Thing was John Carpenter's first homage to the weird works
of H.P. Lovecraft. With In the Mouth of Madness the
director returns to Lovecraft's Mythos, effectively and sometimes
subtly capturing Howard's obsession of what "reality" really
The story begins with Sam Neil as insurance investigator
John Trent, being dragged into a Lovecraftian padded cell
while prophesizing the end of the world. The story unfolds
as an elaborate flashback, telling how and why Trent was driven
It all began when Trent was hired to investigate the disappearance
of a horror writer called Sutter Cane (like Stephen King .
. . get it?). Cane's novels not only affect his readers, but
the very fabric of reality. Cane's publisher, played by Charlton
Heston, has taken out a large insurance policy on the delivery
of Cane's new bookcalled In the Mouth of Madnessand
since the writer has been missing for two months, wants to
collect on his multi-million dollar policy.
Trent starts his investigation by reading some of Cane's
books, novels that neatly parody Lovecraft's own melodramatic
titles: The Hobb's End Horror, The Whisperer of
the Dark, The Thing in the Basement, The Breathing
Tunnel, and Monster out of Time.
To Trent, Cane's books all seem to have the same plot. "Slimy
things in the dark, people go mad, they turn into monsters."
But like a Lovecraft critic who can't help but become a little
infected by the writing, he grudgingly acknowledges that "they're
better written than you'd expect . . . they kind of get to
Trent thinks the so-called disappearance of Sutter Cane
is one big publicity stunt staged by the publisher, but Heston
assures him that it isn't and sends Trent to find Cane, assigning
Cane's editor, Linda Styles (played by the lovely Julie Carmen),
to help him find the missing novelist.
Trent and Styles take an elaborate trip into New England's
heart of darkness, tipping the film's uneasy alliance between
Lovecraft and King more towards Stephen as they run into an
aging bicyclist on a road that disappears into another dimension,
taking them through the clouds and into Hobb's End.
The film shifts back towards HPL as they drive to an old
hotel with a huge greenhouse. Styles immediately recognizes
the hotel as a part of The Hobb's End Horror that, like "The
Colour Out of Space," was filled with "strange growing things"
and "something movingsomething enormous, with arms like
More nods to HPL follow as they discover that the hotel
has a painting which changes from a pastoral scene to one
of slithering ghouls. The hotel is run by a wizened old woman
named Pickman (Richard Upton's love-child perhaps?) who later
mutates into an ax-wielding, husband-killing, tentacle-sprouting
Strangely, the old New England town of Hobb's End seems
to be close by the Romanian location of Lurking
Fear's Leffert's Corners, for it contains a huge Greek
Orthodox Church with black onion towers. A place, as Trent
reads from one of Sutter Cane's books, "that had once been
a seat of an evil older than mankind and wider than the known
universe." According to Lovecraft/Cane it's built over a gateway
to one very bad dimension.
That night Styles goes back to the church and finds Cane
(played by Jurgen Prochnow of Das Boat and Dune fame) behind
an old Remington typewriter, putting the finishing touches
on the manuscript of his final masterpiece, In the Mouth of
Madness. Looking like shock-jock Don Imus but acting like
a classic Lovecraftian scholar driven mad by forbidden knowledge,
Cane has become a latter-day Abdul Alhazred, proclaiming his
last novel the "new bible" which will allow the Old Ones back
into our world.
Trent tries to escape from Hobb's End but experiences a
very Twilight Zone-ish sequence of eternal returns. Cane won't
allow Trent to leave, for he has other plans for him. It is
Trent's role to deliver the manuscript to Arcane Publishing
so the masses will read and believe in Cane's work, thereby
making it easier for the Old Ones to return and reclaim the
world. In effect, Sutter Cane wants to publish a trade edition
of the Necronomicon and put the blasphemous book on display
in everyone's local bookstore.
Cane pulls the final page of the manuscript from the typewriter
and then transforms into a multidimensional passageway, literally
ripping a hole in himself as though he was made of paper.
Styles, in the meanwhile, reads from the blasphemous manuscript
about a character named John Trent peering into Cane's inter-dimensional
rip to see "the illimitable gulf of the unknown, the Stygian
world yawning blackly beyond. He did not shriek but the hideous
unholy abominations shrieked for him as, in the same second,
he saw them spill and tumble upward out of an enormous carrion
black pit choked with the gleaming white bones of countless
Styles rams the boxed manuscript of faux-Lovecraft into
Trent's gut and tells him to escape, for she has read the
ending and cannot leave. The investigator takes flight down
a weird corridor, hotly pursued by a gaggle of Lovecraft-inspired
beasts (cardboard cutouts of a shambling tangle of teeth and
In the end, the reality-ripping book is published despite
Trent's multiple successful attempts to destroy the manuscript.
Its release becomes the touchstone for worldwide massacres
and Old One mutations.
John Trent, who's been safely tucked away in his padded
cell, is left untouched by the apocalypse, and leaves the
abandoned asylum to walk down empty corridors covered with
ripped pages and blood. Eventually, as every best-seller does,
the novel winds up on the big screen where Trent, with a bucket
of greasy popcorn on his lap, can howl at himself in the film
version of a book he's never read.
No film reviewed in this book is so strongly divisive as
In the Mouth of Madness. This is either a film people
love or hate . . . there seems to be no in-between. The film's
arguable weaknesses include the generic rock soundtrack composed
and played by director John Carpenter, and the disjointed
script that left the actors as confused as the plot. The film's
strength is its Lovecraftian themes and the concept that the
writer, Sutter Cane, is changing reality through his writings.
Not much different than Lovecraft himself, really, when you
realize the lasting effect the author has had on modern horror.