Worst. Book Club. Ever.
This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film is the Lovecraftian In the Mouth of Madness (1995), directed by master of horror John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing), and suggested by friend and author Jonathan Ball. If there’s such a thing as a writer of horror poetry, he’s it. If you don’t believe me, check out his incredible books Clockfire and The Politics of Knives.
As (almost) always, a special thanks to Queen Video for providing me with the DVD of In the Mouth of Madness. (As you may have gathered, I spent a fair deal of money and time at Queen Video this October.)
Fun fact: I didn’t even realize that In the Mouth of Madness was a John Carpenter movie until the opening credits rolled. I consider myself a fan of many things Carpenter – particularly The Thing, They Live, Big Trouble in Little China, and the underrated Prince of Darkness – but his post-1990 output has been bit hard to love. Still, even his failures have their interesting elements.
The sounds and imagery of printing presses in action – familiar sensations for someone who worked at Coach House Books for eight years – open In the Mouth of Madness. These presses are working overtime, printing the new book from horror writer Sutter Cane, The Hobb’s End Horror. Next, we’re taken to a mental institution, where Saperstein admits a new patient, John Trent (Sam Neill). Trent is not entering this institution without a fight – he violently attacks the orderlies, kicking one directly in the crotch. However, the orderlies are way burlier than Trent, and they succeed in introducing him to his new home: a small padded cell. Saperstein cranks up The Carpenters to drown out the cries of his patients.
Trent awakes and sees a shadowy figure in his cell. Trent turns to him and says, ‘This is a rotten way to end it.’ He then sees a barrage of images: bloody axes, a church, angry mobs. Dr. Wrenn arrives at the mental health facility after his daymare and asks if Trent had requested anything: apparently, only a black crayon. When Wrenn enters his cell, he finds that Trent has drawn crosses all over his cell and himself – clothes and skin. Dr. Wrenn says he can help Trent leave the institution, but Trent has decided he wants to stay (which makes Wrenn wonder if the crosses are just for show). Wrenn asks Trent to tell him how he ended up in this cell, and our strange story really begins …
John Trent is an insurance investigator, an unlikely hero for a horror movie (but I like it). As we join him in the flashback, he’s uncovering a business owner’s false claim with aplomb. His boss takes him to lunch, impressed by how handily he discovered the scam. As they talk shop, a tired-looking man wielding a hatchet exits the building across the street and stalks over to their restaurant’s window. They don’t even notice until he smashes the window, leaps on the table, and asks Trent, ‘Do you read Sutter Cane?’ He rears back with the axe, but is promptly killed in a hail of police gunfire.
Another pleasant business lunch, ruined by axe violence.
A news report about bookstore riots follows; stores are unable to keep up the demand for Cane’s latest book – clearly this movie was written in a different era of book publishing – and the reporters wonder aloud if Cane has readers or cult members instead. Coincidentally, the next insurance claim Trent must investigate is that of Cane’s publisher. Publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) and Cane’s editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) say that Cane is their cash cow, and he’s disappeared. (In case you’re wondering if Cane is supposed to be Stephen King, his editor says, ‘You can forget Stephen King. Cane is more frightening and outsells them all.’) Hargrow says the last person to have contact with Cane was his agent. That agent was the man who attacked Trent with an axe. I’m not sure of the legality of this, but apparently the publisher took out life insurance on their star author, so they either want their money, or their author back. John Trent, assuming this is all a publicity stunt, intends to find the missing horror writer.
Trent talks further with Linda Styles – or rather, he mostly flirts with her, occasionally getting around to questions. Styles never had direct contact with Cane – she’s never met the author. She also notes that Cane’s work has a strange effect, causing paranoia in ‘less stable’ readers. After the initial interview, John walks down an alleyway at night, the brick walls covered with torn posters for The Hobb’s End Horror. Further down the alley, he sees a police officer beating a vagrant, and when Trent stares a little too long, the cop turns to him and says, ‘You want some, too, buddy?’ Trent heads to the bookstore – still recovering from a recent riot – to research his author. Trent seems disdainful of Cane as a writer and of reading in general, but he buys Cane’s books and digs into them. That night, he dreams of the same scene from the alley – the cop attacking the man – but this time, the cop is some sort of hideous monster. The graffiti on the wall reads ‘I can see,’ and onlookers attack him with axes, hacking him to bits. When he wakes, he sees the monster cop seated right beside him on the couch. Double-dream sequence!
