What happens when you combine the technical mastery of John Carpenter, the twisted grotesque aberrations that define cosmic horror and a script that pulsates and twists with every stunning shot into some sort of inescapable nightmare? The answer is In the Mouth of Madness: one of the greatest horror movies of the 90s that unfortunately never got the widespread love it truly deserved on initial release. Now, 25 years later, it’s still an object of obsession for its loyal fans and has rightfully earned its place among the most influential cult movies ever made.
In the Mouth of Madness follows John Trent (Sam Neill), a freelance investigator tasked with locating the infamous horror novelist Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). He must find out the truth behind his sudden disappearance and the possibility that Cane has finally finished his swansong masterpiece that will consume the world (literally). Digging deeper into Sutter Cane’s disappearance, Trent arrives at the suitably creepy Hobb’s End. As Trent peels away the layers of Cane’s twisted insanity, he learns that this writer’s stories are far more than just harmless fiction.
Written by Michael De Luca, who also produced a number of masterpieces like Boogie Nights (1997) or Blade II (2002) and the final piece in Carpenter’s superb Apocalypse Trilogy also including The Thing (1982) and Prince Of Darkness (1987), In the Mouth of Madness is probably the most ‘Lovecraft’ Lovecraft movie you will ever discover. It isn’t afraid to throw you headfirst into the depths of its eponymous madness and as you reach from the depths for a helping hand, that hand is slapped back into the abyss by some towering mutated mess peering down at you from above. In the Mouth of Madness is everything you could possibly want from a Lovecraft inspired nightmare.
The defining factors in In the Mouth of Madness are De Luca’s writing and how Carpenter interprets De Luca’s demented vision and splatters it onto the cinema screen. All throughout Carpenter’s directorial career he has oozed atmosphere so easily and In the Mouth of Madness is no different. At every corner you can’t help but feel a sense of unease. As reality blurs and Trent falls apart in his relentless pursuit of Cane, things hit an absolute crescendo and become a complete joy to watch unravel. Couple that strange but infectious mood with De Luca’s creative tale of self-discovery (or condemnation depending how you view it) and the fear of the unknown gives In the Mouth of Madness a style almost entirely it’s own among 90’s horror movies.
Sam Neill as John Trent is a perfect fit. Carpenter was clearly aiming for authentic depravity and hoping to find a lead that would dive head-first into his twisted vision. Neill is renowned for giving his all to avant-garde roles like Possession (1981) or Event Horizon (1997), films that demand a lead willing to lose himself or herself in madness. The Northern-Irish born New Zealander embraces In the Mouth of Madness’ darker tendencies impressively. Had Neill not committed 100 per cent to Carpenter, one can’t help but feel it may have fallen flat in its tracks. As it stands, the actor is superb and his performance as John Trent will always be remembered as one of his strongest among horror fans.
Just as impressive is Jurgen Prochnow’s performance as Sutter Cane. From its investigative beginnings, we know very little of Cane and as Carpenter’s opus slowly unravels you can’t help but paint a picture of a Stephen King lookalike that we may never actually get to see given his uncanny ability to remain hidden for long durations of the film’s runtime. When we do eventually meet Cane it is easy to see why Carpenter cast Prochnow as this demented novelist hellbent on dooming Earth to terrifying depravity. Prochnow quickly consolidates confidence and demands you never look away from your cinema screen when he attempts to reason with the fractured Trent, like some sort of cult leader confidently swaying the masses (us), to his haunting beliefs. The casting of Neill as Trent and Prochnow as Cane may be Carpenter’s greatest coup along with Kurt Russell as Macready and Wilford Brimley as Blair in The Thing.
Once again Carpenter uses retro synth despair and chugging rock heaviness to great effect. His soundtrack (also featuring Jim Lang) pulsates throughout. It never builds to dizzying heights that threaten the minimalistic avant-garde approach but when it needs to be, Carpenter and Lang’s music is haunting – a near-perfect representation of what a Lovecraft story would sound like if it was pieced together by nightmarish keyboard and synth drones and unsettling experimental guitar riffs and melodies.
The theme song in particular is completely deceiving and encapsulates everything In the Mouth of Madness hides under the surface. A rock-driven theme song sounding like it came straight from the 80s transforms into an orchestral ambient affair that evokes terror before once again hitting back into the rock progressions that feel almost entirely out of context. But this weird mix is what works so well. Carpenter could probably write a full blown rock ballad accompanied by cheesy glam rock vocals and it wouldn’t feel out of place in In the Mouth of Madness. Just go listen to the tracks ‘Bookstore Creep’ or ‘The Alley Nightmare’ and try tell me they don’t sound like something from the looming apocalypse.
Where In the Mouth of Madness really comes to life and flourishes is when it is approaching its finale. Reality starts to disintegrate before Trent’s eyes. He begins to question everything he thinks he may know. Interdimensional aberrations stalk him down endless hallways. Humanity turns on the investigator: the whole world slowly becomes Cane’s pawn as he unleashes his magnum opus on the frightened world before him. Culminating in a finale that feels extremely well earned and rewarding, you will find yourself laughing maniacally just like Trent as you watch Carpenter’s tale of cosmic despair explode before your very eyes. At it’s very core, In the Mouth of Madness is Carpenter’s finest example of experimentation. De Luca’s writing takes us to the darkest depths many wouldn’t dare – all with the brains to bring it to a cohesive and profound end.
With In the Mouth of Madness, John Carpenter puts viewers on a true journey into the unknown. Feeling like we too are the characters within Sutter Cane’s novels, it has everything a cosmic horror movie should. In the Mouth of Madness is a tale of two men who have become seriously disjointed from reality and Trent’s only salvation is to delve further into insanity and depravity to unearth the answers. Grotesque creatures emerge from the darkness and Sutter Cane controls his followers like some demonic herd intent on destroying the world. It is completely fascinating. However, the all important question still remains: ‘Do you read Sutter Cane?’