The original 1994 poster art for the film
While it’s not quite my absolute favorite John Carpenter movie (that would be 1978’s Halloween), In the Mouth of Madness is probably Carpenter’s crowning achievement in terms of sheer quality and fright factor. This is also the absolute best “Lovecraftian” film ever made, which is ironic considering that it isn’t based on any particular H. P. Lovecraft story. The plot, however, draws from many themes found in Lovecraft’s fiction. Here we follow the adventures of John Trent (played wonderfully by Sam Neill), a private investigator who specializes in insurance fraud. Trent gets hired to investigate the disappearance of Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), a popular horror novelist who even outsells Stephen King (heavens forbid!). The thing is, people who read Cane’s books have been known to become violently insane, and as Trent searches for the missing writer, he begins to understand why.
I first saw this film in 1995 (when I was in the seventh grade), and I didn’t even know who H. P. Lovecraft was at the time. Up to that point, I’d only been exposed to the most basic creature features and slasher films. I was wholly unprepared for the more cerebral meta-horror that characterizes this particular masterpiece. While watching it late one Saturday night, I found myself considering some tough philosophical questions, including: When does fiction become religion? If enough people believe in something that isn’t real, does that thing then become real? Is there a truly objective standard for “sanity” and “insanity,” or is the former just a matter of majority opinion? And if there is a Creator, could He, She or It actually be the cosmic equivalent to a horror writer? Could we all be fictional characters that only exist to be tormented, dehumanized and destroyed for someone (or something) else’s entertainment?
These questions sent chills down my spine, but I also noticed that Madness builds upon certain themes that John Carpenter explores in two of his earlier films, The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987). Along with Madness, these movies are often described by Carpenter as his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” since they each deal with situations that could result in the extinction of all human life. They have completely different characters and plots, but they’re basically three different variations of the same catastrophic event. In The Thing, this event manifests as a biological threat that’s currently limited to an isolated geographical area (e.g., Antarctica). In Prince of Darkness, the threat becomes more cosmic and urban. But in Madness, Carpenter’s apocalypse finally reaches the breaking point; it now reaches into the furthest regions of our minds, and it’s happening everywhere (with Sutter Cane’s monsters lurking in every small town and in every major metropolis). Madness combines the horrific visual monstrosities of The Thing with the bone-chilling theology of Prince to show us what the world might be like if human beings really did become “just a bedtime story.”
Sam Neill as “John Trent”
In many ways, In the Mouth of Madness also revisits and builds upon the plot of another beloved Carpenter classic, Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). It begins with a skeptic (i.e., a P.I. instead of a doctor) whose life starts to come unglued after he witnesses a violent act (i.e., a killing spree rather than an assassination). He then travels to a small town outside of civilization (i.e., in New England rather than Northern California), where an ingenious madman (i.e., a horror novelist rather than a toymaker) seeks to engineer the apocalypse. This apocalypse is then brought back into the civilized world through mass-marketed products (i.e., books rather than Halloween masks) that are designed to do something really nasty to their consumers (i.e., turn them into monsters rather than kill them). But as much as I may personally prefer Halloween III, even I have to admit that Madness is the superior film. It’s much more frightening, and for all the same reasons that the best Lovecraft stories are frightening.
In this respect, the film taps into something that I actually find fairly disturbing in real life. There’s a tendency among certain people to create cults around fictional characters (and I don’t mean “cults” as in “cult films”). Of course, an atheist might argue that all spirituality is based on fiction, but this is harder to prove or disprove with traditional figures like Seth-Typhon or Jesus Christ. It’s much easier to prove that H. P. Lovecraft invented Cthulhu and that he never intended for anyone to believe this character actually exists. Yet there are people today who invoke, pray and even make offerings to Cthulhu and other “Cthulhu Mythos” monsters as if they were actually real. There are all kinds of magical and metaphysical theories as to why doing this might be a worthwhile idea, particularly among chaos magicians and people who identify as Otherkin. But while I don’t care that much if someone chooses to worship Batman or Wonder Woman as a real being (though I admit to thinking it’s a little strange), I will never understand the people who worship figures like Cthulhu or the Slender Man. These are characters that no one in their right mind would ever want to meet in real life, so treating them as real just makes no sense to me. In fact, I believe doing this is really a very good way to open yourself up to qliphothic or demonic influences.
Qliphoth are the astral shells of beings and universes that no longer exist. They want more than anything to continue existing, but since they are both soulless and bodiless, they must prey upon the living to perpetuate themselves. They can only intrude upon our reality, however, when people specifically create magical doorways for them to use in this regard. One way in which this is done is by treating fictional monsters as real and actually creating a cultus or system of worship around them. It may surprise you to learn that people have been doing this at least since Kenneth Grant started invoking Cthulhu and other Lovecraftian monsters in his rituals during the 1950s. It may surprise you even more to know that such rituals have been known to get results. If you pray to Cthulhu, it’s entirely possible that your prayer might be answered; but this doesn’t mean that Cthulhu is “real.” If it isn’t just a coincidence, it probably means you’ve drawn a qlipha to yourself and that the qlipha is perfectly willing to “impersonate” Cthulhu if it means getting attention and energy from you. At least Kenneth Grant understood this principle and knew exactly what he was doing, since the entire point of his occultism was to interact with qliphoth and keep them under control. But many people who follow things like the Simon Necronomicon have no idea what they’re doing and are actually putting themselves under qliphothic control (which is a really bad idea).
