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By Brock Wilbur · February 7, 2012
"A reality is just what we tell each other it is."
I hate lovingLovecraft.
While H.P. is responsible for modern horror as we know it, I must respect and loathe him in equal measure. Firmly rooted in the idea of cosmicism, he believed the universe was too gigantic to care about humanity, much less be understood by us. Hence, his work operates around the central device of terror too incomprehensible to be committed to words. Each monster "indescribable," the ever-present dread "unknowable," the crushing weight of universal truth "unrepeatable." At points, his characters are even to frightened to describe architecture. Architecture. It all reeks of a cheap trick to lazily avoid definitions. Such a hack move, he'd be laughed out of any writing workshop.
Cthulhu-damn him for making it work.
Leaving the nightmare-creating duties to the darkness in the reader's mind, Lovecraft's stories are more frightening today than they were in 1917, if only because his readers have an extra century of insanity in their blood. Doesn't matter if you see the turn coming from a mile away, "The Music of Erich Zann" still keeps me sleepless in a way the works of King, Koontz, Poe, Barker, and Matheson never have. Does this reveal too much about the frightening functionality of my own internal process? Yeah, maybe. But it applies to the rest of you in equal measure. The bump in the night is automatically your greatest fear, whereas the tangibly-defined murderous automobile in Christine is laughable.
Rounding out his Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince Of Darkness), John Carpenter approached 1994's In The Mouth of Madness with the goal of distilling the oeuvre of H.P. Lovecraft into a single work capable of transcending forms (on several levels). With the greatest actor of this or any generation, Sam Neill, in the lead, Carpenter crafts a literary love letter to the Grandfather of Terror — simultaneously presenting weighty issues about the consumption of media and, I believe knowingly, asking us to laugh at the entire production.
The title sequence is the tonal equivalent of a whoopee cushion. Carpenter's 80s headbanger score apes bad Metallica so convincingly, I was sure it was a Megadeath track. I've never perceived this as a mistake or a poorly-aged choice, since of all the director/composers in history, this man knows exactly how to get what he wants. Rather, it preps the viewer for a lighter approach to the upcoming events than, say, the bleak drones of The Thing or the tense, synthetic crescendo of Halloween. He's taking the audience on a descent into madness, but it should feel more like a water slide.
We open on our hero, John Trent (Sam Neill), being dragged into an asylum (+1 H.P. points right off the bat for setting). The staff drowns out his ranting by upping the soothing muzak/tender torture of "We've Only Just Begun" by The Carpenters (+1 cruelty points). Dr. Wrenn (David Warner) comes to interview Trent because "things are getting bad out there." Trent may be the only one who can help, but he's also a guy whose used a black crayon to draw protective crosses over every square inch of his body and his cell. Truthfully, I would come to this lunatic for help with anything. I've never gotten nearly that much usage out of a single crayon. He may be magic.
Recounting his story takes us back a few weeks into the life of John Trent, insurance investigator. After busting a crooked businessman for arson, he's out at a diner discussing a possible job opportunity when a lunatic with an axe and blood streaming from his eyes breaks into the restaurant. "Do you read Sutter Cane?" he asks pleasantly, raising the axe to decapitate Trent. Police fill the lunatic with bullets before the blow can connect.
Turns out Trent is about to read a lot of Sutter Cane, as his next case is tracking down the missing author at the behest of his publisher (played by Charlton Heston). Cane's books sell at record numbers, more than any author in history and certainly ten times that "hack" Stephen King. They've pre-sold book orders and the movie rights for his upcoming In the Mouth of Madness, but no one's heard from him in two months. Except for his agent — who read the first chapter, picked up an axe, and tried to decapitate Trent.
Warned that Sutter Cane's writing has been known to have a disorienting effect on his readers, Trent begins working through Hobb's End and his five previous novels. Starting here, Carpenter moves the film into a less-tethered reality. It's never hallucinogenic, but at any given moment some disfigured apparition can leap towards the screen, or Trent himself can wake suddenly from dreams within dreams. Further along, this can seem like poor filmmaking, when, in the midst of some tense confrontation, Trent suddenly blacks out to awaken later in a new, bizarre location. It's part of the balancing act Madness is always aware of: make a film considered "good" or "effective" in 1994, or wholly accept the repeated tropes and devices of a writer who was effective in 1920. I love this movie when it errs on the side of the latter, which it often does.
