Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
The nature of reality and the illusion of free will are common subject matter for horror cinema, to the point that we think of “rubber reality” as something of its own disquieting corner of the horror universe—a land where nothing is ever as it seems upon first inspection. But although this is common horror fodder, it’s not necessarily what we associate at first blush with horror legend John Carpenter, the progenitor of the modern slasher film (Halloween) who also brought us the likes of The Thing and Prince of Darkness. Although Carpenter’s They Live in particular undoubtedly deals with questions of reality and free will, in that case it’s ultimately an instance of reality being manipulated through concrete, technological means, rather than an ancient evil outside of our capacity to perceive or understand. Where They Live can be read primarily as sci-fi satire, a criticism of soulless consumer society as we still know it today, 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness is a more fantastical vision of a world where the walls of reality are threatening to come tumbling down—a genuine instance of supernatural horror tearing the very fabric of space and time apart.
Critical evaluation has not always been kind to this period of Carpenter’s filmography, as most any film fan would acknowledge that the 1990s were less fertile as a whole for the “master of horror” than his run of classic horror, sci-fi and action flicks in the 1980s—although it’s worth noting that many of those ‘80s films were also underappreciated at their times of release. Still, a lineup that includes Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Vampires and Escape From L.A. can hardly be expected to compete with the likes of The Thing, The Fog and Big Trouble in Little China. But there’s a strong case to be made for In the Mouth of Madness as potentially the last great film of Carpenter’s career, to be mentioned in the same breath as his better-known gems. It’s a strange, delirious odyssey—uneven without a doubt, but visually inspired and anchored by a strong central performance from an actor who seems to understand exactly what is needed of him.
That performance comes courtesy of Sam Neill, one year removed from the biggest starring role of his life in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, and thus likely at the peak of his fame in the eyes of American audiences. He’s playing John Trent, a no-nonsense freelance insurance investigator who is hired by a book publisher to look into the apparent disappearance of bestselling horror author Sutter Cane, who the film dutifully informs us “outsells Stephen King,” so you know he’s clearly a big deal. Cane’s novels have been a pop-cultural sensation, with rumors that they’ve even affected the mental state of “less stable readers.” Trent is tasked with tracking down Cane for purely economic reasons—the manuscript for his newest work is late, and time is money. It jibes perfectly with the skeptical, rather dismissive energy that Neill gives to Trent—he distrusts everyone around him, assuming duplicity exists in every soul, and it’s just a matter of ferreting it out. An early scene illustrates Trent’s ability to force a confession from an oily businessman, but what use will his cynical, smarmy talents be when put up against supernatural evil for which there is no earthly explanation? What if Trent is not the master of his own destiny?
Stephen King may be the horror author overtly namechecked, but In the Mouth of Madness is much more directly Carpenter’s tribute to the pioneering weird fiction of author H.P. Lovecraft, to the point that the film is almost a collage of Lovecraft’s greatest hits—interdimensional elder gods, parallel dimensions and Things Too Horrible to Describe. There’s no overt Cthulhu appearance, but there might as well be, as Sutter Cane presents like one of the romanticized pop culture representations of Lovecraft as tortured genius (in addition to counter-criticism of his racist writings) that have become more common in the last few decades as the writer’s works have steadily been absorbed into the mainstream. Carpenter’s tribute seems to presage the mainstreaming of weird fiction and cosmic horror itself, and you have to wonder what the director thinks today of the visibility of Lovecraft as a genre, and indeed a verb, almost 30 years later.
Regardless, In the Mouth of Madness stands out when rewatching today for its grasp of the dreamy, almost Lynchian crossing of boundaries between the mundane and the extraordinary. It makes the most out of visual repetition, as Trent encounters the same scenes repeatedly throughout as they undergo subtle changes and grow in meaning and portent with each revolution. It produces the disconcerting sensation of a skipping record, or a crack spreading across a windshield that will soon spell disaster. Every action only provides the impetus for destruction to inch that much closer; every assurance Trent attempts to give himself is thrown back in his face as his own powerlessness and insignificance are revealed.
Informally, In the Mouth of Madness is regarded as the third installment in what some fans refer to as Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy,” preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness. In each, there is an aura of despair, as protagonists attempt to overcome world-devouring threats that stand in as metaphors for entropy itself. In both The Thing and Prince of Darkness, however, some form of hollow victory is achieved by an embattled hero—a mode, at least, of staving off the inevitable for another day. Not so, when it comes to In the Mouth of Madness, which sports what is perhaps Carpenter’s most unreservedly pessimistic conclusion.
Perhaps the director simply embraced his lifelong dalliance with the darkness when crafting this bleak outlook. Or perhaps the chaos of our current everyday existence will soon vindicate the fear he seemed to feel for the world that was coming.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.