Warning: the following article contains spoilers for this movie. If you have not watched it yet, do yourself a favor and turn back now and go watch it. This movie is at its most effective if you go into it not knowing a damn thing about it. Trust me on this.
Growing up, I was aware of some of John Carpenter’s works, such as: ‘Halloween’, ‘Christine’, ‘The Thing’, ‘Escape from New York’, and ‘Escape from L.A.’ (which I saw on the big screen when I was thirteen years old), but my obsession with his filmography didn’t begin until I was a teenager with my own video rental account; long ago in the ancient time before red boxes and streaming services, back when my hometown had three video stores – and now there are none. At this point in my life I wasn’t just watching movies, I was devouring them. I was especially paying close attention to those behind the camera, and soon discovered that I had been drawn to John Carpenter and his style of storytelling.
Carpenter is first and foremost an independent filmmaker who tells his stories his way, well earning of his name above the titles of his films. Make no mistake, film making is a collaborative effort where everyone involved is valuable and responsible for the final product and that no movie can be made without team effort, but Carpenter’s leadership shows on screen – everything has purpose – everyone involved is guided by his unique visions that are free from the shackles of standard Hollywood formula. Weather you like his films or not, you cannot deny that he has his own distinct style; the way they look; the way they sound; the way they feel; his films stand apart from most. When you get a John Carpenter movie, you don’t get a happy ending or a definitive resolution – instead, you, the audience, are left with a hook to keep you thinking about the movie you just watched. His films have attitude and a style distinctly his, and for those reasons I find him and his films to be refreshing.
When it comes to his horror related works, ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Thing’ are the two highest regarded of his filmography – and for good reason too, as they are both excellent films with masterfully crafted atmosphere and suspense – but there is another that I personally feel is just as good as those, and that is ‘John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness’ (1995).
‘John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness’ isn’t just a film that I love or like, it’s a film that I adore. In fact, I feel so highly about this movie that I have three copies of it in my household: I own the DVD, the bare-bones Blu Ray edition, and the Scream Factory Collector’s Edition Blu Ray. The DVD copy is primarily used as a loaner as I tend to shove this movie down the throats of anyone who talks to me about movies; usually I’m handing them the DVD before they can answer if they even want to borrow it. I love talking about this movie with people, especially with those who watched it for a first time. The funny thing is that out of all the people who I’ve let borrow this movie, I have yet to hear someone say something negative about it. So far, everyone who I’ve shown it to seems to have loved it or at the very least liked it. I’m sure there are those out there who don’t like it or are indifferent to it – maybe they don’t like it for their own legitimate reasons, or maybe it’s just not their cup of tea – and I’m sure that not everyone who does like it is as enthusiastic about it as I am, but in my experience, it seems to be a crowd pleaser.
And yet, it’s one of his least talked about films. I’ve seen well over a dozen “Top Favorite” lists where this film is not even mentioned. Could it be that some haven’t seen nor heard of this movie? Or maybe they have and they just didn’t like it? Again, I’m sure there are those who watched it but remained unimpressed, and on the flip side, I’m well aware that it does have its share of fans – but ultimately, it’s one of his least known titles to the general public. Hell, it seems that more people know about ‘Vampires’ than this one.
I was first made aware of this movie back when I was a teenager, when a couple of friends and I had been going from video store to video store in search of something new to watch. One of my friends had sparked a conversation with a young woman employed at our local Blockbuster, asking her for recommendations. She had asked us what type of movie we were looking for, and what type of films that we enjoyed. I mentioned that I was a fan of John Carpenter’s films, and at the time had been obsessively watching ‘The Fog’ and ‘Prince of Darkness’. She then asked me what I thought of ‘In The Mouth of Madness’, to which I replied: “I honestly never heard of it”. Being the unacceptable answer that it was for someone claiming to love this particular filmmaker, she tracked down a copy of the movie in the store and handed to me. The deal was sealed.
