One of the finest horror films ever made, one of cinema’s ultimate statements of total nihilism.
Though he had already dabbled in cosmic horror with his masterpiece The Thing, John Carpenter never looked on paper like the right fit for making films in the vein of horror legend H.P. Lovecraft. At first blush, Carpenter’s style, with its pared-down essentialism and its almost geometric level of aesthetic precision, is worlds apart from the author’s use of nebulous corporeality, ineffably non-Euclidean shapes and addled, unreliable narrators. Yet it is precisely the director’s economical style that gives the deeply Lovecraftian In the Mouth of Madness its surreal bite. From the opening scenes, in which the institutionalized John Trent (Sam Neill) is interrupted in his padded cell by a gnarled hand knocking on the glass and his ostensible shadow suddenly moving independently, Carpenter deftly uses his elemental approach to present a façade of detached objectivity that is incessantly upended by unexplainable terror.
Most of the film takes place in flashback leading up to Trent’s time in the asylum, and in short order Carpenter lays down a metatextual layer that complicates any notion of diegetic reality. In flashback, Trent is an insurance investigator who finds himself sucked into a search for missing Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), a horror author of such popularity that he makes Stephen King look like a guy self-publishing books on the Kindle Store. Trent gets involved after he is attacked one day by an ax-wielding psychopath revealed to be the author’s agent, driven mad by one of his client’s books. The scene of the expressionistically disheveled man inching closer in the background as seen through a restaurant mirror as Trent chats obliviously is bone-chilling and mordantly funny in classic Carpenter fashion.
Recruited by Cane’s publisher to find their cash cow, Trent almost instantly finds himself hypnotized by Cane’s novels, possessed by some vague power to manage to find a real location for Hobb’s End, the supposedly fictional New Hampshire town where his books are set. Accompanied by Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), an editor with the publisher, Trent begins to experience strange events even before the pair reach the town. In one of Carpenter’s most nerve-wracking scenes, Styles is driving in pitch black when she passes a boy slowly pedaling his bicycle down the same country road they are on. Shortly thereafter, she passes what is clearly the sam boy but suddenly much older, a feat that happens several more times as the figure withers in front of her before disappearing into the night. Carpenter’s steady direction of the scene renders this impossible sight as mundane, then draws terror from how casual the cyclist seems as he ages by the second.
Once the pair arrive in Hobb’s End, Carpenter’s crisp images and steady motion and editing only exacerbate the increasingly dissonant surrealism of the town. Residents seem to be perfectly trapped between complete obliviousness of Sutter Cane’s existence and eerie awareness of their status as quasi-real phantasms who increasingly act out the macabre events of the author’s prose. The sweet, old concierge (Frances Bay) of the inn where Trent and Styles stay, for example, turns blank when asked about Cane, but at one point the camera lingers behind with her after Trent leaves and cuts to reveal her nude husband on all fours chained to her leg in a grotesque image of debasement and power dynamics that anticipates Takashi Miike’s Audition.
As the true nature of the town and Cane’s work reveal themselves, Carpenter lurches increasingly into the abstract. Pulsing masses of flesh and monstrous forms poke out from behind the quaint buildings and rural residents, who themselves begin to shape into the shuffling, eerily silent mobs of which the director has always been fond. But the true horror lies in the way that Carpenter gradually threads the possibility that the entire universe exists within Cane’s prose, which subtly reconfigures even Trent’s early scenes as literary. Suddenly, the noir-esque framing of his insurance office, with light spilling in through slitted blinds and cigarette smoke hanging in the air, no longer seems a stylistic affectation by the director but an indication that he is a pulp fiction protagonist being openly defined in generic terms. Likewise, the city streets that Trent occasionally wanders at the start, all maze-like dead ends filled with refuse and graffiti, further enmesh Trent in a false world in retrospect, and the character realizes this almost in real time along with the audience, re-evaluating his entire life as he approaches the truth.
One of the film’s most striking images of terror, when Cane declares he wishes the world to be blue just before Trent awakes on a bus populated by elderly riders all cast in day-for-night azure, has since become diluted as a meme. In context, however, it retains so much of its power, a moment of total, terrible clarity for the protagonist that prefigures a closing act in which Carpenter’s clinical aesthetic only underscores the brutal truth of Trent’s life. Near the beginning of In the Mouth of Madness, Trent admits to disdaining Cane’s work, finding it pedestrian and lamenting the cultural tyranny of mediocrity in the author’s unbelievable success. In Trent’s feelings is perhaps something of the director’s, Carpenter being a man who envisioned a journeyman career but ended up almost entirely slotted into horror by virtue of his own mastery of the genre. As the film concludes with Trent sitting in a movie theater at the end of the world, watching the very movie he’s in played back to him, Carpenter acknowledges the predicament of his being trapped in a genre so often defined by cheap fads and banal craftsmanship, where all he can do is laugh at his situation. But if Sutter Cane can rewrite the very fabric of reality with his prose, so too can Carpenter, with his immense, honed skills, elevate this pulpy, self-reflexive material into one of the finest horror films ever made, one of cinema’s ultimate statements of total nihilism.