I sat down in my new apartment and began browsing the Netflix streaming options for horror movies. Having just moved to Maine, Stephen King territory, I was in the mood for a certain type of horror. You know, that sort of movie with new England towns, gothic horror, and an absolutely absurd casting choice for the lead role. When I came across In the Mouth of Madness all I needed to see was a few key words: New England horror writer, John Carpenter, Sam Neill! I was sold. Little did I know I was about to begin watching the greatest film ever produced by human kind, aside from Tommy the Cool Mule that is.
Self referential horror has never been so much fun! Forget Scream and all that playing with genre conventions jazz. In the Mouth of Madness spins a circle of reality vs. fiction so fast that you can’t even remember where you started. It makes that episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine where captain Sisko is a 1920s sci-fi writer look simplistic. For those of you who have not yet taken in this masterpiece but are already turning on your PS3 to look for it, the basic plot is as follows: Sam Neill plays John Trent, a professional bullshit investigator. His specialty is uncovering cons, and so he is aptly assigned to investigate a supposed publicity stunt being enacted by the publishers for Sutter Cane. Cane is a massively popular horror fiction writer WHO’S CHARACTER BEARS NO RESEMBLANCE TO STEPHEN KING WHATSOEVER…………….
…anyway, Trent tracks the missing writer to a small New Hampshire town that seems to use the same impossible transit system that Silent Hill does (once you’re in, you can’t get out). Once there, Trent experiences a host of horrors all of which spring from Cane’s novels. At last cane reveals himself and tells Trent that he is the new god and his books are so popular that the massive worldwide belief in them makes them reality. Trent’s world collapses in on itself as he ends up in an insane asylum as the world outside consumes itself, people turning into monsters and killing each other, just as Cane’s latest novel explicates. In the end Trent is left to wander the destroyed streets of the city and ends up in a movie theater sitting down to watch, that’s right, In the Mouth of Madness. Not a cheesy imitation of it created by the filmmakers as a joke, but the actual film you have been watching. Carpenter really knows how to end a movie huh?
What makes this film so satisfying? There’s every reason to believe it’s just Carpenter’s killer soundtrack, but let’s look deeper. The New England horror literature movie is nothing new. The Stephen King writer going crazy movie has been around for a while. New England is so saturated with old America and romantic ghost stories that it is hard to stay away from the subject. There is just something sort of wonderful about the juxtaposition of quaint New England life with abysmal horror. However, In the Mouth of Madness does not just stick to ghost stories and insane writers. It takes things nice and far and digs right into apocalyptic hell-on-earth sort of stuff. Cane proclaims himself a god and his word is creation. He has conjured up ancient demons and the blackest of horrors from the deepest of pits. This is where the really good stuff happens. In a climactic scene, cane rips open himself and the background to reveal that he is simply an image on a printed page, leaving a hole to a black abyss. The woman he is with reads aloud the section of the book he is acting out: ”Trent stood at the edge of the rip and stared into the illimitable gulf of the unknown stygian world yawning blackly beyond. Trent’s eyes refused to close. He did not shriek… but the hideous unholy abominations shrieked for him as in the same second he saw them spill and tumble upward out of an enormous carrion black pit choked with the gleaming white bones of countless unhallowed centuries. He began to back away from the rip as the army of unspeakable figures lit by the glow from the bottomless pit came pouring at him toward our world.”
Now that is some intense stuff! What director in their right mind would tackle something like that? Thank goodness for John Carpenter. I’m not sure anyone else could have done the sequence justice and let the few fleeting glimpses we actually see of these creatures live up to the description that precedes them. If it wasn’t for KNB effects and Carpenter’s skill, this sequence could have been a huge disappointment, rather than a massive delight. The scene calls for epic hell monsters and damnit, that’s what we get.
There is something totally amazing about a film that does not settle for just the ghost revenge plot or the writer driving himself crazy and having delusions plot. What we really want is the pit of hell itself to open up and swallow us whole. What could be more horrific than the absolute maximum amount of pain and suffering imaginable? In the Mouth of Madness does not make any grand assertions that horror fiction will be the downfall of humanity (even though that is exactly the assertion that it makes). It is a simply complex tale of our worst nightmares coming true. Everything we fear, yet seek, is just around the corner, or just on the next page.
You will all probably hear from me again soon with more on hell, monsters, and absolute terror.