John Carpenter has always had a handle on the existential side of horror. More to the point, he knows that the imminence of death and the uncertainty of our senses are more universally dreadful than a knife-wielding maniac or a shape-shifting alien. It’s the reason why the last “scares” of his movies are the most abstract: Michael Myers’s breathing, MacReady and Childs’s final moment together. The monsters of his filmography are as unsettling as they are varied, each and every one a signifier for our subconscious fear of the unknown approached from a different angle. This may not be news to horror junkies, who know that the best horror movies drip with subtext worthy of Freud’s notice, but it demonstrates Carpenter’s grasp on the long-term psychological terror of even the most imminent animal threats. He takes this philosophy miles further with In The Mouth Of Madness, his tongue-in-cheek ode to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, by making its monsters scary for just being there.
Sam Neill’s John Trent is an insurance investigator brought on the case of missing author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), who, Stephen King comparisons aside, boasts a global following more akin to J.K. Rowling than anyone else. Convinced he’s exposing a publicity stunt for Cane’s latest book, Trent gradually finds the borders of reality falling away as Cane’s writings come to life around him. The story from there takes a turn for the mega meta-referential, the arising coincidences between Cane’s work and Trent’s experiences not just reflective of genre and technique, but forming the basis for Trent’s terror via their very existence. In Trent’s first brush with danger, Carpenter deflates any tension in being pursued by an axe-wielding lunatic by showing the man march across a street in broad daylight as Trent sips coffee in the foreground. The second act ensues in Cane’s imagined hamlet of Hobb’s End with an onslaught of monsters and villains that challenge Trent’s credulity more than they threaten his life. Targeting Trent’s sanity over his mortality lets writer Michael De Luca and Carpenter have a field day mashing together the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, inventing creatures because they can, giving the unknown an actual shape rather than a symbolic vessel a la Michael Myers or the Thing.
Any attempt at psychological horror risks being a mess, and In The Mouth of Madness is no exception, skirting the line between beautiful chaos and hot mess. Gone is Carpenter’s vaunted shot economy and any clear line of sight. Trent as well is a departure from Carpenter’s normally steely heroes, wrapping up his arrogance in a smug display of superiority that makes him look no less scummy than the criminals he exposes. But to be pessimistic would be to miss out on the joys of watching Sam Neill’s smarmy prick slowly unravel and Lovecraft’s creations brought to misbegotten life. Its mid-90’s development captures a lightning-in-a-bottle mix of special effects, its practical creatures and locations combined with dated CGI giving it a layer of sick tangibility that forces the eye to linger longer as you work out both what is happening and how it was done. That would be a damning criticism for some movies, but anyone who missed the gruesome effects when the remake of The Thing rolled around are sure to understand that the definition of good CGI is relative, and what any bystander would consider convincing effects can sink one kind of movie as much as it can float another. In paying homage to an author who so strenuously tried to make you feel every piece of worm-eaten wood and fungus-slimed mortar, Carpenter would be nuts not to try doing as much as possible in-camera. In that way, Carpenter can hardly be faulted for going full steam ahead to his hard rock soundtrack to turn a job for hire into his pet project.
When Trent’s investigation spirals out of control, finding him further at the mercy of his surroundings, the movie finds fresh ground in Cane’s god-like powers. Prochnow’s sinister writer embodies the answer to the great question Lovecraft always danced around, forcing Trent to literally meet his maker, to his own horror, something of an irony for a character hell-bent on discovering the truth. In keeping with the manic pace and ridiculous nature of events, Trent’s reaction to his discovery runs the gamut from helplessness to ultimate liberation, and by the time Carpenter starts shredding guitar over the end credits, Trent has become the cantor for an audience caught in the grips of a forbidding truth masquerading as bad fiction.