(New Line Cinema) If you thought The Cabin in the Woods—Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's brilliant deconstruction of the horror genre—was both laugh-out-loud funny and terrifyingly insane in the final act, then the next horror film you should see is John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness. It boasts the same sardonic wit and the same sense of limitless chaos crawling and scuttling beneath the surface. It also plays some of the same metafictional games with its subject matter.
If you're relatively new to horror, then you may not recognize the name H. P. Lovecraft. Hang around with aficionados of the genre, even for a short time, and you'll hear it. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a reclusive, old-fashioned gentleman who lived with his two maiden aunts in Providence, Rhode Island in the early part of the 20thCentury. He dedicated himself to studiously avoiding any kind of work generally recognized as “a career,” and also to writing and selling horror and fantasy stories to magazines like Weird Tales. He was somewhat of a racist and a xenophobe—a fact which some of his fans will try to rationalize and some will just accept. Why, in this age of political correctness, would anyone admire a known racist? Well, partly because he showed signs of reconsidering his views in later life, but mostly because he pretty much single-handedly defined the modern horror story.
Of course, Lovecraft had help from his own heroes—Dunsany, Machen, Blackwood, James—but it was his synthesis of their disparate styles that became the standard for 20th Century horror fiction. Authors from Stephen King to Ramsey Campbell readily credit their entire careers to Lovecraft, and his influence on horror cinema has been unparalleled.
Why all this talk of Lovecraft? Because both The Cabin in the Woods and In the Mouth of Madness would be considered, by anyone who knows horror, to belong to the Lovecraftian tradition. There are two kinds of Lovecraftian horror tales: the one that explicitly acknowledges his influence, and the one that only hints at it. The Cabin in the Woods is not explicitly Lovecraftian, but in theme and tone it clearly follows the “cosmic horror” template which Lovecraft developed. In the Mouth of Madness is explicitly Lovecraftian, incorporating passages and ideas from his stories, and featuring a character named Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) who is a Stephen King / Lovecraft hybrid. Even the title is a Lovecraft reference—a combination of two of his most famous stories, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “At the Mountains of Madness.”
In the Mouth of Madness is the story of John Trent, played by Sam Neill, who is basically the man you want if you're going to make a horror film. Trent is an insurance claims investigator who spends his days trying to debunk the stories told by would-be fraudsters. When Sutter Cane goes missing, his publishers (led by Charlton Heston) try to cash in their policy on him. Trent must try to track down both Cane and his latest novel In the Mouth of Madness, which legally belongs to the publishers. This series of events is being recounted by Trent inside an insane asylum; his audience is Dr. Wrenn, played by the excellent David Warner, who challenges Jeffrey Combs for the title of Sir Has-Appeared-in-the-Most-Lovecraft-Movies.
Already, with this frame story and Sutter Cane's novel-within-a-film, we're seeing some of the same metafictional elements that Cabinplays with: a horror story that acknowledges and affectionately makes fun of the tropes of the genre. Trent and his reluctant escort Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) follow a series of bizarre clues to the supposedly-fictional town of Hobb's End, the setting for many of Cane's novels. Trent suspects a massive publicity stunt engineered by the publishers, and decides he's going to expose it rather than be their pawn. This leads him to discount or ignore many unsettling events that Styles takes far more seriously.
Nothing further can be revealed without spoiling the film. Just watch it, and be amazed. Carpenter deserves the title Master of Horror, and he pulls out all the stops here. To take a film directed by the man who made Halloween, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China and say, “No, this is his best work”—that would be pretty hard to defend; so, let's just say that In the Mouth of Madness is a masterpiece and leave it at that. It manages the same seemingly-impossible feat as Cabin, straddling the line between humor and lunacy with equal effectiveness on both sides. What Carpenter shows us is that we are insects in the grand scale of the cosmos, and that our insistence on the importance of our own perceptions is hilarious. But the laughter soon turns to screaming. The line, “This is not reality! This is reality!” will ring in your ears for quite a while.
In the Mouth of Madness is arguably the best Lovecraft film to date. It nails what's great about his work—the sense of cosmic horror—without forgetting the pulp context in which his stories first appeared. In the same way that a seminal work of modern literature like “The Call of Cthulhu” first appeared in a magazine of ill repute, Carpenter takes the blood-and-guts silliness so often deplored by fans of “real cinema” and injects into it a statement about the nature of human existence. Like The Cabin in the Woods, In the Mouth of Madnessis hellishly fun to watch; but in the end, it gives you just a little bit more of the truly awful than you're comfortable with. Like Dana says, “You want nightmares? Then let's get this party started.”
For Fans Of: The Cabin in the Woods, The Thing, Cthulhu, Event Horizon
Why We Like It: self-aware horror that's still scary, equally funny and terrifying, Sam Neill, David Warner, exceeds its quota of awesome monsters