,” or “Complacent.”

Sometimes I really wanted to try to escape. Take the present reality of being “Cheated.” This is a situation requiring action, and I would most certainly find the bastard to blame and right away work against my present reality until I was fully “Rectified.”

At other times, it was not such an immediately satisfying game. I found, for instance, that every time I was “Euphoric,” I hesitated before considering my escape routes. To be euphoric is in all aspects desirable; and yet, even at the height of euphoria, I was confronted with the instruction to escape.

When I hit upon what might be called The Euphoric Problem, I began to realize that the coin analogy was burdened with a subtle oversimplification—an oversimplification that really amounts to a fatal oversight.

The coin correctly highlights a present reality and the compulsion to escape, but it leaves out a third level: the “subconscious will,” if you like.

When I began to contemplate this third level, I realized that it was the primary force responsible for projecting any given word onto the surface of the “present reality” side of the “coin,” and that is when I came to understand that the complete totality of my conscious circumstance undergirded a single proposition, which might be stated as: “Create any present reality and see if you can escape it.”

My only true present reality, you see, was this statement. I had been escaping a running series of present moments, but only in the context of this statement. With the satisfaction of the winning move in a game of chess, I promptly directed the proposition itself onto the front side of the “coin.” And that is how I achieved my current state outside the present moment. It might be called “disoriented,” “not-present,” or even “dead”—or it might be called: the answer to a problem.