At the Mountains of John Carpenter: On In the Mouth of Madness

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“Lived any good books lately?” 

Throughout his long, eclectic career, John Carpenter has shown an uncanny knack for blazing trails that set the tone of culture around him. 1978’s Halloween galvanized the American slasher film. 1982’s The Thing was at the forefront of a remake wave that continues to this day. 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 practically invented the electronic minimalist score in genre films – similar scores have long since been dubbed “Carpenter-esque.” His 1979 TV biopic, Elvis, was one of the first films to utilize the now familiar template of a rock legend’s rise, fall, and comeback.  Even influential artist Shepard Fairey’s career owes a great debt to They Live

Released in February 1995, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (ITMOM from here on out) was at the forefront of another wave: metafiction in popular culture.  Wes Craven’s Scream, maybe the most well known and most influential film of this type, came out almost two years later (December 1996).  Craven’s prior foray into this territory, the series-deconstructing New Nightmare arrived a few months prior to ITMOM’s release, though its focus was bit more narrowly skewed towards its own long-standing mythology.  There have been self-reflexive movies in Hollywood for ages, and there were many in the lead-up to ITMOM (Purple Rose of Cairo, Delirious, Last Action Hero, to name a few) but the magic and innovation of ITMOM is in its intention to “infect” the audience with the core threats contained within the film itself.

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The story follows an insurance investigator, John Trent (Sam Neill at his most satisfyingly intense) as he attempts to track down immensely popular horror writer Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow, playing a delightful amalgam of Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, and Julian Sands’ character from Warlock).  Cane has gone missing just before turning in his contractually obligated new book, “In the Mouth of Madness.”  As Trent gets closer to finding Cane, he begins to realize that he himself is actually the subject of the lost novel.  When he (and his de facto girl Friday, Styles) finally comes face to face with the author, Cane reveals that Trent is somehow, horrifyingly, living within the pages themselves.  Has he been ensnared in a mad spell?  Has he always been a fictional character?  The novel within the film is released into the world as an insidious scheme designed to bring about a Lovecraftian apocalypse— old gods will return from the abyss and madness will sweep the world.  Can Trent regain his free will or will he become, like the film’s audience, a witness caught in a web of pre-ordained events?

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Movies and novels that both comment on themselves and directly involve the audience are nothing new. Famous examples exist at least as far back as 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, which has, in a non-story specific scene, a bandit shooting a gun directly at the camera, implying he is able to shoot through the screen and bring the audience directly into the world of the film.  H.P. Lovecraft’s classic novel At the Mountains of Madness is another precursor, as the title “In the Mouth of Madness” implies. It’s an early example of “found” narrative – the entire story unfolds through diary entries from the members of an arctic expedition that has uncovered the frozen resting site of terrifying Elder Things (it’s also a precursor to The Thing). The narrative speaks to the reader directly, urging them to stay far away. It doesn’t tumble the reader directly into the madness of the narrative (like other Lovecraft stories), but it does indicate that the world of the narrative and the world of the reader are one and the same (much like the general conceit of most “found footage” films). Part of Lovecraft’s enduring relevance is due to his ability to use these self-reflexive methods to evoke the effect of a classic campfire tale: a horror story meant to convince you the terror of the tale may cross over into your own life.  

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Carpenter follows in Lovecraft’s footsteps.  Unlike Scream, or many of the meta films to follow (Adaptation, Cabin in the Woods, etc), ITMOM avoids the deconstructive commentary on its form. Scream, for example, spends a good amount of time laying out the “rules” of horror movies and then playing with them).  Instead, Carpenter creates a scenario in which the world of the film and the world of the audience intersect, and the audience is made aware that the film is, indeed, a film – but also that the world within the film has bled out into their own.  The audience is told they are unwitting participants in the events of the cinematic story, whether they like it or not (Michael Haneke’s original FUNNY GAMES explores a brutal variation on that theme a few years later).  ITMOM “the movie” is presented as possessing special powers; a magic incantation that suggests the viewer has been affected in the same way the characters in the film have been affected.

While many modern metafiction films compel you to chuckle at the well worn tropes and conventions of their genre (essentially flattening the cinematic world into something to be examined like an inert artifact), ITMOM invites you to believe that the tradition of horror storytelling has a power that extends beyond the world of the story and into the realm of reality (essentially expanding the cinematic world into a living organism).  It’s a compelling reinvention of the classic campfire tale, in the Lovecraftian tradition. ITMOM’s pure confidence in this tradition shows a refreshing lack of cynicism towards the power of storytelling; a sincerity that seems out of sync with today’s more skeptical movie watching culture. Whether that makes it dated is up to your own particular tolerance and taste, but it’s well worth the experience. Carpenter’s virtuoso in stylized, pulpy cinematic craft is on display throughout, assuring the film’s value to anyone interested in technique. One of the highlights is when Trent is treated to visions of the madness to come, in a brilliant series of breathtakingly shot, edited, and scored montages. The commentary on the disc release is essentially Carpenter interviewing his cinematographer (and frequent collaborator) Gary Kibbe on lighting setups. The film even sports a color timing meta-joke (“Did I ever tell you my favorite color is blue?”).

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Carpenter and screenwriter Michael De Luca (who was also head of production at New Line Cinema at the time) seem to relish the opportunity to poke fun at themselves with several coy references. When Trent learns that Sutter Cane has become a godlike figure, he quips: “God’s not supposed to be a hack horror writer.”  In the opening scenes of the film, Trent is locked in a mental asylum, tortured (soothed?) by pop music loudly blared throughout the facility. When he realizes what group he’s hearing, he sinks down into a corner, mumbling “Oh no, not The Carpenters…!”  It’s a fitting and sly allusion to Carpenter’s torture and manipulation of film’s characters – and it’s audience. God’s not supposed to be a “hack horror writer,” but what if it was?  What if a film director could alter your reality just by showing you a film?  (Carpenter revisits this question in his excellent 2005 episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror, entitled “Cigarette Burns.”)

When it’s revealed that a film version of Cane’s novel has been released, we are treated to a final scene in which Trent, driven insane by the paradox of his situation, sits in an empty theater watching himself on screen in the same movie we are currently watching. It’s a recursive nightmare vortex that we, the audience, are pushed into headfirst.  When the lights come up… will we have gone insane as well?

ITMOM-theater*All stills photographed off my TV to enhance the meta effect.

Graham Reznick is a filmmaker in Los Angeles, California. His first feature, I Can See You, came out in 2009. Recently, he co-wrote the upcoming PS4 game UNTIL DAWN, with Larry Fessenden. He is also a sound designer (The House of the DevilThe InnkeepersStakeland). In his spare time, Graham makes electronic music. He contributed a short film to Shock’s HALLOWEEN NIGHT SERIES in 2013, called The Trick is the Treat.

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Weekend: Nov. 22, 2018, Nov. 25, 2018

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