When Trent uncovers a puzzle hidden in the artwork of Cane's covers, it seems to indicate the location of a real life Hobb's End in New Hampshire, which the publisher treats with giddy joy, as if Viking Press were to have discovered that the fictional Castle Rock, Maine, was actualy a real place in the late 80s, and Stephen King had decided to start a B&B there. Cane's editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), is sent with Trent to track Cane down and bring the book back.
To use Lovecraftian tactics: I cannot begin to describe large sections of the plot from this point onward. Passages are visually arresting, stroboscopic, twisted, and often indiscernible from some mad bastardization of music videos and the "Hell flashes" from Sam Neill's magnum opus, Event Horizon. Maybe I was wrong earlier; Carpenter does dabble in a bit of psychedelic phantasmagoria, but the tonal connections to the plot keep it from being nightmare for nightmare's sake.
Trent and Linda reach the real Hobb's End, a small Main Street America town, which is either completely abandoned or overrun by a roving band of maniacal children, depending on which character's point-of-view we're in. Trent takes them to the small "Pickman Hotel" near the middle of town, which between its morphing artwork and the owner, Mrs. Pickman (Frances Bay — Happy Gilmore's, and everyone else in the history of cinema's, grandmother), it's a blatant and geekgasm-inducing Lovecraft hat-tip. Linda begins to notice that every single detail of this hotel is exactly as described in one of Cane's novels, except for the fact Mrs. Pickman is clearly not a tentacled beast from another dimension, hacking her husband to bits with an axe. Trent finds this ludicrous, and points out that if it were accurate, outside the window behind him there would be a giant dark Byzantine church with fifty-foot spires. Linda, noticing he has east and west confused, opens the window behind her to reveal exactly that church. (On the commentary track, Carpenter recalls the location search in Canada where they found a giant dark Byzantine church with fifty-foot spires just down the street from the motel, and how even though all viewers mistake this for a composite shot, it is entirely real and was both horrifying and fantastic to discover.)
Standing outside the church, Linda reads from Cane's book, and you begin to understand how Lovecraft's frightening descriptions of architecture worked. The visuals are just that of a building, and even the terse soundtrack can't make us feel the evil pulsing from it, but the passage she recounts makes the literal into spiritual so effortlessly, it pushes the ongoing sub-textual debate of the power of film vs. the printed word. In the Mouth of Madness criminalizes and mocks both, but also proudly portrays each as powerful and world-changing. But more on that soon.
The church sacrifices a child to bring forth Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), who commands an army of evil dogs that chase away an armed militia of townsfolk. Trent and Linda flee, but she returns later to talk some sense into Cane. He forces her to glance upon the pages of his latest work, which is so powerful that blood begins to pour from her eyes. In the ultimate writer-revenge moment, he asks her for notes, and if she has any changes to the ending.
Back at the hotel, Trent is having a breakdown over a reality he refuses to accept as anything less than a promotional scam. Let it be said that for the genre of "writers whose work becomes reality," there's an intensely refreshing choice in having this film focus on an insurance adjuster instead. Double Indemnity meets The Dark Half is a much more interesting approach than, say, Secret Window.
Linda returns, altered by her experience into something cruel, super-powered, and no longer human. Trent hides in the basement, where Mrs. Pickman has evolved into a giant tentacle monster (maybe one of the creatures from The Thing) and is chopping her husband to pieces with an axe. I won't examine why a giant tentacle monster would need a cutting device, because it's frightening and weird and reason has nothing to do with what we're seeing — further evidenced by the array of slimey, gilled creatures Trent encounters on his escape. On Main Street, the townsfolk have begun to mutate into their new forms, a page taken from Lovecraft's Shadow Over Innsmouth, and Trent shares a quiet moment with the suicidal Simon (Wilhelm von Homburg, Vigo from Ghostbusters 2) whose final reflection before sticking a shotgun in his mouth: "Reality ain't what it used to be."
