In the Mouth of Madness
The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ’90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ’80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).
Carpenter had already returned to the major studios following his exit into low budget filmmaking with Prince of Darkness and They Live – or They Live! if you’re subject to the Mandela Effect – (two out of a three movie deal with Alive Films; the final one never materialised). Memoirs of an Invisible Man was not a happy experience, although he struck up a good relationship with Sam Neill, who takes on the lead character John Trent here.
Between Memoirs and Mouth, Carpenter worked on the TV anthology movie Body Bags. Afterwards, his career slouch began in earnest, with the likes of Village of the Damned, the long-awaited Escape from L.A. and Vampires all missing the target. In the Mouth of Madness was made during the period when Turner Broadcasting had acquired the indie studio, a few years prior to New Line being sold to Warner, and a decade after it had established its horror credentials as “The House that Freddy Built”.
It was Freddy, specifically The Final Nightmare and anthology series Freddy’s Nightmares, that got De Luca his break in the industry, and by 1994 he was in a position to put Madness into production himself, as President of Production at New Line while yet in his twenties (notably, he hasn’t written anything in two decades – perhaps, like Sutter Cane, “They were telling me what to write” – last garnering a story credit on Star Trek: Voyager; as a Trekkie, it was a dream come true). Many tales of debauchery surround De Luca during his period riding high with New Line, but that shouldn’t detract from a remarkably assured piece of writing, one that distils horror from a much earlier era than the slasher antics of ’80s icons: HP Lovecraft.
Saperstein: Do you read Sutter Cane?
In In the Mouth of Madness, it’s the Old Ones of Cthulhu who are all set to return to our world, unspeakable and indescribable horrors. As with the title it co-opts, Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, Mouth features a flashback structure and the dread of incipient insanity. However, there’s much more to Mouth than simply retelling Lovecraft for the ’90s generation. And much more too than a pastiche of Stephen King tropes, who shares with Lovecraft an obsession with small town Americana and upon whom the movie’s architect of all evil, John Trent’s assignment Sutter Cane, is based.
Indeed, it’s a sly dig at King (whom Cane outsells, and who, like King, almost immediately announces movie adaptations of his work), wont to place a writer at the centre of innumerable of his stories, that Mouth revolves around an egomaniacal author who becomes such a focal point of his own universe that he is enabled to manipulate everyone else’s.
Cane’s novels all riff on Lovecraft titles, although The Dulwich Horror becoming The Hobb’s End Horror points to Carpenter layering his own obsessions over De Luca’s screenplay. While there was Lovecraftian material in both The Thing and Prince of Darkness, Carpenter’s adulation of Nigel Kneale has been much noted, with the writer commissioned to pen Halloween III: Season of the Witch and Carpenter using the pseudonym Martin Quatermass for Prince of Darkness screenplay: Hobb’s End is, of course, the location of the action in the seminal Quatermass and the Pit.
One also can’t help but wonder if Carpenter ever saw Children of the Stones, with Hobb’s End sealed in a loop that finds a young cyclist becoming not so very young while on a never-ending bike ride (“I can’t get out… He won’t let me out”), and Trent prevented from leaving until his author allows him to, finding himself right back where he started from.
Sutter Cane: It will make the world ready for the change. It takes its power from new readers and believers.
Mostly, though, Mouth is about reality, and the perception thereof, which is a little loftier than King and Lovecraft’s obsessions. Yes, Lovecraft had the unutterable reality behind the visible, trying to break through, but it’s a less tricksy prospect than De Luca is attempting, complete with a generous slice of metatextuality (the only thing missing from the movie-within-movie credits at the end is “John Trent played by Sam Neill”).
Bryant Frazer complained that Mouth “isn’t really about anything, save perhaps the power of the media and the purported dangers of paying too much mind to pop culture phenomena (yawn!)” He goes on to endorse Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, but one needn’t be at the expense of the other. I’d agree the picture isn’t really interested in the pop-culture phenomena aspect, although it certainly has fun with the idea of horror obsessives driven to a state of dangerous delusion by what they read (and if the thunder of the opening guitar wasn’t exactly Carpenter’s cup of tea, one might suggest he was taking the piss out of the cliché of dovetailing genre fans with an adoration of heavy metal) but the media point does feed into the picture’s broader theme, and it’s a touch obtuse to miss it.
