The film doesn’t exactly get off to a good start with sub-par Metallica-esque music playing over the opening credits. Fortunately, once this music mercifully ends proper suspenseful music that we’ve come to expect from Carpenter’s films kicks in and we are tantalized with a teaser set in the present. Much like the opening scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), In the Mouth of Madness’ protagonist is brought into the authorities looking visibly distraught and ranting about the end of the world. John Trent (Sam Neill) is forcibly admitted to a mental institution (by none other than John Glover). He’s wild-eyed and frantic, claiming that he’s not insane despite the straitjacket that says otherwise. In a nice, cheeky touch, the administration drowns out the patients’ ravings with a Muzak cover of The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” and Trent groans, “Oh no, not The Carpenters too.” And then we are hit with the film’s first jolt as Trent is menaced by a mysterious figure who speaks cryptically to him.
A doctor (genre veteran David Warner) soon visits Trent to figure out what he’s on about and discovers that his patient has decorated his padded cell (and himself) with all sorts of black crosses of various shapes and sizes in black crayon. Trent appears to be crazy or, as we find out later on, is he the only sane person in an insane world? He no longer wants to escape because he feels that it’s the only safe place and tells the good doctor his story. Trent was an insurance investigator and we see him expertly plying his trade as he grills a man (played with wonderfully sweaty desperation by Carpenter regular Peter Jason) trying to pull a fast one on the insurance company. This scene evokes a similar one in the classic film noir Double Indemnity (1944) where Edward G. Robinson trips up a hapless man trying to cash in a phony claim. Sam Neill is fantastic in this scene as he confidently talks the man into a corner, presenting damning evidence until it is painfully obvious that he’s guilty.
Soon after, we get the first indication that something is amiss when a deranged-looking man uses an axe to smash a window of the restaurant Trent is dining in. The man asks him, “Do you read Sutter Cane?” before being gunned down by the police. The way Carpenter shoots this scene is excellent. He keeps the deranged man in focus in the background so that we can watch what he’s doing while also observing Trent being praised by his employer (Bernie Casey), oblivious to the approaching nutjob with an axe until he comes crashing through the window.
As luck would have it (or is it?), Trent’s next assignment is for a publishing house. They represent popular horror writer Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) who disappeared two months ago. No one has been able to contact him, including his agent who just happened to be the lunatic with the axe. The publisher (Charlton Heston) is eager to get his hands on Cane’s new manuscript but the reclusive author has only given him part of it. So, Trent is assigned the task of finding Cane and getting the rest of the book. The cynical Trent thinks that this is all a public relations stunt to promote sales of Cane’s new book. However, the deeper he delves into the investigation, the more his strange nightmares bleed into his waking life. Also added into the mix is the increasing chaos of the outside world as reading Cane’s books causes his more impressionable readers to lose touch with reality and news reports tell of riots occurring at book stores in several major cities in the United States.
Along for the ride is Linda Stiles (Julie Carmen), Cane’s editor, and the film really takes off when she and Trent arrive in the town where Cane resides. It is like they’ve entered H.P. Lovecraft country or, more accurately, the world as depicted in Cane’s books. At first glance, it seems like any small town in America but there is an unnerving lack of activity. Where is everybody? Stiles and Trent stay at the Pickman Inn (a reference to the Lovecraft short story “Pickman’s Model”) and are greeted by a seemingly kind old lady (David Lynch alumni Frances Bay). Stiles begins to spot details right out of Cane’s novels as if they’ve been transported into his fictional world. For example, there’s a painting in the lobby of the inn that ominously changes its appearance when she looks at it.
Sam Neill is excellent as the jaded insurance investigator who thinks he’s seen it all. Trent sums up his philosophy rather succinctly when he tells Stiles, “Lady, nothing surprises me. We’ve fucked up the air, the water, we’ve fucked up each other. Why don’t we finish the job by just flushing our brains down the toilet?” Trent is also a bit of a smart-ass. He’s a little too cocky, a little too confident for his own good and deserving of a lesson in humility which the Cane case will provide. Trent’s not the most likable protagonist but Neill’s natural charm keeps you invested in his character. He is fascinating to watch as a skeptic who is finally presented with a challenging case that will truly test his abilities and his resolve. Neill does a wonderful job of showing how the increasing madness that surrounds him gradually affects his character. Carpenter had remained friends with Neill after they made Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) and he was the director’s first and only choice to play Trent, but Bob Shaye, head of New Line Pictures, wanted someone else. After the massive commercial success of Jurassic Park (1993), Carpenter convinced Shaye that Neill should be in the film.