Eventually, Trent wakes for real, and the first thing he does, naturally, is tear apart the covers of the Cane books and push them together to form a map of New Hampshire. (Note: If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”) He meets again with the publishers and sells them a theory that Hobb’s End is a real place, and Sutter Cane is living there, and this cover collage map of New Hampshire will tell them exactly where Hobb’s End is. (Seems legit.) The publisher insists that Linda travel with Trent, so you know what that means – road trip! Things go well enough until night falls. That’s when Trent notices a young man on a bicycle, playing cards in the spokes of his wheels. Moments later, he sees the same cyclist, now sixty years older. Trent looks down at his map for a second – distracted driving strikes again! – and runs into the now ancient biker. The cyclist isn’t too badly hurt, but he rambles about how someone won’t let him out. He hops back onto his bike and rides away. Given the circumstances, Linda takes the wheel for a bit, but things don’t go much better for her. She hallucinates that the car is driving through the air, and after flashes of lightning, finds herself driving through a covered bridge, right into a town named ‘Hobb’s End.’
Hobb’s End looks like Star’s Hollow in Gilmore Girls, except there are almost no people walking the streets – not even Kirk. The exception is when Styles sees a dog running, pursued by dozens of running kids. (But Trent doesn’t see any of this happening.) They pull into the Pickman Hotel, which Linda knew would exist because it was featured in The Hobb’s End Horror. The town is exactly as described in Cane’s book. What if, Styles suggests, Cane’s stories are based on reality? They book a room with the little old lady who manages the hotel – who, if the book is to be believed, will end up butchering her husband – and can’t help but notice the portrait in the lobby keeps changing. They visit the town’s Byz-an-tine (Sam Neill has clearly never seen this word before) Black Church, and Styles again sees the dog and children. Realizing this is probably a bad omen, she suggests to Trent they flee.
As they begin to escape, a convoy of pick-up trucks storms the church. Men leap out, angrily yelling in the church’s general direction. The front entrance of the church flies open, revealing Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), smiling devilishly and looking a lot like magician David Copperfield as lighting crashes in the sky. He sends a team of Dobermans (who kind of appear from nowhere) after the men, and Trent and Styles head to their car, a car that’s recently been surrounded by the creepy dog-following children. Trent, while driving away from this confrontation, says it all must be elaborately staged. Styles argues that the publisher did attempt a publicity stunt of sorts, but Cane never showed up for it. The things that are happening in Hobb’s End are from the new (unpublished) book, a book that’s about the end of days. Back at the hotel, Styles insists they read the manuscript so they know what to expect. But nothing, not even a quick makeout session, can convince Trent that this is really happening.
Trent chats with the hotel manager, who looks like she’s pulled an all-nighter, and also seems to be kicking someone under her desk a lot. As the camera pans down, we see her husband, naked and handcuffed to her ankle. (Not sure what that’s about.) Anyway, Styles takes the car and follows her hunch back to the church. Trent, meanwhile, visits the local bar to talk to the leader of the unruly mob. The man warns Trent – still pretty confident this is an elaborate hoax – to leave town. Styles, meanwhile, enters the church, undaunted by the gaggle of threatening weirdo kids. There’s an unholy warning on the front door and crosses hung upside-down outside Cane’s office, which is a bit more demonic than the average writer’s. He types away at this desk, a Doberman Pinscher at his side. The door closes menacingly behind Styles as she enters, and Cane jokes that she can edit this new book ‘from the inside.’ A far door in the office pulses and echoes with unearthly moans. ‘For years I thought I was making this all up,’ Cane says, ‘but they were telling me what to write.’ Styles, at this point, has been completely hypnotized by the seductive Cane. He forces her face into his manuscript – a perfect filmic metaphor for a writer if I’ve ever seen one – and when she surfaces, blood is dripping from her eyes. She caresses Cane, and the camera pans to reveal his back half is now some sort of demon creature.
In the Mouth of Madness was partially paid for by the anti-postering lobby.
Styles eventually returns to the hotel room and warns Trent to never read the new book. (This is exactly the kind of Goodreads review you don’t want.) ‘I’m losing me, John,’ she cries. John goes for help in the lobby – though I’m not sure what hotel staff might be able to do in such a situation – but finds it empty and the telephone dead. Also, that painting on the wall is now filled with fleshy squid creatures, Lovecraftian Cthulhu-types. He checks some of the utility rooms and finds Mrs. Pickman has half-transformed into a tentacle monster, too, and is busy chopping up her husband. Trent rushes back to the room, but Styles has turned, as well, and shoves him through the door. He finds the car and drives away as fast as he can. He drives down the main street and finds the townsfolk playing ring-around-the-rosy with Styles in the middle. Some of those townsfolk also happen to be axe-wielding deformed monsters. Trent still believes – somehow – this is all a scam. He returns to the bar and again talks with the mob leader (who is still there for some reason). The mob leader exclaims, ‘Reality isn’t what it used to be,’ before shooting himself in the head. Trent returns to the main drag and dumps Styles into his car. He starts to drive away from the angry mob, but Styles swallows his keys. As an insurance investigator, though, Trent knows a few tricks and starts the car with a screwdriver from his glovebox.
