Directed by John Carpenter
The United States of America
Do you read Sutter Cane?
Some directors seem to move towards one film for their entire careers. Don’t be confused, I don’t mean that some directors only create one good movie. I’m simply saying that from a thematic and stylistic standpoint, some directors seem to summarize everything that makes them great in one film. Alfred Hitchcock seemed to combine all of his talents and neuroses in his masterpiece Vertigo (1958), Mulholland Drive (2001) can be seen as David Lynch’s manifesto, and more recently, A Serious Man (2009) seems to be the film that the Coen brothers have been destined to make for their entire careers. Such is the case with 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness. Directed by legendary horror auteur John Carpenter, it seems to be the epic climax of his career before phasing out in the early 2000s. Critically panned by critics, it has nevertheless gained a sizable cult following since its release. Why? It’s difficult to say. It isn’t the scariest film that Carpenter ever directed. That honor goes to Halloween (1978). It doesn’t have his best usage of special effects. The Thing (1982) has a monopoly on special effects greatness. So why do people connect with it so much?
The answer has to do with one of John Carpenter’s greatest strengths as a director: the ability to create an atmosphere. Originally working as an independent film maker, Carpenter learned how to manage his craft with insanely small budgets. In order to compensate for a lack of expensive special effects, Carpenter was forced to rely on such dreaded cinematic techniques as actual suspense and scares that didn’t rely on gory decapitations. That’s not to say that his movies were not violent. But consider two of his earliest masterpieces, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Halloween. Yes, many people were killed in them. But they didn’t rely on the death scenes to create terror. In Assault on Precinct 13, a cross between Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Rio Bravo (1959) wherein a group of people are besieged in a police station by a merciless group of gang members, worked because of the unceasing feelings of claustrophobia and dread created by the cramped set and the masterful camera work. Halloween, while scary in its own right for its shocking and gruesome death scenes, is a classic because Carpenter was able to convince the audience that Michael Myers was an unstoppable, inescapable villain who represented evil incarnate. We were scared by Michael Myers because we never knew when he would show up and whenever he did he was completely impervious to resistance.
After a successful run as an independent film maker, Carpenter gained the support of Hollywood. As a result, he was finally free to exercise his special effects muscles. He created such films as The Thing (1982) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986). While they have recently been accepted as cult classics, at the time of their release they were received poorly by both critics and the box office. And so, disillusioned by Hollywood, he returned to independent film making. After a few mediocre films, Carpenter returned with In the Mouth of Madness, a film that combined both his earlier talent for creating suffocating situations and his new-found skills for graphic special effects. The result is nothing short of genius.
The story feels like what would happen if Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft sat down for a round of coffee and absinthe. It revolves around private investigator John Trent who at the start of the film is committed to an insane asylum. From the confines of his comfy room with the nice white, padded walls, Trent recalls the story of his descent into madness to a man named Dr. Wrenn. The idea of a character relating a story from the inside of an asylum is only the first reference to the great and twisted mind of Lovecraft.
But as his story begins, it feels like a chapter out of Stephen King’s latest novel. A famous horror writer named Sutter Cane (played by the irreplaceable Jürgen Prochnow) has gone missing along with the manuscript of his most recent novel. Hired by Cane’s publisher to find him and locate the manuscript, Trent and Linda Styles, a representative of the publishing firm, set out for Hobb’s End, New Hampshire. We immediately sense an interesting dynamic between Trent and Linda. Trent believes that Cane’s work is hogwash and thinks little of his masses of fans who have literally begun to riot over his disappearance. Linda is a huge fan of Cane’s and believes that there is something special to his work. In other words, Trent is founded in skeptical reality while Linda is immersed in the realm of fantasy. This theme over what is and isn’t real plays an enormous role in the development of the film.
As they drive along looking for a town that doesn’t exist on any maps, they begin to experience strange phenomenon. They start having hallucinations of monsters and decrepit bicyclists. But the strange occurrences get even stronger when they miraculously find the town. It seems to be a quaint New England town that has been abandoned for fifty years. The white paint on the buildings is covered with cobwebs and dust and the streets and shops are devoid of people. But that even that changes when they start to see ghostly images of children and dogs running through the streets. When they arrive at their hotel, it becomes apparent that something is dreadfully wrong with the town as nobody has heard of Sutter Cane but everything seems to be straight out of his novels. It is as if they literally inhabit one of his books…
The trouble with writing about horror is that if you give too much about the plot away, it can rob potential audiences of the full experience. But, if you don’t say enough, they won’t be convinced that the film is worth seeing. So I’ll try to find a compromise by saying that by the end of the film the town has been transformed into a kind of hell for Trent and Linda. Having meet Cane in the basement of an old church that has been desecrated by evil rituals, they discover that its inhabitants have been transformed into creatures straight out of their nightmares.
They try to escape but they are unable to flee the town. Consider one scene where they get in a car to drive away from a mob. They drive a few feet only to find that they end up right where they started. They repeat this futile act a few times with each instance ending in failure. It is here that Carpenter’s talents as a film maker reach their peak. How can you escape from Hell if you are not sure if it even exists? Hobb’s End seems to be a creation of Sutter Cane who has surrendered himself to a dark force that wants to destroy the world. Can a town really exist if it only is a figment of a madman’s imagination? And if it can, how did Trent and Linda end up there? Can they escape from something that might not even exist?
I want to stop talking about the plot here. I find this difficult because there is still a third act of the film after they leave Hobb’s End where Trent is forced to deliver Cane’s manuscript to his publisher. The delivery and publication of Cane’s new novel would literally destroy the world. But I leave that for the viewer to experience. Suffice to say that Carpenter’s greatest strength is the ability to make us wonder what is real and what isn’t. By the end of the film, the audience will be wondering if there even is a difference. That is the mark of a great film maker. When you can make an audience question reality and whether or not it even exists, you have exceeded in transcending your artistic or intellectual medium. It doesn’t hurt that In the Mouth of Madness is obscenely entertaining and terrifying to boot. Why wasn’t it well received by critics but now loved as a cult classic? Perhaps critics didn’t know how to react to such a bold statement from a director who had made his name doing “popcorn flicks.” Perhaps they thought that coming from John Carpenter, such mastery was impossible. Watch the film and judge for yourself. Just be careful, it’s hard to not go insane when you are the last sane man on the earth.