IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. H.P. Lovecraft embodied

It has long been known that Howard Phillips Lovecraft has no luck with cinema.

Krzysztof Walecki

5 July 2023

In the Mouth of Madness sam neill in an asylum

If you follow the list of films inspired or based on his work, you can see how few of them try to duplicate the author’s description of crazy reality so that it acquires the features of tangible realism. How a slowly uncovered secret triggers the main character’s madness. How unbelievable the narrative does not leave the viewer with the impression that he is dealing with the hallucinations of a sick mind, but raises a genuine threat, unsupported by any conclusive evidence. It’s as if Lovecraft is trying to convince himself that Cthulhu, the Great Old One he invented, is just a figment of a madman’s imagination, which ultimately leads to the complete opposite conclusion – it’s all true.

The Plot

john carpenter In the Mouth of Madness sam neill straight jacket

Unfortunately, the cinema is unable or unwilling to adapt Lovecraft’s works with the full benefit of the inventory, which means that a large part of the film adaptations has little to do with the book original, and the rest tries to deal with his prose in a clumsy way. There are titles that, although far from the original (both plot and convention), find themselves surprisingly well on the screen, such as the comedy Re-Animator (1985) or the silent movie Call of Cthulhu (2005). Probably the most faithful adaptation, and at the same time retaining a specific book atmosphere, is the Spanish Dagon (2001), but it is seven years younger In the Mouth of Madness that can be considered the best Lovecraftian horror. And this is all the more surprising, because John Carpenter’s film is not even based on any specific work by the author of The Whisperer in Darkness.

The starting point, however, sounds suspiciously familiar. John Trent (Sam Neill), a recently popular insurance detective, a rational, factual man, and extremely effective in his profession, ends up in a psychiatric hospital. Doctor Wren (David Warner) who investigates his case decides to find out how such a person ended up in a madhouse, which gives the main character a chance to tell his extraordinary story. It turns out that his latest assignment was to find a successful horror author, Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), who dropped off the face of the earth, worse, along with the manuscript of his new novel. A concerned publishing company hired Trent, who very quickly discovered that the writer may be hiding in the supposedly fictional city in his books. A trip to Hobb’s End, followed by a stay there in the company of Cane’s publisher, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), does lead the detective into the maw of the title.

In the Mouth of-Madness man with an Axe

As you can see, the very construction of the plot – the story of a character plunged into madness, who, faced with his own end, recalls the events preceding it – brings to mind the works of Lovecraft, and there are also quotes from his works, nomenclature (the title itself is a paraphrase of his At the Mountains of Madness ) and even the appearance of slimy monsters with the obligatory tentacles. But the success of Carpenter’s work is determined not so much by the references to the prose of the famous writer, but by the fact that the film deals with the power of the book medium, specifically horror, to an equally large extent.

Non-Carpenterian horror

The self-referential character of the genre, characteristic of the mid-1990s, also found expression in Wes Craven’s The New Nightmare, filmed in the same year, and Scream, also by this director two years later. However, while those films openly polemicized with the classics, Carpenter is far from postmodern fun. That’s why the writer’s name isn’t H.P. Lovecraft, but Sutter Cane, and Hobb’s End doesn’t look much like seaside Innsmouth. In The Mouth of Madness does not flaunt his literary inspirations, treating them more as a treat for the initiated. Thanks to this film, it manages to refer to Lovecraft’s work in a very unforced and subtle way, while avoiding its direct connotations. In other words, you don’t need to know his prose to fully appreciate the film.

in the mouth of madness sutter kane jurgen prochnow

It’s strange how un-Carpenterian this horror is. The director, who has always been able to ensure realism, here undermines it from the very beginning. The psychiatric hospital is oddly clean and empty, and the welcoming committee, headed by an exaggerated chief, is unnatural. The mysterious doctor Wren, who is interested in the main character’s case, appears out of nowhere, gains access to the patient, although in truth it is difficult to say who he is and what he does there. For Carpenter, reality has always stood in opposition to the fantastic element, the presence of which aroused a cognitive shock (the best examples of this are Halloween and They Live). Here it seems as if it were an unsolved mystery, and Trent the only character who notices and fights against its conventionality. Michael De Luka’s screenplay gives a clear answer why this is so, although the director also imbues his film with an atmosphere of constant doubt about what we are seeing – the real world through the eyes of a madman or a false reality from the perspective of a completely normal person?

in Mouth of Madness book sam neillEven before Trent leaves for Hobb’s End, the situations he encounters are far from ordinary, whether it’s an axe-wielding lunatic, an unhealthy-looking boy in a bookstore, or a cop beating up a homeless man in an alley. This last episode is repeated several times in the film, each time sounding differently, but always surprising with its nightmarishness. And I mean not bestiality, but the atmosphere of a bad dream from which Trent seems unable to wake up. The construction of In the Mouth of Madness is based on numerous repetitions and loops, sometimes very obvious (the scene of an impossible escape from the city, when the main character, wherever he goes, always returns to the same place), other times enigmatic (a particularly eerie cyclist whose function is unclear). It is difficult to say when truth begins and ends, when fiction begins and ends, and whether the distinction is in any way valid. Unless Trent thinks so.

Culmination of Apocalypse Trilogy

Carpenter calls In the Mouth of Madness the culmination of his so-called apocalyptic trilogy, which also includes The Thing and The Prince of Darkness. Each in its own way presents a different possibility of the end of humanity, but only in the latter is the threat fulfilled. Not by a cosmic life form or the devil, but by reading books, especially those that distort our reality and impose a new image on it.

in the mouth of madness hobb's end sam neill

When the main character finally accepts that he has come to a city found only in Cane’s novel (titled In the Mouth of Madness not by coincidence) and the inhabitants of Hobb’s End are literary characters, the horror takes on the shades of a very dark comedy. Trent praises the book’s descriptions of the city, noting that the novel reads like a guidebook; a desperate local is forced to commit suicide because “that’s how it was written”; the author himself, convinced of his own divinity, states “I think, therefore you are”. In this way, the pessimistic ending does not carry genuine horror at all, but a perverse and bitter conclusion. Art will kill us, low literature put on a pedestal by ourselves. Of course, the film by the director of The Fog is in no way a critique of horror (or Lovecraft himself and his work), but an image of faith in any value and meaning of such prose brought to the point of absurdity. Let’s not look for meaning where there is none.

in the mouth of madness sam neill laughing his ass off in a cinema

Perhaps Carpenter made a mistake by putting the finale in big quotation marks, looping the story in a way that left no hope of getting out of Trent’s trap. When the credits roll a moment later, illustrated with a rock theme, the gloomy Lovecraft seems to be a distant association. And yet, In the Mouth of Madness works better than many film adaptations of this author’s prose – at the decisive moment, instead of looking at the source of his inspiration, it rejects imitation and presents its own consistent vision of the end of humanity. An empty cinema and only one spectator in the room. For some, it will be scarier than all the horror books put together.