When it came out, John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (1994) was thought to be something of a comeback after several indifferent films. Whatever their relative merits, movies like They Live and Prince of Darkness were a sad comedown from the glories of Carpenter's golden years. The title is evocative and the prospect of Carpenter playing in Lovecraft's wheelhouse was delicious. It still is, though I doubt Carpenter is capable of doing Lovecraft justice anymore. He might not have been capable of it in 1994. The burnout was already beginning to show.
The story here follows insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) as he looks into the disappearance of best-selling horror novelist Sutter Cane. Arcane Books, his publisher, wants to recover the manuscript to Cane's latest novel, In the Mouth of Madness, and teams him with Cane's editor, Linda Styles. Cane is described as a "billion dollar franchise," the best selling writer of the century. Styles tells Trent that Cane's writing has "an effect" on his less stable readers. Together, they trace Cane to the town of Hobbs End, New Hampshire, the heretofore fictional setting of Cane's books. Meanwhile, the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket. Trent's own grasp of reality begins to slip after reading some of Cane's books. Cane's fiction, it seems, is becoming a going concern in the real world. Slowly but surely, it becomes clear to Trent that Cane's final novel represents the pending apocalypse.
This is a film over which I've had heated arguments. It's not a film that I like, and I think it represents a bullet in the brain of Carpenter's career as a horror filmmaker.
Many horror fans don't look past the visual accomplishment of its formal filmmaking. Oh, Carpenter still had the chops at the time. It's a good-looking movie, obviously well-funded, and creatively designed. For that matter, Sam Neill is one of Carpenter's best leading men (this was their second film together), managing a mixture of frantic desperation and assholery while keeping the audience on his side. The film is well stocked with interesting actors elsewhere, too. Both Jürgen Prochnow and Charleton Heston are, in their turns, delightfully sinister. Carpenter has always had an eye for creepy shot compositions, particularly when he makes films that puncture images and archetypes of America, as this one does in its portrait of an increasingly "wrong" New England. This "gets" the landscape of Lovecraft and King (who is the author Sutter Cane's career seems to most resemble). The film is replete with liberal quotations from Lovecraft. This is the kind of post-modern horror movie that Wes Craven has been trying, unsuccessfully, to make for decades. Additionally, it has a carnival of monsters that makes it a close cousin to The Thing.
I'll grant you all of these points. It's well-made. Lovingly made, no less. It has a conception of the horror movie that it pursues with a vengeance. Unfortunately, from my point of view anyway, there's a serious self-loathing at the heart of the movie. The theme the movie expounds is every bullshit indictment of horror and it's alleged effect on the people who consume it. Reading horror novels and watching horror movies, the world of the film suggests, turns people into desensitized maniacs or unhooks them from reality such that they cannot function. It's a film that despises its own audience. Carpenter encapsulates his view of his audience with shots like this one:
In the end, self-loathing turns to contempt. The end of the movie finds its hero looking at the movie he himself is in and laughs his ass off at it. In the context, horror movies--even this one--are ridiculous. The end of the film gives a cue to the audience, suggesting that the only proper response is to laugh. With all due respect to Carpenter's storied career, he can go fuck himself.
This movie represents the functional end of Carpenter's career as a horror filmmaker. Unfortunately, Carpenter is trapped by his status as one of the masters of horror. Everything that follows this film shows the director chafing at the shackles of an idiom he no longer can stomach. His long silence after the failure of Ghosts of Mars is telling. He can't make other kinds of movies anymore, and he no longer gives a damn about the kinds of movies he can make. I don't think it's an accident that his main entry in the Masters of Horror series is basically a low grade retread of In the Mouth of Madness. All he can do these days, it seems, is rail against his lot in life.