Movie executive Michael De Luca wrote the screenplay for In the Mouth of Madness based on his experiences in the streets of New York City and his love for H.P. Lovecraft’s stories about the Cthulhu mythology. He would walk to the Port Authority transit terminal each night to take the subway home from his job at New Line Cinema. He became fascinated with the homeless people that populated the terminal. De Luca remembers, “Late at night it got pretty scary and I started to think, what if everyone wandering around me is part of an otherworldly conspiracy to replace the human race?”
De Luca combined this idea with Lovecraft’s mythos about a race of ancient creatures that controlled the Earth, were banished and are now trying to return. The final component was the notion of a writer who was a combination of Stephen King and L. Ron Hubbard – in other words, a popular author with a rabid fanbase that bordered on a religion. He also referenced horror films that influenced him, including Equinox (1970), The Exorcist (1973), and The Shining (1980). De Luca also wanted to evoke Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Cane’s books being like the pods and “turning you into something else, as opposed to saying these people were screwed up before hand.”
In 1988, De Luca showed John Carpenter a draft of the script. Also being a fan of Lovecraft, Carpenter appreciated the homage to the author as well as the elements of the detective and western genres. He was unsure if he could pull it off but over the years he thought about it and finally in 1993, felt confident enough to tackle it. Carpenter and De Luca met to talk about the project. De Luca had brought in another writer to work on the script with Mary Lambert to direct. Carpenter and De Luca went over the script line by line and ended up going back to the original version. Carpenter worked with De Luca on the final drafts and made it his own, including enriching the characters by making them more three dimensional and putting in more good ol’ fashion jolts. Lambert dropped out and Carpenter agreed to direct with a budget of $7 million.
In the Mouth of Madness received mixed critical reaction. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “the movie does what no horror movie can afford to do, which is to play tennis without a net. Stories like this need rules; it's not enough to send the beleaguered hero on a roller-coaster ride through shocking images.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “this is a film with the temerity to think big, if only for the magnitude of the wickedness it invokes. Nothing less than ‘an evil older than mankind and wider than the known universe’ must be reckoned with before this cautionary tale is over.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas praised the film as “a thinking person's horror picture that dares to be as cerebral as it is visceral.” However, in his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe called it, “a bewildering, boring assembly of rock-video-surreal nightmare sequences with more repetitive episodes than Groundhog Day. I said, with more repetitive episodes than – oh never mind. Just consider yourself warned.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum described it as an “only spottily successful homage from director John Carpenter (Halloween) to novelist H.P. Lovecraft's kooky-wooky Who-really-rules-the-universe philosophies, the computerized capabilities of Industrial Light & Magic, and Carpenter's own, greater thriller-movie successes.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote, “In the end the most interesting thing about In the Mouth of Madness is its weird relationship with itself – its cheesy horror celebrating the power of cheesy horror, while pretending to be appalled.”
While Prince of Darkness (1987) only scratched the surface of the blurring of reality and fantasy, In the Mouth of Madness takes it to the next level by constantly questioning what is real and what isn’t. Stiles and Trent discuss this notion while searching for Cane. They start off talking about the scary nature of Cane’s books and Trent says, “What’s to be scared about? It’s not like it’s real or anything,” to which she replies, “It’s not real from your point of view and right now reality shares your point of view. What scares me about Cane’s work is what might happen if reality shared his point of view.” Trent says, “We’re not talking about reality, here. We’re talking about fiction. That’s different,” and she counters, “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.” These will turn out to be very prophetic words indeed. This conversation is the key to understanding Carpenter’s intentions with this film – that reality is what you perceive it to be, but what happens when you can no longer trust your own perception?
In the Mouth of Madness cleverly comments on itself as it plays around with notions of what is real and what is fiction, often blurring the line that separates the two. Carpenter is obviously having fun with the notion that conservative watchdog groups would have you believe that certain horror films and books are evil, promote wicked behavior and have a corrupting influence on their audience. They also believe that some of the artists that work in the genre must also be bad or how else could they conjure up such horrors? It would be so easy for them if there were more artists that acted like the deliciously evil Cane. Fortunately, it’s not that easy and good horror holds up a mirror to our society. It shows us its dark, primal side, albeit from a safe distance.
After the career low of Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Carpenter bounced back with In the Mouth of Madness and demonstrated that with the right material, he could still deliver a smart and entertaining horror film. Since this one, none of the scripts he’s worked with have been as good but fans of his still hold out hope that he’s got at least one great film left in him. As it stands, Mouth of Madness is a fitting conclusion to his informal Apocalypse trilogy that also includes The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness. These films all feature protagonists that must prevent the end of the world with varying degrees of success and at considerable cost to themselves. Mouth of Madness is no different as we are left with Trent laughing crazily at a film version of the misadventures he’s just been through while the world outside has gone to hell in a hand basket.