The greatest cosmic horror on film is also the greatest achievement of its director's career.
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Michael De Luca
With Sam Neill (John Trent), Julie Carmen (Linda Styles), Charlton Heston (Jackson Harglow), David Warner (Dr. Wrenn), and Jurgen Prochnow (Sutter Cane)
There's a bit in John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness where Linda Styles, editor to superstar author Sutter Cane, brags that her client outsells Stephen King. You're taken aback by this, because Cane is intended to at least part-way be Stephen King. How utterly gauche, you think; it's like a fictional New Hollywood filmmaker whose space operas did better than Star Wars. And yet, whether it was intentional or not, by making such sharp reference to one giant of horror, Madness obliquely points to the empty space where Cane's other real-life antecedent ought to be, yet is somehow never mentioned once. And that's how you come to realize that Madness supposes a world where H.P. Lovecraft never existed—until, that is, Sutter Cane arrived to become him, a full ninety years later, presently springing upon a world that this time was truly ready to receive him. (And perhaps Cane assisted the world's apprehension by not spending eighty paragraphs at a time describing colossal cities of the dead down to their finest details; we aren't really given enough evidence to judge.)
Madness is sometimes called the best of all Lovecraft movies—and if you count it, that's probably the case—though it is based on very little that can be specifically attributed to Lovecraft's actual stories. Indeed, The Thing and Prince of Darkness, the previous entries in Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy, are rather more faithful to the form of Lovecraftian horror. Meanwhile, this film steals a title from At the Mountains of Madness, my least-favorite Lovecraft even before it becomes an allegory about the dangers posed by a liberated race of darkly-colored slaves; it vaguely replicates the plot of the excellent Shadow Over Innsmouth; it has occasion to quote R'lyehian visuals; and, in its moment of revelation, it invokes the coming of certain "Old Ones." However, on this last point, it's half-implied that Cane has simply made them up—perhaps without even knowing he did. You see, Madness is premised upon a plague, engineered by Cane himself, carried by words and images and ideas, that makes it increasingly difficult—and ultimately, entirely impossible—to distinguish fantasy from reality.
Thus, while the diminution of human dignity in the face of deep time and deeper gods is left to The Thing and Darkness, it is in this regard that Madness engages as fully as any movie ever has with that other deep-running current in Lovecraft's work: namely, the impression of encroaching and inevitable insanity. Indeed, Lovecraft's overwhelming prose manages that better than anything, even when he's desrcibing several dozen linear miles of (archaic, Cyclopean, non-Euclidean) ruins; while at its best, it conjures up some of the most outrageous cosmic horror ever envisioned. Madness joins the likes of "Through the Gates of the Silver Key" in the headiness of its ideas; but in its primal cinematic immediacy, it even surpasses Lovecraft. The great writer was singularly good at describing (and not describing) things that might drive one mad. The great director, however, plunges his audience into the experience of being mad—or, more accurately, of staying sane in a world that's gone mad, a distinction without much difference—and it dares you to not reconsider the ground beneath your own feet, too.
So, fittingly, we begin in a mental ward, as a new resident arrives. John Trent desperately declares his sanity, much as protagonists in this kind of story are wont to do; yet by the time one Dr. Wrenn has arrived to judge Trent's mental state for himself, Trent's changed his tune. Having made himself cozy in his padded cell, he smiles and smokes and avers that, no, he really is quite mad after all. Somehow, Wrenn doesn't believe him; but we get the feeling that Wrenn's not here for Trent personally, anyway. When Trent asks him what's happening "out there," Wrenn evades. Instead, he prods Trent to tell his own story. He does.
When he could still function, you see, Trent was an insurance investigator—the best in New York. So, when Sutter Cane vanishes, and Arcane Publishing makes an insurance claim upon their most profitable author, his boss puts Trent on the job. Befitting his hardbitten cynicism, Trent is certain that it's all a publicity stunt. Still, Trent goes through the motions, teaming with Cane's editor Styles to figure out just where the reclusive provocateur could possibly have gone.
With no real leads, Trent's first idea is to read Cane's novels—despite their reputation, linking them to terrible crimes and strange illnesses. To his great surprise, he finds a clue, buried in the cover art to Cane's novels, done by the man himself. Trent discerns that, when put together, they form a jigsaw-puzzle map, purporting to lead to a town found on no other maps but the one Cane seems to have made just for them. Trent still thinks it's foolish, but he's being paid, and thus he and Styles rent a car and head to New England, looking for a place that may or may not exist. Unfortunately, when they actually find it, it does not settle the question.
This "Hobb's End," as Trent knows from his perusal of Cane's books, is the locus of the author's horror stories. Everything that Trent and Styles see relates back, in some manner or another, to Cane's novels—even Cane himself, when they do finally find him, typing away in the bowels of a desanctified, unearthly church. Predictably, Trent scoffs. But as Styles quickly realizes—and as Trent, ensconced in his skepticism, very slowly realizes too—everything that's happening is real, and everything that's happening was already written in Cane's new novel. It's called In the Mouth of Madness.
