I think, therefore you are.

Sutter Cane, In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Look, if you offer me a movie that features the involvement of John Carpenter in some capacity I am already in. I’ve seen virtually all of his movies and of course I’ve seen In the Mouth of Madness and absolutely loved it. It feels strange to review a film I love, but you can love something and view it critically.

So, while I have a soft spot for In the Mouth of Madness it’s also not my favorite of Carpenter’s films. That’s okay. Even not-so-great Carpenter can be pretty great. With the exception of Ghosts of Mars (2001), of course.

You can currently stream In the Mouth of Madness on Shudder.

“Do you read Sutter Cane?”

Part of the appeal of the film is the Lovecraftian nature of it all. The film, written by Michael De Luca (The Lawnmower Man (short), Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare), borrows heavily from Lovecraft’s canon. Interestingly, though, Carpenter did not sign on to direct the film right away, only signing on after Tony Randel (Hellbound: Hellraiser II) dropped out. Carpenter taking on directorial duties makes a lot of sense given the Lovecraftian nature of The Thing (1981).

The film picked up the fantastic Sam Neill as a lead, just shortly after the release of Jurassic Park. Also rounding out the cast are Julie Carmen, Charlton Heston, David Warner, and Jürgen Prochnow as Sutter Cane. The film also has a young Hayden Christensen, before he murdered all those younglings.

The film, like several of Lovecraft’s own stories, is a framed flashback depicting one man’s encounters with unknown powers that drive humanity mad. In the Mouth of Madness follows John Trent, an insurance investigator, his hired to investigate the disappearance of mega-author Sutter Cane and tracking down his next manuscript. As these things go, Trent uncovers twisting and terrifying secrets about Cane and his work.

What Worked About In the Mouth of Madness?

I already have my Halloween costume for next year planned out.

Sam Neill’s John Trent is an unlikable dick of a protagonist and it totally works. He’s not a sympathetic figure despite his traumatic experiences. Much like Lovecraft’s own protagonists, he’s smug, insufferable, and ultimately doomed. Neill ultimately carries the film with sheer unlikability and to see him fall to inevitable madness is a joy.

The film, when Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) finally appears, really clicks. Ultimately this is not until a good portion of the way through the movie, meaning that the first 40 minutes or so feel a bit scattered. Prochnow’s Cane makes for a fun, albeit limited menace in the runtime and inspires some fun reveals. He doesn’t really figure into the film for the duration, however.

The film’s strength ultimately lies in an exploration of perception and the altering of reality. The exploration of this, however, is limited to the second half of the film. Some of the ways this is accomplished are fantastic, others slightly less.

Had the film not dabbled too much into setting up Hobb’s End, then perhaps there would have been more horrifying scenes of reality-warping. It is commendable that the film manages to evoke so much anxiety in the amount of time it explores these themes.

What Did Not Work About In the Mouth of Madness?

Children: Always creepy, not always relevant.

In The Mouth of Madness throws together a lot of ideas and repeated images, but ultimately many of these elements fail to add to a cohesive whole. What the film is showing is snippets of different Sutter Cane stories, but few of these images amount to much. The church, the children, the owner of the inn and her chained-up husband, and the paperboy. They’re all elements of Cane’s writing creating a reality but they just create strange, albeit effective images that just create strangeness for ultimately strangeness’ sake.

Granted, it’s a film directed by John Carpenter and all this strangeness is executed well, visually. There are some genuinely creepy sights and scenarios, for sure. But it just ultimately feels like a series of distractions. The film tries to establish the wide body of work of Sutter Cane becoming reality, but it comes up short. The film really doesn’t take off until Sutter Cane actually appears and begins affecting reality around John.

Final Verdict

As a fan who enjoys the film, the director, and the Lovecraftian themes I can still recognize there are some fairly substantial flaws with In the Mouth of Madness. Carpenter’s direction and sense of macabre are on-point, but the film feels too scattered and wanders too much.

This is a film where the last half is what you’ll end up enjoying most, especially given the absolutely stellar acting of Sam Neill.

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Are you a fan of In the Mouth of Madness? Do you agree with this assessment? Let us know in the comments.

As always, please read our other reviews.

About the Author

David Davis is a writer, cartoonist, and educator in Southern California with an M.A. in literature and writing studies.

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