As I have said repeatedly in my trek through John Carpenter's filmography, the most entertaining and rewarding aspect of his filmmaking is his simplicity. In a time when every blockbuster is artificially inflated to 150 minutes without fail in order to fleetingly justify high ticket prices to complaining consumers, Carpenter's films recall a time when people actually accepted quality over quantity, finding a taut 90 minutes preferable to suffering through repetitive sequences and limp humor simply to get a better money:time ratio. (Heck, even comedies suffer from bloat; in the unofficial and unnecessary battle of the wheel-spinning slacker gurus, I will always side with Kevin Smith over Judd Apatow because Smith knows that brevity is the soul of wit.) Carpenter's films are direct, on-the-nose and predictable and they are often better for it.
That's what makes the unabashedly Lovecraftian In the Mouth of Madness such an anomaly in the director's canon, and such a delight. Here is a film that folds back on itself, that distorts perspective and, finally, pulls the rug out from under us before it, like its protagonist, cackles at itself. In true Lovecraftian fashion, it begins in a mental asylum, as its newest inhabitant, P.I. John Trent (Sam Neill), recounts the tale of what led him to his new abode. The first clues pointing to the film's cheeky nature come in a wonderfully pulpy tracking shot across cells of asylum and a quasi-self-reflexive spin of the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" as Neill, who'd worked on the director's previous film, sighs "not the Carpenters."
What follows is a delicious slice of metafiction, made all the more gleefully entertaining as filtered through Carpenter's matter-of-fact approach. Trent investigates the disappearance of one Sutter Crane, a massively popular horror writer who's become the most widely read author of the 20th century, according to his publishers. Before he meets them, Trent fields an attack from an ax-wielding madman who calmly asks the investigator, "Do you read Sutter Crane?" before lunging for him. Crane's editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), informs Trent that the man was Crane's agent. Within minutes, Trent manages to find clues in the book covers of Crane's novels that form a map of New Hampshire pointing to a location of his fictional setting Hobb's End (a nod to Stephen King and his fondness for fictional hamlets in Maine), and he and Styles head out to find the author.
Rapidly, things go awry. They cannot find Hobb's End because it doesn't exist, but Linda suffers a terrifying drive at night as John sleeps, at first passing by the same cyclist before accidentally striking him, driving on what appears to be the top of a storm cloud before somehow winding up in broad daylight in the town of Hobb's End. Naturally, Trent stirs only at the end and compliments Linda for finding the place.
From the start, everything in Hobb's End seems off, from the jittery old lady running the desk of a hotel (her name, Mrs. Pickman, a reference to Lovecraft's story "Pickman's Model," which somewhat informs the structure of this story) to a looming, black, Russian cathedral that we learn houses Crane. Linda begins to spot real-life corollaries between Crane's novels and events occurring in the town, and soon the two spot hideously mutated creatures roaming about causing violence. Crane shows Linda the manuscript for his new book, the titular, In the Mouth of Madness, as she sees both events that have already happened and events that will come to pass. In the process, she too becomes a monster.
Carpenter's cheek can be seen all over the place in the film, as Trent slowly realizes that everyone in the town, including himself, is a character written by Crane. A man in a bar kills himself in front of John, saying "I have to. He wrote me this way." This semi-religious speech is hinted at earlier when news briefs discuss the frenzy over Crane's books and the violence that erupts at bookstores when operators cannot meet the demands of his incensed fanbase and a pundit asks "When does fiction become religion?" I am reminded of the cases in the late-'80s and early-'90s when parents and distraction-hungry politicians railed against heavy metal for driving young fans to lives of debauchery and suicide, ignoring both the impact of Reagan's economic plan on the deification of fast, loose living involving a lot of spent cash and the unanswered question, "What band wants to kill its audience?" In Carpenter's metafilm, he parlays the hysteria over music into pulp fiction with a straight face that makes the whole gag that much funnier. Crane places something in his writing that causes hallucinations and paranoia in people's minds, leading them to tear humanity apart so that Crane might turn over the planet to a race of monsters he envisioned who worship him as a god. When the agent listening to Trent's story in the framing device asks Trent how Crane expects to control the world when so many don't read, John smiles and replies, "They're making a movie."
And so, the film ends with Trent, having walked out of the ransacked asylum and its massacred inhabitants and found his face on a movie billboard advertising the film we've been watching the whole time. As he sits in a vacant theater watching his own life played back to him, he begins to laugh maniacally. Is he insane? Is the entire film set inside Crane's novel and Trent is indeed the protagonist? Or is it all true, that Trent has been forced into bringing about the apocalypse and monsters are currently overrunning the humans that didn't already kill each other? John just laughs harder at the possibilities, a desperate final act to keep the darkness at bay for just a few more seconds.
Right behind him is Carpenter, laughing just as hard at his own demons. Carpenter had once again returned to horror after an attempt to branch out into another genre met with critical and commercial indifference, and the same fate would befall this feature. People were moving beyond Carpenter, even though most action/horror cinema of the '90s was a large step down from the quality of his best work, and Madness simply got lost in the shuffle. Yet Cahiers du Cinéma would place In the Mouth of Madness on their best of the year list, recognizing it as a top-notch oddity in the director's work that nevertheless displayed all his usual, blunt charm. For my money, it's Carpenter's finest since The Thing, and one of his key works.