Jurgen Prochnow as Sutter Cane (a.k.a. “God”)
Here in the LV-426 Tradition, we refer to this phenomenon as “the Sutter Cane Effect.” I’ve discussed it here before, and I’m sure other people have much better terms for it. (The Buddhist concept of tulpas is similar, but it isn’t quite the same thing. With tulpas, it’s people creating paranormal beings with their own psychic energy; with the Sutter Cane Effect, it’s pre-existing paranormal entities impersonating fictional characters. Your guess is as good as mine as to which of these scenarios applies to any given situation, but I generally think that at least some Lovecraftian occultists – especially the “Simontologists” – are experiencing the latter. It seems to me that creating tulpas requires quite a bit more understanding and work on the part of humans, while the Cane Effect can happen whether you truly understand what you’re doing or not.) But we specifically named this phenomenon after the antagonist of In the Mouth of Madness because as far as we can see, that’s exactly what Sutter Cane does: he draws qliphoth into his reality through his fictional horror monsters, which people have begun to worship as real. As more people begin to believe in Cane’s creations, the astral gateway he’s opened keeps getting larger and larger…until the qliphoth finally begin to overrun the Earth through our own twisted, mutated bodies.
Now I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about me here; I think the Sutter Cane Effect is a serious cause for concern, but I’m not exactly an anti-Necronomicon crusader or anything like that. I believe this phenomenon only happens with people who deliberately flirt around with that stuff to begin with; so unless you’re actually playing around with something like the Simon Necronomicon (which is rigged to explode in people’s faces, metaphorically speaking), I don’t think you really have anything to worry about. It’s certainly not H. P. Lovecraft’s fault that some of his fans engage in this sort of thing, and it’s not going to happen to you just by reading his stories. I also acknowledge that some of the people who use the Cane Effect to their advantage (?) know exactly what they’re doing and can handle it (though I disagree with them that it’s truly “necessary”). Furthermore, I know exactly what to do when and if a qlipha starts messing with me or my loved ones. (They say “Demons tremble at the name of Jesus Christ,” and I say “Qliphoth tremble at the name of Seth-Typhon.”) But In the Mouth of Madness does scare me because it shows us one idea of what could happen if (1) too many people started playing around with the Sutter Cane Effect and (2) the Gods simply shrugged Their shoulders and decided to let us destroy ourselves. I highly doubt this sort of thing will ever happen…but then again, I guess that’s partly why I’m religious!
But more about the film itself. John Carpenter is truly in top form as the director for this film, and the performances by Sam Neill, Jurgen Prochnow, Julie Carmen and even Charleton Heston (!) are absolutely top-notch. The script is also flawless, and the soundtrack (also by Carpenter) is definitely one of the scariest things I’ve ever heard. (I tried playing it on our speakers for the trick-or-treaters one Halloween, thinking it might attract more of them. To my dismay, it actually made quite a few children too terrified to even walk on the sidewalk in front of our house!) But I suppose the most important thing for anyone who digs Lovecraft is that Madness truly sticks to the time-honored Lovecraft formula, which includes the following traits:
It’s a detective story, and the main character is a male skeptic who’s slow to believe anything. (As mentioned above, John Trent is a private investigator.)
As the protagonist investigates his case, he has brief encounters with otherworldly beings and phenomena that defy all rational description or explanation. (These would include Sutter Cane and his various “Old Ones.”)
The phenomena that are experienced are somehow related to mythical people, places and/or things, with the stipulation that these mythical elements are actually real. (When Trent and Linda Styles investigate the Black Church at Hobb’s End, they discuss the iconography of the archangel Michael casting Satan out of heaven.)
The protagonist’s experiences lead him to realize that man is not at the center of things, that the universe is ruled by blind and idiotic Gods, and that it’s only a matter of time before the human race goes extinct. (That these aspects are present in Madness should be quite clear by now.)
The protagonist physically escapes with his life, but he can’t escape from the evil in his mind; he goes insane to the point that the reader can’t be sure if anything in the story actually happened or if it was all just a delusion. (John Trent is put in a mental hospital at one point.)
It’s interesting to note that Wes Craven made and released a very similar film – his New Nightmare – at the same time John Carpenter was filming Madness. Virtually the same thing happens in both films (but in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the Sutter Cane Effect occurs through Craven’s Freddy Krueger character rather than Sutter Cane’s monsters). While it’s equally as clever as In the Mouth of Madness (not to mention that both were produced and distributed by New Line Cinema), New Nightmare isn’t anywhere near as scary. Ultimately, I think Madness is the most impressive horror film that was ever made in the 1990s, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s also the best John Carpenter film. If you’re looking for a really freaky movie this Halloween, give In the Mouth of Madness a try.
For some reason, THIS scene always scares me the most