The trampled Lovecraft and his insane stories…
John Carpenter pays homage to HP Lovecraft and his extraterrestrial sagas with In the Mouth of Madness. The name itself is inspired from Lovecraft’s own, At the Mountain of Madness. It takes extra liberty from Lovecraft’s most popular story, The Call of Cthulhu and other similar stories. Consequently, In the Mouth of Madness contains elements typified by Lovecraft—insanity, unknowable powers, inconceivable horror, extraterrestrial powers enslaving humans, and of course—the dampening, sickening degeneration of people thanks to the unknown.
When filmmakers pay tribute to their favorite authors, especially in horrors, they walk on a thin rope. Roger Corman, with his favorite actor Vincent Price, did a fine job of respecting Edgar Allan Poe’s classic stories and poems in the 60s. They’re generally popular as B-grade classics. Vincent Price (one of my personal favorites) always made these movies appear larger with his inimitable persona and a piercing voice. Roger Corman is a handy director too—not avant-garde, but he’s okay.
In cases when other filmmakers have adapted horror classics, there have been instances of inventiveness. The Innocents (Henry James, adapted by Clayton), The Haunting (Shirley Jackson, adapted by Wise), Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin, adapted by Polanski), The Exorcist (William Blatty, adapted by Friedkin), The Shining (Stephen King, adapted by Kubrick), and of course Misery (Stephen King, adapted by Reiner) are some of the most brilliant examples of a movie propelling the book into folklore.
In the case of Madness, Carpenter, whilst being a phenomenal presenter of violence and destruction, just doesn’t seem to bring his A-game. You can’t doubt Carpenter for the brilliant visuals here, but the story itself is loopy, pretentious, and Lovecraft’s obscurity is misguided, even though authentic. Take even The Fly (both versions – Newmann and Cronenburg); both movies use the story by George Langelaan to present a discreet view of powers in imprudent hands. The unknowable matches well with the unknown, and such a combo terrorizes viewers. In terrorizing them, the makers are honest.
The honesty is lacking from John Carpenter in the third installment of his Apocalypse Trilogy. The first two are The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987). There’s a major point when the entire movie could have been thrown to water, if only the powers to-be acted in best interests of the society. If Sutter Cane’s (Jürgen Prochnow) book was notorious in driving his readers insane, why doesn’t anybody just ban the book, or abolish it? If that works against freedom of expression, well, we don’t have the right to drive people crazy thanks to freedom of expression.
Sure, if all of what John Trent (Sam Neill) experienced was sheer hallucination, which it was—the movie fails again in its ploy to pretend as a hopeful psychological thriller along the lines of The Innocents (1961, a bona-fide classic). With such an intriguing plot—books of a bestselling horror writer driving his readers crazy—Carpenter fails to hit the mark, big time. Poor writing and ineffective treatment would be the reasons. It could have been a masterpiece as a psychological thriller, or a surreal drama, yet the monstrous horror on screen allows few chills, but ultimately fails to invoke any sense of connection with the characters or the story.
Viewers will realize that sanity is fragile, and at any given moment, we could lose it. Sure, that’s a nice start, but what next? Carpenter sends us to the allegorical town of Hobb’s End just to manifest his brilliance as a master scarecrow—scaring us with disgusting beings (Lovecraftian elements) and presenting a redundant drama on the possibility of people ardently believing in the myths present in horror books.
Horror writers do have a knack of deluding themselves with what they write. Stephen Kind openly admitted how he had nearly lost himself while writing The Shining. Here, the writer Sutter Cane seems to lose his own grip of reality, but how is that supposed to make sense when the character he bases the book on, John Trent, himself is lost in a hallucinatory whirlpool?
We get it – they’re all insane and end up believing in what they read and write. Cane is taken over by the monsters he creates and Trent by the monsters he reads in those books. But it’s not just stimulating, let alone enjoying or thought provoking. When you look at Carpenter’s previous classics, especially Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), it’s amazing how he loses the plot here.
What makes this even worse is how Carpenter toys with themes of duality and phenomenology in his chaotic world. Trent experiences the world, as it is, through Cane’s books and by the end, he starts seeing the world that way. If there’s a positive in the underbelly of Madness, Carpenter highlights the line between reading a book (or, watching a movie) and being obsessed with it. And that’s the sad part because the premise is so damn good, the movie could have been foundational.
In the Mouth for Madness can be scary at times. Carpenter masterfully creates an uneasy atmosphere and his control over the visual elements is excellent. Yet, that’s where it ends. With a weak script (written by Michael De Luca) and formulaic execution, Madness is just madness from Carpenter. It’s one of those movies that you either love or hate. I didn’t like it, but I know a handful that would, so all is not lost.
Madness is twisted and sickening and that’s about it to say. Maybe it doesn’t help that I don’t find the works of Lovecraft intriguing either, but hey – at least you could try.