They drive away from the mob and Styles starts to kiss Trent, saying ‘it’s good for the book.’ Trent shrugs her off. He sees the ancient bike rider at a pay phone and pulls over, but as he exits, so does Styles. But now Styles crab-walks on a twisted broken body, a la The Thing, toward Trent. Trent jumps back into the car and drives out of town, only to arrive right back on main street. He turns around and drives away, then again arrives right back on main street. And a third time. Realizing he can’t escape, he floors it toward the mob. The crowd parts and reveals Styles in the middle. Trent swerves to avoid her and crashes the car. When he comes to, he’s in a sort of confession booth, with Sutter Cane in the priest’s position. With some real writerly hubris, Cane says, ‘Not enough people ever believed The Bible to make it real.’ But his work sells way more copies, and so, it is becoming reality. Cane says that when people confuse fantasy and reality, ‘the old ones’ can begin their joinery into this world. Trent blacks out and finds himself in Cane’s demonic office.
Cane has a job for Trent – he needs him to take the manuscript for In the Mouth of Madness back to the world for him. Cane wrote Hobb’s End into existence, and insists he did the same for him, John Trent. Trent is but another part of Cane’s fiction. He directs Trent to a passageway and portal (that looks like a torn hole in a printed page) that will take him back. To incentivize his return, some Lovecraftian monsters begin to pursue Trent down that passageway. Trent sprints, then stumbles. When he opens his eyes again, he’s in the middle of a road, manuscript in hand. A biker passes (a younger version of that same biker we’ve seen before) and when Trent asks him, he says he’s never heard of Hobb’s End. Trent abandons the pages and finds a motel, where he’s told there’s a package waiting for him. But no one knows he’s there. He opens the box and finds Cane’s manuscript again. Trent demands to know who left the package, but the desk clerk doesn’t know. Subsequently, Trent burns the manuscript in the sink.
Trent takes the bus back to the city, but on the ride, his very chatty seat neighbour is suddenly replaced by Sutter Cane, who says, ‘Did I ever tell you that my favourite colour is blue?’ (Though clearly, from his fashion choices, it’s black.) Then all of reality suddenly has a blue filter, like it’s Saving Private Ryan or something. Trent screams but it’s another dream. (So many dreams within dreams in this movie!) He visits the New Hampshire records department to find there’s never been a Hobb’s End in the state. Eventually, Trent gets back to the city and tells the publisher his strange, sordid tale. But Harglow says he sent Trent to investigate on his own. He’s never heard of Linda Styles. ‘She was written out,’ Trent marvels. Also, Harglow says he gave him the manuscript for In the Mouth of Madness months ago; it’s been on bookshelves for seven weeks, and the movie’s on the way. Trent is horrified. An epidemic of paranoid schizophrenia sweeps the country, and Trent – some days later – visits a bookstore with a hatchet and kills one of Cane’s fans.
Back in the present, Dr. Wrenn doesn’t know what to make of this story. Trent tells him the unholy power spreads when people read the story. ‘Every species can smell their own extinction,’ Trent tells him cryptically. That night, Trent wakes to the sounds of murder out in the hallway. His cell door is torn open, seemingly by a monster, and Trent is left free to wander through the facility, now smeared with blood on every surface. A radio transmission mentions mass hysteria across the country, mutations, people driven to extreme violence. (The ushe.) Trent staggers through the streets, eventually reaching a movie theatre that is playing In the Mouth of Madness. Starring John Trent. He takes a seat and watches – on the big screen – the very same events that just happened to him. He bursts into maniacal laughter and the movie ends.
Definitely a future Lady Gaga look.