Sutter Cane: a harmless pop phenomenon or a deadly mad prophet of the printed page?
Trent’s mantra, until proven otherwise, is “We are not living in a Sutter Cane story!” and our own ability to live out, subscribe to, or be indoctrinated by, someone else’s prescribed narrative oughtn’t to be underestimated. You can apply the power of the media to this, but really, it’s present in any paradigm committed to by enough of us. On a surface level, “When does fiction become religion?” takes in Scientology or people writing “Jedi” on censuses, but more devastatingly it leads to holy wars and millennium-long obsessions and oppressions.
Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), tells Trent, “Religion seeks disciples through fear, yet doesn’t understand the true nature of creation. No one’s ever believed it enough to make it real. The same cannot be said of my work”. Which is something of a slippery conceit, designed to sell us his power to rewrite reality rather than really standing up to analysis (“More people believe in my work than believe in The Bible” Cane claims, it having sold a billion copies and been translated into eighteen languages; not quite an accurate description, since The Bible’s estimated to have sold five billion).
Linda Styles: What scares me about Cane’s work is what would happen if reality shared his point of view.
Neil Gaiman used a similar notion in the recently adapted American Gods, that believing makes it so, but even if Mouth plays fast and loose with its numbers and evaluation of belief, it seizes on something stirring in Carpenter’s favourite line in the picture: “Reality is not what it used to be”. Or: “A reality is just what we tell each other it is”. And how easy it is to, metaphorically, “find yourself in a padded cell, wondering what happened to the world”.
On that level, the picture has something in common with They Live!, that perceived reality is subject to manipulation and abuse, and we can all be duped. As was suggested to Carpenter, both pictures have a select group able to see the truth (the glasses wearers in They Live, the followers of Cane in Mouth). So too, identifying the police, beating on the innocent, with malign forces is a shared feature (“You want some too, buddy?”)
John Trent: I know this book will drive people crazy.
Jackson Harglow: Well, let’s hope so. The movie comes out next month.
On one level, Frazer isn’t wrong, though. Mouth is more enamoured with having fun with its concept that preaching. As a winking movie, it could be seen as part of the vanguard that includes Last Action Hero, in which the artifice of the picture is foregrounded (the movie Trent goes to see is the movie we’ve been watching, Trent can only achieve anything after the writer has written him that way: “He wants you to kiss me.”: “Why?”: “Because it’s good for the book”).
But also, and I don’t think I’m being charitable here, aspects that appear ill-fitting at first, such as Trent’s rather overdone persona, make more sense in the context of his being a work of fiction (or, if you will, a product of his reinvented environment). He’s an Insurance investigator straight out of cheap detective fiction, always smoking, talking cheap to the dames (“Let’s get together after work”) and possessing the general air of the cynical gumshoe (“Lady, nothing surprises me. We fuck up the air, we fuck up the water. We fuck up each other. Why don’t we just finish the job by flushing our brains down the toilet?”)
Sutter Cane: You are what I write. Like this town. It wasn’t here before I wrote it. And neither were you.
Some have tried to fathom out the picture’s plotting in a coherent manner. Was there a point where Trent was his own person, before he became fictionalised? If we’re to expand the idea, there was never a time where he wasn’t living in someone else’s fashioned reality, or at least complicitly agreeing to their idea of a reality. But it’s a fool’s errand to try and address causality in this loop; it becomes as unyielding as a Grandfather paradox.
Jackson Harglow: Well… that is quite a story. If you could write it, I’d publish it.
There is the curiosity of wondering how much on screen is the content of the novel, though, although you could employ some slack by suggesting it’s only the content of the adaptation of the novel. Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) is oblivious to the narrative of In the Mouth of Madness (the novel), once he has published it (“No, I never read Cane’s work. I haven’t got the stomach for it” – did he also ignore the resemblance of his insurance investigator to the person depicted on its cover?), but Cane’s agent certainly wasn’t (“He read about you, in there”).
