‘In the Mouth of Madness’: John Carpenter’s Love Letter to H.P. Lovecraft and the Subgenre of Cosmic Horror

 
By Koraljka Suton

Director John Carpenter was always one to surprise, frighten and delight his audiences. After making Dark Star, a 1974 low-budget horror movie that went rather unnoticed upon its initial release, the now-cult filmmaker went on to direct films such as the 1976 thriller Assault on Precinct 13 and the 1978 slasher Halloween, which would mark the onset of one of the most popular horror movie franchises of all time and enable the auteur to sink his teeth into bigger projects—with bigger budgets. One such movie was The Thing (1982), the first part of what Carpenter would later dub the Apocalypse Trilogy. Over the course of the following twelve years, the director would go on to make the remaining two movies that would comprise his unofficial trilogy—Prince of Darkness in 1987 and In the Mouth of Madness in 1994. At first glance, the three films are completely unrelated, differing in narrative and style, cast and characters, with the only common denominator being Carpenter in the director’s chair. But upon closer examination, it is apparent that the extent of their interconnectedness goes beyond mere story or character arcs and encompasses a shared theme, one rather unsubtly hinted at in the trilogy’s very name: the end of the world as we know it. This motif that Carpenter thoroughly and viscerally explored in his trilogy places the films in question squarely in the realm of cosmic horror, a subgenre of horror fiction that underlines the terror of that which is unknown or unknowable. Often referred to as Lovecraftian horror, named after cult author H.P. Lovecraft, cosmic horror takes no interest in shock elements, gore or earthly threats and instead focuses on the mercilessness of an infinite universe that can, and will, chew the human race up and spit it out. Or as Lovecraft himself wrote in one of his letters: “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.”

Carpenter for one never made a secret of just how much he admired Lovecraft and how influenced he was by the author’s work even before making The Thing, which he showed by referencing the novelist in some of the names in his 1980 ghost movie The Fog. And although none of his movies are direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s novels or stories, In the Mouth of Madness is considered to be one of the most Lovecraftian films ever made. And for good reason. The third movie of Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy follows former insurance investigator John Trent (played by the amazing Sam Neill) who we first meet in an asylum, as he gets locked away in a padded room while frenetically proclaiming not to be crazy. He is then introduced to Dr. Wrenn (David Warner) who wishes to hear Trent’s story about the events that led to his current situation. It is here that the protagonist’s tale begins, as we witness the path towards his alleged insanity unfold before us in a flashback. The man Trent once was, an ambitious, discerning, smart insurance investigator who successfully worked as a freelancer because he did not want anyone pulling his strings and dictating his destiny, is lightyears away from the incoherent mess whose life seemed to have spiraled out of control presented to us in the opening scene. And that is indeed Carpenter’s intent—to make us wonder about the scope of what had come to pass, the result being an independent and skeptical realist turning into a person in need of a straightjacket. Trent’s life begins to change when he is attacked in broad daylight by a man waving an ax, a man whose last words before trying to deal a fatal blow were: “Do you read Sutter Cane?” Surprisingly unshaken by the incident that almost cost him his life, Trent proceeds with business as usual and gets retained by a publishing house whose number-one author, the mysterious Sutter Cane, had gone missing. The horror novelist, said to be even bigger than Stephen King himself, is currently working on his latest novel called In the Mouth of Madness and the publisher (portrayed by Charlton Heston) wants the remainder of the manuscript on his desk at any cost. Trent must team up with editor Linda Styles (played by Julie Carmen) in order to locate Cane, for the author’s audiences are going mad with the anticipation of his newest work—quite literally.

What we as the viewers are in for next cannot be expressed in words, nor should it be. Carpenter takes us on a wild and fairly Lynchian rollercoaster ride, the outcome of which we can neither predict nor fully fathom, until it is much too late. Trent is a figure we are meant to relate to and whose shoes we are asked to walk for the entirety of the movie in. At first, he does not understand the craze surrounding Crane’s fiction and the effects it supposedly has on its readers, even though both Styles and the media inform him about the mob violence the author’s horror novels induce. The insurance investigator and the editor’s journey soon turns into the stuff a horror fan’s nightmares are made of, with Trent still remaining very hard to convince that the occurrences that take place and the people they run into are straight out of a Sutter Cane novel.

 
Written by Michael De Luca in the 1980s, In the Mouth of Madness was first offered to Carpenter, but the director rejected the job offer. In 1989, the film’s distributor New Line Cinema announced that the movie is going into production, with Tony Randel as the director. Later on, Mary Lambert was said to take over the job, until Carpenter eventually agreed to come on board after all. De Luca’s script is a combination of the screenwriter’s reverence for H.P. Lovecraft’s tales and his own night-time New York City experiences. Since he worked at New Line Cinema, De Luca had to walk to the Port Authority transit terminal every evening in order to take the subway home. During these walks, the huge amount of homeless people he encountered did not manage to go unnoticed by him:

It was a really scummy building and a scummy area and I just started to think that all the homeless people lying on the floor and hanging around the Port Authority, and a lot of New Yorkers in general, were a different species. Late at night it got pretty scary and I started to think, “What if everyone wandering around me is part of this otherworldly conspiracy to replace the human race?” So, I combined that with a Lovecraft myth about a race of ancient beings who controlled the earth at one point and then were banished and have been trying to claw their way back in ever since. It took off from there and the last thing to gel was the idea of this writer being like a combination of Stephen King and L. Ron Hubbard —so popular that his fans constitute a religion.Michael De Luca

 
In the Mouth of Madness is, therefore, not just a love letter to the late H.P. Lovecraft and his tales of cosmic terror, but also a thorough and thoroughly visceral examination of the influence fictional worlds can have on the internal world, or dare I say reality, of the consumer. Such an exploration is more relevant in today’s day and age than ever before, given the increase of content to obsess over and the cyber worlds of social media we devoutly build, thereby slowly but surely replacing our external realities with virtual ones. And while such fictional parallel universes can indeed have many therapeutic qualities and enable us to expand our imaginations, develop our empathy, deepen our emotional capacities, as well as provide us with comfort or representation we would not have gotten otherwise, the danger emerges when we latch onto fiction in an attempt to escape, reject, deny or suppress our internal voids. We start valuing fictional realities more than our external ones, leading to the former consuming us whole. In the Mouth of Madness quite emphatically showcases what happens when the consumer becomes the one who is consumed, after having sought escapism in a world far more exciting than the one that was left behind. And what is more, when a large group of people willingly shares the same reality, an entirely new microcosm with its own agreed-upon rules and structure emerges. Such shared fictional realities are the basis of every religion, a notion that Sutter Cane even overtly acknowledges. But although Cane references the Bible as a work of fiction that provided fertile ground for the creation of one such shared reality, the very plot outline of In the Mouth of Madness (minus the elements of cosmic horror) greatly resembles the trajectory of L. Ron Hubbard’s claim to fame, just as De Luca had mentioned. Hubbard, a pulp fiction novelist of the 1950s, went as far as founding an entire religion based on his fictional material. And his readers followed suit. The repercussions, influences and dangers of one such phenomenon are obvious to everyone and anyone who took the time to learn about Scientology, its methods and belief system, as well as its SF endgame. In that respect, it is rather unsettling to realize that a great many people in today’s world are, in all actuality, living out the premise of In the Mouth of Madness, making De Luca and Carpenter’s 90s movie as contemporary as ever. Meaning that not only did Madness age well, but it was also way ahead of its time.

When I was a kid watching television there were these documentaries on TV asking “Are foreign movies too violent?” This not really a satirical film, but it’s based on the idea that Sutter Cane is being told what to write by these creatures from the beyond and so when people read this stuff they become possessed, paranoid schizophrenics and run around killing people with axes. So in that sense, yeah, it is a take on the ridiculous premise that television, movies and books can create killers. Hopefully that isn’t the first thing on people’s minds. Hopefully you’re screaming rather than thinking.John Carpenter

 
As Carpenter himself said, the above mentioned premise is ridiculous, but only because the reasoning behind it is wrong—fiction in and of itself does not “create killers,” but what it can do and often does is bring out that which already exists within the consumers, serving as a catalyst for the inevitable growth of a seed already planted. Although the thought may seem comforting at first, such a notion actually makes In the Mouth of Madness all the more terrifying, for it not only implies that every human being has that seed planted within them, but also that all who come into contact with the catalyst, i.e. work of fiction will necessarily be triggered and become unable to control or prevent the commencement of a potentially cruel and violent fate that cannot be prevented. That was exactly what Trent was trying to avoid by being a freelancer and refusing to acknowledge the onset of events that indicated that his destiny was out of his hands, that his life was not his own, that every decision he made based on what he perceived to be free will was just an illusion guiding him towards the fulfillment of his creator’s work of fiction that ultimately became his reality. And everyone else’s. But the most interesting part is that the creator himself, in this case Cane, is eventually rendered obsolete, yet another theme that Carpenter’s movie oh so cleverly tackles. Once the author of a work of art has finished his creation, he is no longer of importance—his product takes on a life of its own, abandoning its maker and renouncing its belonging to him. Instead, the work of art in question now belongs to everyone who has exposed themselves to it. The consumers become those who take the creation and make it their own, engulfing themselves in this new reality. This is why the movie’s publisher does not care whether Cane is dead or alive, as long as his latest book remains intact and traceable. This is also why, in one of the movie’s most impressive scenes, Cane tears his face away only to reveal book pages underneath, thereby releasing his creation and what lies beneath it into the world. The unimportance of the author after the process of publication could not have been emphasized in a better way.