- In the Mouth of Madness is unsettling because it deals with the thing I find scariest: losing one’s mind. While I was standing on line for a Midnight Madness movie at the Toronto Film Festival, some kind reporters from Torontoist started interviewing people on line to ask what their greatest fears were. I have one of those faces, so naturally they asked me, and I said, ‘losing my mind.’ I feel like that’s maybe not an appropriate term to use. So I corrected it, and said, ‘or succumbing to a severe mental illness.’ Which is maybe a worse thing to say. Living with a mental illness is not something anyone should be ashamed of, and, in describing my worst fear here, I hope I am not contributing to any stigma. I’m not talking about severe depression or anxiety. My greatest fear is my mind no longer being able to separate reality from fantasy, however you want to label that. In any event, I fretted about what I said for days and, in the end, they never ran the piece. That fear is laid bare here in In the Mouth of Madness. The movie is about the horror of an unreliable mind. Recently, a close relative of mine was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. We usually meet up for Thanksgiving, but this year we didn’t, due to this sudden medical emergency. However, I did speak with her on the phone, and at times, she seemed stuck in a loop, repeating the same phrases over and over again like a skipping record. As ashamed as I am to say this, that phone conversation scared me way more than any of the movies I’ve seen this October. Linda Styles’s quotation about how quickly what is considered sane can be considered insane is almost as terrifying, and the film does an excellent job depicting those ‘was that real / was that a dream’ moments. For someone who this stuff is already a hot button, In the Mouth of Madness is at times difficult to contemplate. Monsters and killers you can maybe avoid, but can you escape your own mind?
- The film is an obvious homage to the work of early horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, with its title (a reference to At the Mountains of Madness), its mental institution framing device, its depiction of books as dangerous containers of forbidden knowledge, and its prevalence of demonic tentacle creatures (like the Old Ones or Cthulhu) from some other plane. There are so few good Lovecraft film adaptations – mainly because the horror of Lovecraft stories is usually so vague and amorphous. ‘Unspeakable’ and ‘unknowable’ are two terms that get bandied about. So it was nice to see a Lovecraft homage that was just cerebral and vague enough, while still managing to be a narrative somewhat grounded in reality. As much as that’s possible, given the circumstances.
- In the Mouth of Madness also gives me an opportunity to talk about the over-representation of horror writers in horror movies. Given how many characters in horror movies are horror writers, you’d think 10% of the American workforce were horror writers. (Unsurprisingly, all these horror writers are white men.) In this film, it’s interesting that the horror writer is the villain – kind of a demigod gone mad because he has too many readers. Is this a parable about the dangers of accessible literature? Does a smaller readership keep your work honest / prevent it from ending the world? It does seem strange how often horror movies suggest horror writers either are (a) villainous, or (b) dabbling with dark and dangerous forces they don’t understand. Given these movies are written by horror writers, does this suggest a streak of dark humour, or self-loathing? Knowing writers, probably a bit from each column. It would be nice to see other occupations in the horror genre featured, though. Aside from F/X, where’s the horror movie about the special effects makeup artist? Or the screen printer of horror-themed T-shirts? Maybe a horror blogger could be the next big protagonist in horror movies?
Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Pretty terrifying. Like most John Carpenter movies, there are scenes that are a little goofy, or outright (and intentionally) funny, but there are also moments – like the monster Styles crab walk, or waking up slumped beside a monster police officer – that scared the stuffing out of me.
Say what you will about former-NRA-leader Charlton Heston, the guy knows how to wear a suit.
Best outfit: As much as I admired John Trent’s DIY take on Catholic chic (black crosses all over hospital scrubs), you can’t beat Jackson Hargrow’s three-piece suit, complete with pocket watch and chain. He even looks at his pocket watch during his meetings with John Trent, because if you have a pocket watch and chain, you’re definitely going to use it.
Best line: ‘Reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could switch spots and you’d be put in a padded cell.’ – Linda Styles, neatly encapsulating the themes of the movie.
Best kill: Who even gets killed in this movie? I mean, for real. I guess it’s pretty rough when John Trent, our hero, kills that reader with an axe. You won’t find that on one of those American Library Association ‘READ’ posters.
Unexpected cameo: If you think you recognize the administrator at the mental institution, Saperstein (John Glover), that’s because he ruled the small screen as Lionel Luthor for several seasons on Smallville. Also, Mrs. Pickman is played by Frances Bay, who played the little old lady in every movie and TV show from 1980 to 2000. Highlights include marble rye theft victim on Seinfeld and Happy Gilmore’s grandma.
Unexpected lesson learned: The really unexpected lesson in In the Mouth of Madness is don’t read. Note to self: guerrilla book marketing campaign – axe-wielding madmen smashing store windows to inquire among the patrons, ‘Do you read ________?’ (I mean, it certainly got John Trent reading Sutter Cane.)
Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Hobb’s End Horror
Next up: The Burning (1981).