With Director William Eubank hinting at a particular famous creature in January’s Underwater and Richard Stanley’s The Color Out of Space garnering positive reviews, Lovecraft is once again a hot commodity in horror. Combine that with February’s Leap Fear theme here at Nightmare on Film Street, and that makes it the perfect month to celebrate John Carpenter’s unofficial love letter to H.P. Lovecraft: In the Mouth of Madness. I hope you’ve brushed up on Sutter Cane’s latest because this one is guaranteed to drive you absolutely mad.
October 14, 1994, opening night for Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, was my introduction to John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. From the opening imagery of the trailer recapping Carpenter’s career, to the flashes of mutated children and ax-wielding maniacs framed around a what appeared to be a private investigator story, I was hooked. New Line Cinema had already sold one ticket.
“In the Mouth of Madness [is] a perfect storm of horror perfection…”
For those unfamiliar (or ready for me to stop gushing) In the Mouth of Madness tells the story of John Trent (Sam Neill Jurassic Park, 1993), a freelance insurance investigator who is hired by publisher Jackson Harglow to find their recently missing best-selling horror author, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow, Das Boot, 1981). Cane, has skyrocketed to the top of charts after his readers begin to experience disorientation, paranoia, and memory loss. Trent is brought in by the publishing house’s insurance company in an attempt to prove that the “Sutter Cane missing” story is nothing but a gimmick for the release of the author’s latest novel.
After a brief second encounter (Cane’s Ax-wielding agent was the first) with a creepy Cane reader in a book store, Trent displays an uncanny sleuthing ability by discovering a hidden map on the artwork of Cane’s previous novel. This map leads to the exact location of Hobb’s End, the town featured in Cane’s novel, The Hobb’s End Horror. Trent takes his map discovery back to Harglow, who gives Trent the approval to follow the breadcrumbs to the supposedly fictional town of Hobb’s End with the condition that Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen, Fright Night Part 2 1988) goes with him. Once our heroes set out to find Hobb’s End is were In the Mouth of Madness kicks into gear. Previously in the film, Carpenter used the 90s staple of image flashes to stir up unrest with the viewer. Frequently Trent sees a haunting or disturbing image only to be jarred awake in a startling jump scare.
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One of my favorite scenes in the movie takes place during the drive to Hobb’s End. While driving, Trent and Styles converse about Cane’s work and provide one of the film’s best quotes. During Styles’s explanation of why she likes Sutter Cane. “What scares me about Cane’s work, is what might happen if reality shared his point of view…A reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane were to become the majority. You would find yourself locked in a padded cell, wondering what happened to the world”. After this interaction, the film changes. Through her words, we can already begin to see the shift leading us to where Trent is in the movie’s cold open.
Eventually, the duo arrive in Hobb’s End, but not before encountering an older man on a bicycle mumbling about being trapped, and Styles experiencing hallucinations of the road transforming into storm clouds before suddenly emerging on the outskirts of the town. While idealistic on the surface, Hobb’s End is anything but, and as the cracks begin to be revealed in this seemly perfect town, this is where Carpenter plays all of his Lovecraft cards. The residents and locations of Hobb’s End are perfectly accurate to how they appear in Cane’s novels, right down to a squeaky floorboard, and like Cane’s novel, many of residents are changing into unspeakable horrors.
“The themes of madness, old gods, and mutating humans, are all tropes found in Lovecraft’s writing, but few have captured those themes on film as effortlessly as Carpenter.”
Sutter Cane finally appears, and through his writing has unleashed the “old ones”—powerful deities from a forgotten time. With the power of these old gods, he is using his writing to change reality for anyone who reads his novels. To say more would ruin this head-trippy reality-bending finale. In the Mouth of Madness, like many of Carpenter’s classics received a lukewarm reception upon its release. Thankfully, it is time and not box-office numbers that ultimately define a movie, and the last twenty-five years have been kind to In the Mouth of Madness. The Lovecraft connection helps, with Sutter Cane presented as a Lovecraft style author with Stephen King style success.
The themes of madness, old gods, and mutating humans, are all tropes found in Lovecraft’s writing, but few have captured those themes on film as effortlessly as Carpenter. The Lovecraft inspiration, mixed with Carpenter’s score and gorgeous visuals, make In the Mouth of Madness a perfect storm of horror perfection. Happy Anniversary In the Mouth of Madness, May the next twenty-five years be just as kind!