But that particular scene was initially rather different. The primary idea was to have the whole town swallowed up into Cane’s book. Seeing as how the budget came down from $15 million to $8 million, another solution needed to be found. That is when De Luca concocted the scene described above. Although working with a rather small budget, the special effects turned out to be terrifyingly fantastic. The Industrial Light and Magic team was responsible for the majority of the monster-ridden shots, with most of the Lovecraftian creatures featured in them, such as the infamous cosmic entity Cthulhu, part-dragon, part-octopus, part-human. Apart from the overall subgenre of cosmic horror and the visuals that go along with it, De Luca and Carpenter made sure to pay tribute to Lovecraft in various other ways. The type of narration employed, wherein a story is told in a flashback delivered by an insane person, is one frequently used by the author. Furthermore, the very title of the movie is a play on Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness, whereas all of the mentioned Sutter Cane novels bear titles similar to those of Lovecraft’s books: Cane’s The Thing in the Basement is Lovecraft’s The Thing on the Doorstep; Haunter out of Time is either The Haunter of the Dark or The Shadow Out of Time; The Whisperer of the Dark is The Whisperer in Darkness and finally, The Hobbs End Horror is The Dunwich Horror. It would, therefore, be an understatement to say that In the Mouth of Madness is a homage to Lovecraft if there ever was one.

 
At one point, Styles tells Trent: “What scares me about Cane’s work is what might happen if reality shared his point of view. Reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane were to become a majority. You would find yourself locked in a padded cell, wondering what happened to the world.” And a padded cell was the place Trent eventually found himself in, for the madness that ensued would render everyone unable to distinguish between fiction and reality—even the viewers. This was precisely one of the points Carpenter was trying to make with In the Mouth of Madness, turning the movie into somewhat of a cautionary tale. Its goal is not just to display the power of fiction, but to convey the implications of such shared beliefs for our society at large. It very poignantly illustrates how stories, when firmly believed, can shape our reality, i.e. color the filter through which we perceive it. In the Mouth of Madness is the ultimate testament to the unwavering power of conviction, brilliantly showcasing how we, the audience, are the ones who perpetuate and reinforce whichever narrative we choose to believe in, thereby contributing to the creation of a collective reality. All the best movies do, after all, transport us into their fictional worlds so that we might emerge with a far greater understanding of our own.

Written by Koraljka Suton. Koraljka is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »

 
Mike De Luca showed me a draft about five years ago and it was a highly imaginative horror film with a premise I hadn’t encountered in the genre before. Overall, it was an homage to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, crossed with the detective genre and a few western elements. I had some other commitments at the time, but I got back together with Mike, looked over the script again and said “Let’s try it.” The script had been worked on a by a couple other people, but basically had the same story, so I stepped in and made it my own.John Carpenter

Screenwriter must-read: Michael De Luca’s screenplay for In the Mouth of Madness [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
Interview with John Carpenter on In the Mouth of Madness, his reasons to make the film and future plans, Fangoria (no. 140).

 
The man who’s scared us with psychopaths, possession and more opens up his mind and soul for a career chat.

 
John Carpenter talks In the Mouth Of Madness.

 
Vintage featurette—the making of In the Mouth of Madness.


Open YouTube video

 
Post Mortem with Mick Garris: John Carpenter.

 
“Who writes reality? Who shapes our perception? Using genre theory, the works of Lovecraft and Carl Jung all while exploring the layers of the brilliant film, In the Mouth of Madness, we’ll try to find out.” —Real Dimensional Pictures

 

‘BIG JOHN’

In France, I’m an auteur; in Germany, a filmmaker; in Britain, a genre film director; and in the USA, a bum. These are the famous words of John Carpenter, one of the most influential horror film directors of all time, whose works such as Halloween, The Thing, The Fog and In the Mouth of Madness remain an inescapable part of every horror film encyclopedia. A talented filmmaker, a modest, humble and practical man, and, for this occasion equally important, a disarmingly, refreshingly honest interviewee. It was from France, to go back to the quote we started with, that the idea for this rare documentary came to life. In 2006 filmmaker Julien Dunand made a documentary film simply called Big John, a 75-minute exploration of Carpenter’s career, character and American film industry in general. The film lacks clips from Carpenter’s movies, most likely due to budgetary issues, but more than makes up for it with a series of enlightening interviews with both Carpenter himself (mostly filmed behind the wheel while driving around L.A.) and a whole gallery of his frequent collaborators, such as producing partner Debra Hill, the Assault on Precinct 13 star Austin Stoker, actress and ex-wife Adrienne Barbeau, the Christine protagonist Keith Gordon, Carpenter’s composing collaborator Alan Howarth, who also did the music for the documentary, and many others. The central value of this film, which is obviously made with a lot of love and respect both for Carpenter and the craft, lies in the one-on-one conversations between Dunand and Carpenter, which give insight into the life and work of a filmmaker whose golden days may be long gone, but whose significance for the art of film can’t be diminished. As on many other occasions, Carpenter leaves the impression of a sympathetic, straightforward fellow who feels he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. “Many of my film school colleagues were more talented than me,” he told us a couple of years back, “so you mustn’t underestimate the importance of sheer luck.” That may be the case, but through a career spanning four decades and eighteen movies, obvious talent and hard work was what kept him at the top.

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. Photographed by Shane Harvey © New Line Cinema. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or click on the icon below:

Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in

Spread the love