Format: DVD from River Valley Public Library through OCLC WorldCat on The New Portable.
I didn’t realize until In the Mouth of Madness started that it starred Sam Neill. It’s at this point that I consciously realized that Sam Neill has been in some freaky shit. He was in Possession, which is a serious head trip and he was in Event Horizon, which never gets the love it deserves. And he was in In the Mouth of Madness, which also goes by John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness if you were wondering who directed and scored it.
There is a loose connection to the work of H.P. Lovecraft here, much more tangential than full-on homage. There’s a sort of feel to the story and the location that knock on Lovecraft’s door. It’s probably a good thing that this doesn’t really go any further because there aren’t a lot of directors who could come close to producing something that would work for Lovecraft. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Guillermo del Toro, although Carpenter moved in that direction with The Thing. Still, I’m not entirely sure that Lovecraft really translates to film well, so “inspired by” is probably more than enough.
Most of In the Mouth of Madness is going to come in the form of flashback, with our hero John Trent (Sam Neill) relating his experiences to a psychiatrist (David Warner) while in a padded cell. It’s easy to forget that that’s where we’re going here once the movie starts, because Trent does not present as someone destined for a rubber room. He works more or less as a freelance insurance investigator, specializing in uncovering frauds and attempted frauds. While having lunch with his latest client (Bernie Casey), he is attacked by a crazed man with an axe, who is shot by the police just before he buries the axe in Trent’s skull.
This leads to Trent being hired by book publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), whose star author, Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), has gone missing. Naturally, the company has a massive insurance policy on Cane, and it’s Trent’s job to attempt to track down the missing man. Going along with him is Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), Cane’s editor. It’s during this meeting that Trent learns that the works of Sutter Cane sometimes have a dangerous effect on the minds and actions of some of his readers. He also learns that the man who attacked him with an axe was Sutter Cane’s agent.
Before setting off to look for Cane, Trent makes an interesting discovery. The covers of Cane’s books contain red lines that can be lined up. When they are, the covers create a map of New Hampshire and pinpoint the location of Hobb’s End, a mythical town that appears at the center of the state. It turns out that Hobb’s End is for Sutter Cane a great deal like what Castle Rock is for Stephen King. It’s a town where a great number of his horror stories take place.
Once Trent and Styles show up in Hobb’s End, things start to get very weird. Style eventually admits that this whole thing was at least partly a set-up. Cane’s disappearance was sort of planned, but that none of the rest of what has happened was. The appearance of Hobb’s End as a real place—a place that seems to fit all of Cane’s descriptions of it—is particularly disturbing. And it soon becomes evident that Cane is somewhere in the town and that he is controlling the reality of the town through his writing. In short, he claims that his writing is creating the world around him, including the very existence of Trent himself. The more Trent digs into things, the more it feels like he is no longer in control of his actions or his destiny, and the more it seems like all of his actions really are under the control of Sutter Cane.
I’m not going to reveal where this goes or the upshot of Trent’s beliefs that he is not in control of what is happening around him. Suffice it to say that rather than give us something that is easily explained, In the Mouth of Madness turns into a Klein bottle. By the time the final credits roll, the movie has dived into its own navel and come out the other side.
But is it any good? It kind of is. It’s not the sort of film that is going to be anyone’s favorite John Carpenter film, because it’s certainly not on the level of Halloween or The Thing, or even Starman or Escape from New York. It’s a movie that has some substantial ideas but doesn’t really have a way to express them any better than it has. I don’t think the problem is caused by Carpenter here, and it’s not really caused by the story, either. I honestly think this is about as good as it can be for what it is and for the budget Carpenter was given.
Why to watch In the Mouth of Madness: It’s insane.
Why not to watch: It goes very, very far into its own navel.