This brings us a little bit more than halfway through the film, and it's enough to get a basic if slippery grasp on what Michael De Luca's screenplay is going for, and how ambitiously it goes for it. De Luca, who's spent most of his life as a producer, is a curious figure. Though I shall not list their forbidden names, suffice it to say that no other screenplay he ever wrote so much as suggests he had a Madness in him. One is thereby compelled to wonder if Carpenter had a secret hand in shaping the script. There's much of the Carpenterian in Madness, after all. This is the case with the realization of various elements from Cane's novels, slightly slapped-together in order to deliver the film's more conventional scares (though in Madness, if it's not a strength, then it's at least of a piece); it's the case, too, in the querulous patter between Trent's half-noirish investigator and Styles' girl Friday. And, of course, it's impossible not to suspect Carpenter's involvement in the bleakest ending of his career—a career that was, in large part, devoted to seeing just how directly he could imply the end of all we know, a theme his filmography repeats no fewer than six times.
But, whether Carpenter shepherded De Luca's script or not, there's a sophistication here—or, if "sophistication" isn't the right word, then a "commitment to exploring a single idea with rigor and fullness"—that you won't find in anything Carpenter ever wrote himself. Even his cleverest screenplays are still somewhat ramshackle affairs, however charming.
What we have in Madness, however, is very possibly the single best exercise in pure metafiction ever brought to the screen, although when I throw that qualifier "pure" in there—that is, fictions where the characters themselves know that they're in a fiction—it limits the field to a very select few competitors. (No Persona; no Adaptation; even The Truman Show is borderline.) So let's not go too overboard, and simply say it is almost certainly the best metafictional horror film of them all, because (first) it's a damned fine example of truly mind-bending self-reflexivity and (second) it's actually scary, two things which the meta-horror moment of 1994-2000 only ever managed in this very motion picture.
The horror of Madness is not to be found in its more typical elements, although it certainly has such elements: gore, monsters, and body horror, ranging from the salutary to the (deliberately) trite. No, even at their most potent they merely provoke a startle, and arouse no deeper terror than that. Instead, Madness gains its power from its ideas: the idea that sanity is but a consensual arrangement between like-minded rationalists; the idea that we are not the authors of our own lives, and madness is simply finding that out; and, most blasphemously, the idea that what we believe is no different than what is true. Is the only thing preventing the world's religions from becoming real the inadequate faith of their adherents? This is Sutter Cane's position. But lately he has struck upon the notion that scary stories only ever work in the first place because we do agree to believe in them. Now armed with the minds of a billion readers, Cane can remake whole civilizations with only a block of exposition. He can create whole beings out of a few lines of characterization. Thus does God become a hack horror writer; whilst in a touch of sublime stunt casting, God drafts Charlton Heston into service once again as his publisher.
As for his fiery-eyed prophet, Cane is even crueler: adding insult to the injury of his creation, poor John Trent is rendered the kind of stupidly rationalist hero you sometimes find in Lovecraft's tales—the hero whose unwillingness to credit anything outside his own materialist worldview compels him to blunder into metaphysical secrets that should never be known by the sane. Even better, once we learn Trent's true nature, we realize that what's really been driving him all along is nothing more (and nothing less) than the purest cosmic horror of them all: narrative necessity.
It's the unreliability of our own senses that serves as the foundation for Madness' terrors; that's how the film's most famously frightening frame turns upon nothing more than the production design and color timing of a certain scene set on a bus. However, my personal choice for Madness' scariest vision is what Styles sees when she cranes her head out of a car window on the outskirts of Hobb's End. Seeing what at first seems like nothing but the featureless black asphalt of a moonless night, a shock of lightning erupts—and reveals that what she's driving upon is nothing solid, but a fathomless, cloud-filled sky. It is unsettling enough in its own right; but in providing a visual prologue for the untethered horror of unreality we'll soon face, it's altogether brilliant.
And Carpenter gives the story the shape it needs. In his prime, nobody could establish a mood like him, and Madness is one of his finest achievements in this field (even if it does suffer somewhat from the worst score he ever put his name to). Carpenter works the contrasts in Madness: there's one busy walk-and-talk at Arcane Publishing that I believe features the most human beings Carpenter ever put into a single shot, and indeed they may outnumber the whole casts of some of his films; but upon our heroes' arrival in Hobb's End, the uncanny depopulation that so often defines Carpenter's worlds is back in full effect. As far as realizing Trent's insanity goes, Carpenter gets creative. A jagged, unhinged editing scheme emphasizes the unreliability of time and space in the increasingly-fictional continuum that Cane's creating.
But if it seems like we're missing one essential element to Madness' success, that's because we've yet to discuss Sam Neill. His evocation of smug misanthropy has probably never been so endearing, and his descent into mania—rendered here as a tragic surrender—has only rarely been more upsetting. Leaving aside certain Kurt Russell vehicles, Madness is doubtlessly Carpenter's best-acted film of all.
Now, I will reluctantly admit that the film's capacity to bend the mind is largely expended upon a first viewing—and perhaps my own first viewing was under such ideal (and sensitizing) conditions that they may not be trivially replicated. Even so, Madness remains a fascinating grotesque, a deeply affective glimpse into a world where the rules suddenly change, and commonplace humanity is made obsolete. It's the first film I would reach for if I were required to produce the most frightening movie I ever beheld. And if you asked me to utter the name of John Carpenter's greatest film, In the Mouth of Madness would obviously be my answer.