If one may make a broad generalization about the bulk of the genre, horror movies tend to be about the fear of pain and death, usually by violent means. As audience members we can all relate, on a gut level, to the fear of being stabbed by another human being. Hence, it doesn’t take much — in filmmaking terms — to depict that fear in visceral detail. If one were to enjoy horror films on their most surface levels, there is still something universal.
But a great horror movie will do something a little deeper. On one level, filmgoers will relate to the victims and their plight, living their panic and pain. But, simultaneously, the filmmakers offer us a strangely cathartic cinematic friend in the killer. A great horror movie will point out to us that the killer is also a relatable figure, and that we, perhaps, have a need to cause death and destruction deep within our souls. And acknowledging that horrid universality is more fearful and disturbing than merely being rent and pulverized. No matter what horror film you’re watching, the killer is going to be appealing.
I bring this up to distinguish great horror movies from merely good ones. A good horror movie will threaten your body. A great horror movie will threaten your mind. Being mutilated is horrifying, yes, but in terms of larger, darker, more universal fears, nothing can beat the notion that your mind is slipping away from you. A great horror movie will point out that there is little divide between you and the insane, and that you – presumably sane – are but a single dangerous, convincing idea away from being a monster.
This is why John Carpenter’s 1995 film IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is the scariest film of the 1990s.
Personally speaking, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS was a watershed moment in my personal journey of film consumption. The film, while perhaps sloppy and haphazard, struck my 16-year-old mind as something ineffably profound, depicting the above notions – that madness is the ultimate in fear, and that merely being introduced to dangerous philosophies can transform you into a creature – as striking, new, impossible ideas that I had never seen before. This was the film that I saw at just the right age, and have been carrying around ever since. Not THE SHINING, not THE EXORCIST, not any other awesome classic. This not-very-lauded film from the mid 1990s.
But, upon several re-visitations, I can say that IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS not only holds up, but has only revealed itself to be universally salient, visually creative, and unendingly scary. Let us explore.
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is about an insurance agent named John Trent (Sam Neill), a gruff, grounded, cynical fellow. Like many policemen and investigators, Trent has been exposed to more dishonesty than honesty, and has long ago lost faith in humanity. “If you can think of it,” he declares “they’ve done it.” A companion points out that his philosophy doesn’t leave much to believe in. He agrees, but counters that it doesn’t leave much to be disappointed in either. There’s always an angle, a human weakness, a rational explanation. We’ve seen this character in many movies. His archetypal qualities are actually a dramatic strength, which we’ll get to. Refreshingly, however, Trent is a classy adult. He’s not a grizzled alcoholic or unshaven brute.
Trent narrates the movie from inside an insane asylum, so we know things won’t end well for him.
Trent is hired by a publishing firm (run by, of all people Charlton Heston) to locate a missing author named Sutter Cane. Sutter Cane is one of the world’s most successful authors, clearly modeled after Stephen King in popularity and presence, but much more like H.P. Lovecraft in style. Cane’s next novel, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is past due at the publishers, and his fans are getting restless. It’s also been said that Cane’s work is having… an effect… on his readers. People aren’t just frothing in excitement. They seem to be going literally mad.
Trent reads Cane’s books, discovers a map hidden in the book covers, and heads out to a small New England town to find Cane, followed by an editor named Linda (Julie Carmen). Linda will succumb to the madness first.
The small New England town, we slowly begin to realize, is not entirely real. The people in it resemble characters from Cane’s books, and the situations are similar to other scenes from Cane novels. Trent, a realist, is now faced with the very real fact that he is facing something that is somehow both real and fictional. Cane has become so influential, he can alter reality by writing.
When you read a good book, you kind of vanish into it. In the higher states of literative rapture, it can feel like you bodily vanish, and that the fiction has supplanted the “real” world. For anyone who has been so deeply moved by a book, it’s easy to imagine a work of literature drastically altering your mind to the point of transformation. That’s what Cane’s novels are capable of — undoing the mind to the point of metamorphosis. If one looks at it correctly, isn’t this what all great art does? Get into your head and change the way you see things?
And if the world is changed depending on your perspective, and an author can change your perspective, then it’s a terrifying real notion that a work of literature can usher in the very apocalypse.
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is about that cognitive challenge. Seeing something so daring — and yet so convincing — that the world explodes into chaos. In the better cases of literary influence, the reader can evolve, and the writer is attempting to change minds for the better.
Sutter Cane (played by Jurgen Prochnow), however, has no such benevolence. He is operating under the influence of ancient evil deities that are so old and so alien that to merely look upon them causes the human mind to snap. Cane doesn’t want to put the world in order. He wants to force it back to the indescribably strange antediluvian chaos of old. A chaos so maddening, nothing can stop it. Just contemplating Cane’s motive is terrifying.
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS points out to us that whatever order we see in the world is but a temporary illusion. Order and sanity are just fictions. Popular opinions. Malleable notions that can be undone by a good story. The world is not going to work for hard line realists like Trent, because he’s confronted with things that don’t fit with his worldview. The film is, more or less, a story of how a hard line atheist is suddenly confronted by the Devil. He is unprepared for what he sees, fights it, and fails.
Does the film fly off the rails? Indeed it does. In terms of cinematic structure, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS dissolves in its second half. We learn about halfway through that Trent’s quest to stay sane and to save the world from Cane’s apocalyptic novel is destined for failure. The novel will be published, will drive the populace insane, will cause the mutation and downfall of humanity (oh yes, and for those who don’t read, there’s a movie adaptation coming out soon as well). These things are going to happen. As such, the final 30 minutes of the film is essentially a series of haphazardly connected vignettes of Trent encountering Cane and his magical whatsits. This is maddening to fans of traditional cinematic structure, and is the most salient criticism of IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.
But by the end, one will be so wrapped up in the conceptual extremity of the film, it won’t matter. I admit, encountering these notions at age 16 will make them seem, perhaps, more complex and meaningful than they would be to someone in their thirties. But the notions are, I think, still scary. These notions may have been explored in a more sophisticated way by a more masterful director, but then the flick would not have been as viscerally exciting. John Carpenter is a subtle expert of cinematic craft, and his ease behind a camera made for an immensely watchable movie.
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS balances excellent horror imagery, some awesome creature effects (achieved by Stan Winston), a tense thriller tone, a few terrifying notions to create one of the most unsettling films of the decade.