Odds and DEAD Ends: Fiction in John Carpenter’s ‘In The Mouth Of Madness’

John Carpenter’s In The Mouth Of Madness was released in 1994, and completes his ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’, along with The Thing and Prince of Darkness. Drawing heavily on H. P. Lovecraft, Mouth of Madness is a unique, self-reflexive film in a similar vein to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (also 1994). The film follows insurance investigator John Trent, as he tracks down missing horror novelist, Sutter Cane. This article will focus on film’s use of fiction and stories to blur previously thought-of binary oppositions, such as fantasy/reality, human/inhuman, and even day/night, to try and disturb and unsettle the viewer.

The idea behind fiction in Mouth of Madness is, if enough people believe in stories, the stories gain power, and through that power the Old Ones can return. Cane explains this to Trent like this:

“It takes its power from new readers and new believers. That’s the point. Belief! When people begin to lose their ability to know the difference between fantasy and reality the old ones can begin their journey back. The more people who believe the faster the journey. And with the way the other books have sold, this one is bound to be very popular.”

In Paul Cobley’s book Narrative, he states that “The most familiar, most primitive, most ancient and seemingly straightforward of stories reveal depths that we might have hitherto failed to anticipate.” (Cobley, 2001, p. 2). Cane, controlled by the Old Ones, uses horror fiction as a universal storytelling medium to connect with readers on a primal level, using common tropes and ideas to make it easier for readers to believe. Cobley’s discussion of signs in literature, or “what humans interpret as signs, therefore stand in for something else in the real world” (p. 9), illuminates why a horror writer is the best medium for the Old Ones to use to prepare humanity for their arrival. Coding themselves with signs they people understand makes them more believable, understandable, acceptable, even.

Fiction, therefore, is an illumination of truth, a coded way to our understanding of knowledge. With this in mind, the filmmakers use the audience’s understanding of this concept (though perhaps the audience isn’t consciously aware of it) to turn truth on its head and destabilise them. Slowly, picking up pace at the finale, the boundary between fantasy and reality erodes away.

This happens in many ways, from Cane’s whispering “Did I ever tell you my favourite colour was blue?” followed by Trent waking up with the world blue, to the constant cyclist returning over and over again. There are also more subtle details which hint the fictional nature of Trent’s story. The room Trent stays in at Pickman’s Hotel is 9, the same cell number that Trent is in at the asylum. Similarly, the number of the motel room Trent stays in after his world has been turned ‘upside down’, is 6. 6 is also the number of novels that Sutter Cane has written before In The Mouth Of Madness.

Note that the world Cane inhabits is malleable, and reflects, is, his fiction. “You are what I write. Like this town. It wasn’t here before I wrote it. And neither were you.” He later writes Trent’s actions perfectly, the passage that Linda reads from the novel. Cane alters what is real and not real because he lives inside his own fiction, an avatar, for his real self. This is made evident when Trent explains to Harglow that the reason he doesn’t remember Linda is “Well, that’s easy, she was written out.” He is a proxy god for the Old Ones.

The breakdown of reality and fantasy is not the only division that collapses. French structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss theorised that stories were, at their core, thematically comprised sets of binary oppositions, such as good and evil, rural and urban, men and women. Carpenter’s film systematically deconstructs this simple division and thereby prove the illusory nature of Trent’s reality and, to an extent, our own, assisting our discomfort.

Reality and fantasy is a clear example; the whole narrative is a deconstruction of its fictional self, but another is the opposition of human and inhuman. Several times we see characters (such as Mrs. Pickman) change to monsters throughout the film, and others such as Linda have the ability to move from human to inhuman. The anthropomorphic qualities attached to monstrous forms unsettles us, we should be allowed to remain clean and whole, but also the monstrous elements given to humans is just as disturbing. Even the painting at the hotel morphs throughout the film. Paintings themselves lie between truth and fiction, a definite image but a representation only, a topic Andre Bazin discusses in The Ontology of the Photographic Image (pdf link below). This distortion brings several oppositions into question in one broad stroke. Carpenter knew what he was doing.

Additionally, that even Cane has a monstrous form on the back of his head, is a startling revelation. When Cane was completely human (though one controlled by other beings), it was still essentially human, and so defeatable. If Carpenter were to show that Cane was an Old One, we would be more comfortable with even this; he would fall on one side of the human vs inhuman opposition. However it is in the middle, a blurred, distorted place we can’t understand, which is more frightening than his being either side.

A smaller example is day and night. Several times throughout the film, such as the arrival at Hobbs’ End, the film jumps straight from night to day. The editing that would usually show a passage of time is inverted, breaking even filmmaking conventions. Here, no time has passed at all. Time is breaking down, the regular cycle of solar bodies that extends beyond this world, is collapsing.