Back at my buddy’s place, the three of us watched the movie, and when it was over, we all looked at each other, all stunned and amazed by what we just watched. Before returning it to the video store, we had watched it one more time, and soon after I had bought it on DVD. That night I had discovered a film that would forever sit as one of my favorites.
This tale follows a freelance insurance investigator named John Trent (Sam Neill) who is hired by a publishing company to investigate the disappearance of a Lovecraftian horror author named Sutter Cain (Jurgen Prochnow), whose novels apparently out-sell anything by Stephen King, and have gained a massive cult-like following. The company wants to know if Cane is dead or alive, and most of all, they just want his newest book for publication as his fans grow rabid and violent on the streets because of the delays. The cynical Trent believes this to be a publicity stunt by the company, despite their insistence that it is not. After Trent discovers a link between the cover art on Cane’s novels, he ventures to New Hampshire in search of a town he believes to be the basis for Cane’s fictional setting, where he suspects Cane is hiding. Along with him is Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), who works for the publishing company as an editor exclusively assigned to Cane. The two discover the town and what follows is Trent’s descent into madness.
One of my many favorite things about this movie is Sam Neill. While many points to ‘Jurassic Park’ or ‘Event Horizon’ as his finest performances, for me it’s this movie. Right from the beginning we’re introduced to a frantic and disturbed John Trent, and Neill is perfectly convincing – particularly in the way he looks and moves when talking to Doctor Wrenn (David Warner) at the institution he’s dragged into. The film then shifts into John Trent’s story of what lead him to become institutionalized, where we’re introduced to a calm, cool and collected side of the character, and Neill gleams with confidence and charisma. Through-out the rest of the film, as the lines between reality and fiction blur, the character begins to evolve into the terrified version of him that we were introduced to in the beginning. The way he reacts to the things that are happening around him, the way his begins to move with more desperation by the third act, and the way he says things are just terrific all around – especially at the movie theater in the end as he laughs while eating popcorn while he watches his story play out on screen. I particularly love the ways he says the lines “sorry about the balls! It was a lucky shot, that’s all” and later on “well anyway, your books suck”. Sam Neill sells this character, and this is my personal favorite of his performances.
As always, John Carpenter delivers a well shot, well-crafted and utterly unique film with solid pacing, great visual flare, a strong buildup of suspense, and with an engaging story. I loved the shot of the hand reaching the glass of Trent’s cell door and knocking; I loved how that’s followed up by the glass smashing, and the silhouette of Cane appearing in the room informing Trent that this is not the end. I love the shot later on when Trent and his friend Robbie (Bernie Casey) are at the coffee shop, facing away from the glass window as they discuss the Cane case, while through the window we can see a commotion that happens in the far distance, across the street, and escalates closer as a man, later to be revealed as Cane’s agent, walks across the street and towards the coffee shop while carrying an ax. He stops at the glass at Trent’s window, smashes it with the ax and then approaches Trent and calmly asking him if he reads Sutter Cane. I just love the way this scene was set up. I love everything about the creepy looking “old man” on the bike, as well as the fucked up looking children during the scene where they creepily ask Styles if she knew what today was. I also love the “did you know my favorite color is blue?” moment early in the third act. This movie has loads of great visuals.
Easily though, my true favorite moment in this movie is the twist revealed at the end of the second act when it’s revealed that John Trent did not exist before Cane created him. This discovery that Trent was nothing more than just one of Cane’s characters blew my mind when I first watched it. That was a moment that I did not see coming at all and I absolutely love it.
I strongly feel that this film should easily be placed at least in the top five of Carpenter’s work and should definitely be watched by anyone who loves horror. It’s not a scary movie, at least for me, but it’s an entertaining and fun ride that is enhanced by a strong performance from the criminally underrated Sam Neill and some great horror visuals.
This of course is just how I feel about this movie. What I’m really curious of is how do you feel about this movie? Have you watched it? Do you like it? Dislike it? Do you feel that this is one of Carpenter’s best? Or do you think it’s one of his worst? Let us know what you think!