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Often overshadowed by Carpenter’s other films, “In the Mouth of Madness” is a brilliant Lovecraftian exploration of illusion vs. reality.

In the Mouth of Madness

In honor of legendary genre filmmaker John Carpenter’s appearance at Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas, Texas, May 26-28, 2023, we’re spending the week honoring some of the Master’s lesser-heralded films. Welcome to John Carpenter Tribute Week!

In the Mouth of Madness, the final film in John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy — preceded by The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987) — brings an extraordinary supernatural story of reality enmeshed with insanity.

Bringing it to life, screenwriter, Michael De Luca (now CEO of Warner Brothers), has a knack for writing dialog along with Carpenter’s darkest talents of intelligence to interpret for the screen.

Our mad story of disbelief kicks off when cocky insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) is locked inside a padded room, yelling, “I’m not insane!”  Wild-eyed and unraveled from terrifying flashbacks, his room and self are adorned with crosses created from a single black crayon.

A psychiatrist, Dr. Wrenn (David Warner), enters his room. Trent begins to tell his tale of hell, which began with his investigation into the disappearance of best-selling horror writer Sutter Cane.

As Trent sits in a café with a colleague, learning for the first time about Cane and his disappearance, an axe-wielding man crashes through the window. Jumping on a table and looming over a cowering Trent, the madman asks, “Do you read Sutter Cane?” The man is shot dead by police offers before he has a chance to attack Trent. That man is later revealed to be Cane’s agent (Conrad Bergschneider).

Trent consults with NYC Arcane Publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) and his eccentric Editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), on Cane’s whereabouts. We’re even treated to a supper sassy diss on Stephen King himself. Ouch!

Refusing to believe the theory that Cane’s novels have a way of infecting readers, Trent witnesses the violence rising in the city. While picking up copies of Cane’s books for research, he encounters a disarrayed young man at the bookstore, informing him, “He sees you.”

Falling into dark dream sequences after reading Cane’s novels, Trent envisions the deformed faces of a cop, citizens, and the dead agent.

The makeup effects by KNB EFX Group were advanced and texturally astonishing.

After noticing what appears to be a strange pattern among Sutter Cane’s book covers, with pieces of art outlined in red, Trent discovers they form a map when cut out and reassembled. This map seems to indicate Hobb’s End — the name and fictional setting of Cane’s latest book — may be based on an actual location in New Hampshire. Trent theorizes that’s where Cane is located.

Convinced this is all a big publicity stunt, Trent suggests he take a trip to Hobb’s End, and he agrees to Harglow’s suggestion that the lovely Styles accompany him for his road trip.

The pair’s investigative and quarrelsome relationship is reminiscent of The Stuff and Halloween III. The two share a chilling conversation about the nature of perception vs. reality.

When Styles drives the night shift while Trent sleeps, she begins to have strange and disturbing visions. Driving through a disorienting bridged portal, where night morphs into the day in a matter of seconds, they arrive at Hobb’s End, with Styles visibly shaken.

After being greeted at the hotel by a shaky elderly woman, Mrs. Pickman (Frances Bay), the pair is plagued by a series of increasingly odd and disturbing encounters.

It seems this sleepy little town has been plunged into a world of unimaginable horror, with Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochneu) apparently masterminding the madness by turning fiction into reality.

Though Trent remains steadfast in his assertion that nothing he is experiencing can possibly be real, insisting he’s the victim of an elaborate hoax, it becomes impossible to deny he’s entered some terrifying hellscape that portends something apocalyptic.

In the Mouth of Madness is at the top of its class when it comes to executing a compelling examination of illusion vs. reality.

With striking visuals and an overwhelming atmosphere of dread, some scenes are Hitchcockian, and others are decidedly Lovecraftian.

It all culminates in a spectacular special effects sequence, with Trent peeling back the pages of the church wall in Hobb’s end to re-enter his “reality” with the manuscript to the unpublished In the Mouth of Madness in hand — the most stunning and iconic shot in the film thanks to Cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe and Production Designer Jeff Ginn.

As you might expect from a film that punctuates an Apocalyptic Trilogy, the ending is bleak but brilliant. There’s no heroic saving the doomed world here. The only thing to do is settle in with a bucket of popcorn and enjoy the show.

Though this 1994 cosmic Lovecraftian tale is often overshadowed by Carpenter’s most celebrated trio of films: Halloween, The Thing, and They Live, it remains one of his best and is widely considered the last truly great film from the master of horror (directly preceded by another underrated genre gem, the anthology horror film Body Bags).

When I watch, I’m invested emotionally in Neill’s mastered and vulnerable performance of Trent and his tremendous chemistry with Carmen’s Styles.

Paying tribute to HP Lovecraft’s novel, At the Mountains of Madness, you can see Carpenter’s appreciation and intuitive reasoning in exploring other bizarre dimensions and fears of a hallucinogenic world — the kind only HP Lovecraft could have ever mastered in literature.

(Fun fact: The main theme for the film was inspired by Metallica’s Enter Sandman.)

Though it bombed at the box office, this masterful and visual film from John Carpenter has genuinely earned the title of being a cult classic. If you haven’t experienced this Madness, it’s a must-watch. 

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