Literary theory states that our understanding of reality is dictated by language, that we experience the world through words and the connections between them. We know a door is a door, in any shape or size, because we associate it with the word ‘door’; the word is what tells us two doors are similar. As Bennett and Royle discuss, “We cannot in any meaningful way, escape the fact that we are subject to language.” (Bennett & Royle, 2009, p. 131). Carpenter’s film is a perfect exploration of the ways in which we are subject to words, to fiction and stories, and the confusion and discomfort if this were to be consciously manipulated by a malevolent force, dissolving oppositions and boundaries we expect and have built into our world, into language itself. The film is not about the destruction of the world, but a destruction of a human perception of the world.

Bibliography

Bazin, A., 2007. The Ontology of the Photographic Image. [Online]
Available at: http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Bazin-Ontology-Photographic-Image.pdf
[Accessed 08 08 2018].

Bennett, A. & Royle, N., 2009. An Introduction to Literature. Criticism and Theory. 4th ed. Harlow: Pearson.

Cobley, P., 2001. Narrative. UK: Routledge.

In the Mouth of Madness. 1994. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. USA: New Line Cinema.

John Carpenter’s The Thing. 1982. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. United States of America: Universal Studios.

Prince of Darkness. 1987. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. USA: Alive Films.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. 1994. [Film] Directed by Wes Craven. USA: New Line Cinema.

 

 

Article by Kieran Judge

Horror Addicts #68, Masters of Macabre Contest!

Horror Addicts Episode# 068
Horror Hostess: Emerian Rich
Intro Music by: Saints Of Ruin
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1990s | masters of macabre contest | in the mouth of madness | aggroaphobia
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| sexy vamp trading cards | movie suggestions | vamp joke |
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| masters of macabre contest | bloopers |

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In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

John Carpenter directs actors Sam Neil, Jürgen Prochnow and even Charlton Heston in the 1995 movie In the Mouth of Madness.  The film opens with every writer’s dream, the act of a book being printed for later sales.  It is after this opening credit scene that we witness an ambulance rushing to what we find out to be a psychiatric hospital.  The man being driven to the asylum is Insurance Investigator John Trent (Neil).

Dr. Wrenn comes to visit Trent to question his story and if possible get him out of the asylum.  Dr. Wrenn is eventually led to the cell that Trent has been held in and as he arrives he finds something quite interesting.  Trent has used a black crayon to cover his cell, his clothing and his skin with hundreds of crosses.  As Dr. Wrenn begins to talk to Trent we get a look what drove this man into the madness he has found himself in.

The story starts off easy enough as we find Trent questioning a man about a warehouse fire.  The man expecting to be paid for his claim on the warehouse is tripped up by the facts Trent has found.  Trent’s abilities continue to impress the insurance company’s owner and the men eventually go out to lunch.  At lunch Trent is offered a full time job with the company, but he prefers to continue to work freelance.  As the two men enjoy their lunch an odd scene develops behind them: a man comes out of a store and begins marching toward the men carrying an ax.  People scream and run to get out of the man’s way as he crosses the street.  The man eventually comes to their window and with a swing of his axe breaks the window.  It appears he is going to kill Trent with the ax, but the man stops to ask him if he reads Sutter Cane.  Cane being the man Trent just heard has gone missing and could cost his insurance company friend millions.  The would be killer is promptly shot to death before he can deliver a blow.

Trent eventually finds himself in the offices of Arcane Publishing who’s director, Jackson Harglow (Heston) wants him to go and find the disappeared horror writer Sutter Can.  As Harglow begins to discuss Cane with Trent, we find that the man has an appeal far reaching any modern writer.  One could almost compare Cane’s works with those of H. P. Lovecraft.

Trent eventually takes the job and he and a representative of Arcane head out to find the missing Sutter Cane (Prochnow).  The problem as the pieces start to get put together regarding where Cane maybe Trent begins to find himself have disturbing dreams and unfortunately for him, this is only the beginning.  In the Mouth of Madness is more of a psychological horror film but does have some elements of straight horror within the film.  We also follow along as Trent has to answer a major question; the question being is he part of the book?

Carpenter again shows why he has fascinated horror fans for decades.  The setting of this film along with the way Carpenter is able to get a story told comes alive in this film.  You will enjoy following along as the mythical town of Hobbs End is searched for and shocked as items from the new book may start to come true Carpenter is at his best in these type of films and draws upon a great cast to tell a story that many have not seen.  In the Mouth of Madness along with the pre-reviewed, The Thing, are part of Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy with Prince of Darkness being the final film.  Fans of Carpenter’s films will thoroughly enjoy this movie and the cast turns in performances that shine.