In which case, he presumably not only learnt about an insurance investigator retrieving the manuscript of the book and taking it back to Harglow, but about him reading said book and attempting to kill Trent (like that Bug’s Bunny Radio Times cover, it just goes on and on, receding recursively, although Trent is also finishing the novel when we meet him in Hobb’s End, so one might suggest it was subject to a rewrite process – see below).
It’s a neat cognition-scrambling conceit that, no matter what Trent does, the book stays with him, such that Harglow tells him “You delivered it to me personally, in this room, last spring. We published in July. It’s been in stores seven weeks” (somehow, it seems Cane has the only copy, despite his agent having read it and Linda being familiar with at least the gist of it, but she says they need to read the book to find a way out of the town). Although, surely Linda, who “was written out”, can’t not be in the book but in the movie (as with the agent, if she had read the book at the outset, she’d surely know she featured in it). To be honest, that line sounds more like something De Luca thought sounded clever than having any coherence.
Sutter Cane: Even now, you’re trying to rationalise.
Mouth’s best taken with a hefty dose of queasy dream logic anyway, where you’re not sure if you’re asleep or awake. It’s fuelled on quasi-magical mechanisms (a map made from book covers leading to a real place in a real state, despite being on no maps – one might assume this was part of the publicity stunt, but Linda doesn’t indicate this, merely that Cane was sent away as part of the stunt and never returned), utilises dreams within dreams (similarly to John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, replaying actual events, slightly but significantly altered), an inability to see what’s just out of reach (the In the Mouth of Madness cover beneath the cover of The Hobb’s End Horror depicting Trent himself, that stays hidden until just the right revealing moment) and leaps of distance (suddenly they’ve arrived in Hobb’s End).
It also suggests David Lynch influences. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was distributed by New Line immediately prior to De Luca’s watch, and Mouth nods to it at a couple of points, both with the appearance of Frances Bay as Mrs Pickman (Mrs Tremond there), the tentacled axe woman who has handcuffed her naked husband to her foot, and more eerily the moving portrait, an open door in Lynch’s film but here depicting figures whose positions have shifted every time we cut back.
John Trent: God’s not supposed to be a hack horror writer.
Mouth also brims with a winning sense of humour in support of its craziness. A particular flourish is another dream sequence, in which Cane communicates with Trent on a bus journey (“Did I ever tell you my favourite colour is blue?”, only for the entire world to become that colour;Trent wakes up screaming). The movie begins with Trent delivered to a mental institution run by the ever-amusing John Glover, who “soothes” his patients’ nerves with music (“Oh no. Not the Carpenters too!” screams the tortured Trent). And, having been informed by Cane of his pervasive influence, the best Trent can retort is the cheap but satisfying “Anyway, your work sucks”.
Linda Styles: The thing I can’t remember is, what came first? Us or the book?
The effects work is subtly suggestive, rather than full-on, as befits a Lovecraftian horror, and Edward A Warschilka’s editing deserves special praise, from the flurry of imagery assaulting those who have read the novel to the jumps in reality that occur at every turn (his work on the next trio of Carpenters is decidedly less so, ditto Kibbe). Presumably, Alex Kurtzman is a fan of Mouth, as this year’s The Mummy features both the double pupils of Cane’s converts and the hero driving in a loop, unaware, right back to where he began.
John Trent: What about the people who don’t read?
Jackson Harglow: There’s a movie.
I don’t think In the Mouth of Madness is quite up there with Carpenter’s top tier (The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China), but it shares similarly unmissable cult status with They Live: a great premise that is mostly fulfilled in the execution. It’s a shame that, not yet fifty, he was pretty much a spent force creatively after this point. Not that he didn’t pack a whole lot into about twenty years, more and better than most filmmakers, and not that he doesn’t still turn out good music (mostly less Metallica-inspired than this), but playing video games post- early retirement seems like a waste. Carpenter’s late career does very much prove that a filmmaker is only as good as the crew surrounding him, however, In the Mouth of Madness being the exception that proves the rule.