Attempting to flee from town, Trent winds up in a comical cosmic loop, where each time his car reaches the highway, he is once again transported back into the midst of the rioting mob of evolving townspeople who want him dead. Linda eventually knocks him out, and Trent awakens in a confessional within the Black Church. Cane explains how worldwide belief in his work, and being read and accepted by more people than the Bible, makes his fiction into reality and also unleashed the ability of an ancient race of Old Ones. Which is hard to swallow, since the fanatical devotion of a billion-strong readership never produced sparkle vampires or boy wizards.
From a sanctum deep in the church, Cane gives Trent the final manuscript to be delivered to the world, then tears himself apart like a piece of paper, revealing a black nothingness, or perhaps the gateway to another world. Linda, reading a passage from near the end of the book, describes the event as it occurs, leading us into either Carpenter's strongest moment or single greatest failing. Linda reads:
"Trent stood at the edge of the rip, stared into the unlimitable gulf of the unknown, the Stygian world yawning blackly beyond. Trent's eyes refused to close, he did not shriek, but the hideous unholy abominations shrieked for him, as in the same second he saw them spill and tumble upward out of an enormous carrion black pit, choked with the gleaming white bones of countless unhallowed centuries. He began to back away from the rip as the army of unspeakable figures, twilit by the glow from the bottomless pit, came pouring at him towards our world…"
Sam Neill's reaction and some minor sound design create the unknowable cosmic horror, the very worst of what our minds could conjure. It's a brilliant choice, which proves, in cinematic form, why literature will always be separate and vastly more powerful. Then, thirty seconds later, Carpenter shows us the monsters. There are flashes, and feet, and quick cuts, but it's still showing us the monsters. And for a Shuggothian wall of death, it's just not very scary. Nor could it ever compare to what the passage instills in us. Either this was Carpenter driving a stake into the heart of his own art form to prove a belief in books, or it was a failure of faith in the audience, succumbing to the needs of the lesser.
In true Lovecraft form, Trent blacks out when the creature reaches him, and awakes in the sunshine, outside of Hobb's End, for no reason.
The rest of the final act is the cruelly hilarious unmaking of both Trent and the world. Certain characters, such as Linda, have been written out and no one remembers them. Despite burning the manuscript, Trent apparently delivered a copy weeks earlier to the publisher, who is ready to release the book and is already shooting the film. Sutter Cane pops in to remind Trent he controls reality, including a sequence where to prove his God-hood, he changes the entire world to his favorite color, blue. Upon the book's release, blood-eyed readers begin to riot and murder, then transform. Trent is arrested on release day for chopping a reader in half with an axe. From in his cell at the asylum, he watches the monsters come in the night and rip the staff to shreds.
Left untouched, Trent exits in the morning to find the world abandoned. The monsters have moved inward from the coast, and the last broadcasting radio station DJ dies horribly on the air. Wandering deserted streets and navigating the wreckage, he finds a movie theater screening In the Mouth of Madness, starring John Trent and Linda Styles. Asylum clothing on, and tub of popcorn in hand, he sits in the abandoned theater and laughs his way through the greatest comedy of all time: the story of how he brought about the Apocalypse.
While the chances of our annihilation coming at the hands of Elder Gods is minimal (despite my preference for destruction by way of Nyarlathotep), and an even lesser chance of meta-ruin by a hack author, there is an element of truth to the idea of belief controlling reality. Cane's own example of outselling the Bible seems to work against him, since there's no proof that Christianity has made God real. But the extension of such devotion, the power to change people and guide their actions, is palpable. With each new generation, we grow stronger attachments, judgments, and reactions to the media to which we are exposed. If you don't believe me, ask whether or grandparents, or even our parents, would be capable of mustering the energy or connection to engage in the four-page discussion of "racial inuendos" as found on the IMDb boards for 2001's Josie and the Pussycats.
That isn't to say that Internet comments herald our downfall (though it helps), but our entertainment has become vastly more entwined in our perception of reality. Even the conversations between Daily Show–watching me and my Glenn Beck–fan parents creates a gap that places us on two separate worlds, where it isn't about opinions anymore; it's about facts. Our individual grasp of reality slips a little further each day, and the idea of a single work of entertainment pushing one, or all of us, over the edge… it's exactly as tragic and funny as each moment of John Trent watching his own misguided performance.
So when George R. R. Martin's Winds of Winter finally releases, you'll know why I'm chilling in the corner with an axe under my trenchcoat.