John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness”


With the end of the world potentially approaching at the bidding of a paranoid racist, I figured it was a good time to check out the apocalypse according to another paranoid racist: namely, everyone’s favourite Hitler-apologist, H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft hated and feared the Other probably even more than the Trump-Bannon set but he has the distinction of being a much better writer and also using the words “eldritch” and “recalcitrant” a lot more. Yesterday, I snuggled down with a flu and a block of chocolate and watched (non-psychopath) John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness: not a direct adaptation of any of Lovecraft’s works but one that, I’d argue, is all the more effective for it. Ol’ H.P. is notoriously difficult to pin down in film and Carpenter manages to do so in the manner of all adaptations – that is, by breaking from the source material in fealty to the visual medium (see also The Shining, American Psycho and Don’t Look Now, all films that “betray” the original text and end up being much closer to the spirit of the work than a straight, nervous retelling could ever be). It’s the notion of the visual medium, and the logic of film itself, that I was left with after watching this movie.

A quick Google / Rotten Tomatoes search for the film reveals two things: firstly, a predominantly negative set of reviews for In the Mouth of Madness, with reviewers calling it disjointed, confusing, and confused. Secondly – and more recently – you notice a small but passionate set of people refuting these original reviews and calling the flick a masterpiece and one of Carpenter’s best. I’m overwhelmingly in agreement with the latter parties, and reading some of the negative reviews, you can only wonder who the fuck could watch this and not be incredibly impressed by its completeness, its style, and its functioning as – dare I say it – a perfect whole. Negative reviewers for this film strike me as the kind of old-world dorks who’d feel the need to list Man with a Movie Camera as their “favourite film of all time” and suggest that irrelevant trash like Breathless has any meaning for a modern audience. But I digress.

Like I said, common themes in the negative reviews are a confused script and an attempt to point out “plot holes”: i.e. the film occurs in flashback but contains scenes that do not involve the narrator. Once again – how someone could watch a film concerning the blurring of fiction and reality, madness and sanity, belief and truth, and come away with trying to pick out a mealy-mouthed technicality like that is literally beyond me. I’m not saying such a criticism couldn’t be made in general: I’m saying that the structure and theme of In the Mouth of Madness excludes the possibility of such nit-picking. The film is complete to the point of negating plot-holes or inconsistencies, as the film is about perception and fiction itself. It succeeds where so many works of art – filmic or otherwise – fail, in that it works entirely according to its own logic: the logic of film, the world of film. This is both implicit in the structure and explicit in the themes: a set of values and structures beyond the work itself is not just negated – it isn’t even implied. The work itself is everything: it exists, in a way, in a vacuum; its own constellation of meaning and signification.


To avoid sinking even deeper into vagueness, I’ll give a potted outline of the film: Sam Neil is John Trent, insurance claims freelancer turned padded-cell resident, submitted to strait jackets, shadowy hallucinations and, worst of all, the music of the Carpenters. It turns out that Trent’s road to the asylum began with investigating the disappearance of pulp-novelist Sutter Cane on the behalf of his publishing house, who eagerly await his new manuscript, “In the Mouth of Madness”. Trent’s search leads him out of Manhattan and into deepest New England, to the supposedly fictional town of Hobbs End. Themes from Cane’s writing begin to manifest in the real world, blurring the chain of causation between writing and reality / reality and writing, and eventually revealing a plot to overwrite reality with fiction. By the time Trent realises the gravity of the situation, he too is enveloped in the plotline – or maybe he always was. Repetitions, caesuras and ellipses in circumstance lead Trent to discover that his existence (and everyone else’s) is predetermined and inescapable. In a truly classic John Carpenter ending, Trent leaves the (now deserted) psychiatric hospital and wanders an apocalyptic, deserted New York, ending up in a cinema showing the film adaptation of “In the Mouth of Madness”: a seemingly endless loop of the film we’ve just watched. Onscreen, Trent bangs a table and screams “this is reality”. Off-screen, in the empty cinema, Trent roars with demented laughter. Fin.

If this still sounds vague, it’s because the structure of the film is truly a hall of mirrors: origin point of fact and fiction is consummately blurred and we the viewers become interlaced with the fiction in a manner so subtle that it’s hard to extract how. We too are watching “In the Mouth of Madness” / In the Mouth of Madness, and perhaps the flick that Trent views at the film’s end will also include the scene of him watching the film, laughing maniacally. Images refer back to themselves, signification reverberates and grows without reference to any externality. This is the kind of horror that Jorge Luis Borges identifies in Hamlet’s play-within-a-play and Scheherazade’s retelling of the bridging story of the 1001 Arabian Nights (throwing the entire story sequence into an infinite loop): involving the viewer in a sequence of fiction that they can neither conceive of nor escape. This isn’t a lack of logic or coherence, but the intonation of a logical sphere beyond articulation, beyond our grasp: the logic of the Lovecraftian Old Ones that lurk at the edges of In the Mouth of Madness, and perhaps at the edges of the magic of film itself – hallucination, dream, reality.