"Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?"
-Edgar Allen Poe
It has been director John Carpenter's aspiration to do a perfect adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story for some time. Whether it's a failure to get the rights or lack of funding, this has never come to fruition. However, he has succeeded in creating a movie based on some of Lovecraft's ideas, "In the Mouth of Madness". While most of the ideas found in the film are original, one of the most obvious elements is an homage to the Cthulhu mythos. In the mythos, Lovecraft penned a series of stories, beginning with "The Call of Cthulhu", about "the great old ones", a sect of demons in deep hibernation, waiting their turn to rule the Earth. Lovecraft wrote of the Cult of Cthulhu as well, which today has become either an actual cult or an urban legend of such, depending on where your research leads you.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was essentially a disciple of Edgar Allen Poe. Reading both authors, the similarities are obvious; the lead character/narrator is usually a person of strong educational upbringing, speaking with a polished tongue and describing events that they themselves have trouble believing. But Lovecraft became the leading force into the modern horror tale, and his influences can be seen in the works of Stephen King, Dean Koontz and a myriad others. If one takes the time to read some of H.P's work, it may not seem original, but this is because the ideas have been plagiarized and re-worked to death by Hollywood and pulp writers alike.
John Carpenter took the ideas of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos and worked in some of the philosophy of René Descartes and David Hume. The idea (used to great appeal in the Matrix series) being a question of whether we are actually perceiving reality for what it is, or are we under the control of an "evil demon"? Basically, what if there is no all-loving God in charge of the world, and instead we are all being tricked and blinded by an evil demon? Something that won't let us see reality for what it truly is, gives us only an illusion of free will and has us constantly working towards its own goals instead of our own?
The film begins like a mystery story. Private investigator John Trent (played flawlessly by Aussie Sam Neill) tells his tale from the padded walls of an asylum. He starts at a point where has just wrapped up an insurance case and is hired by Charleston Heston to find a missing author. The writer, Sutter Cane, is the newest horror phenomenon, relying on classic pulp-horror plots but writing with a style and flair to really suck the reader in. He has gained a huge following and the crowds are beginning to go mad, waiting for his next novel to debut. Riots are breaking out and readers are turning violent.
Trent hesitatingly takes the case, agreeing to track down the author and bring his latest manuscript, In the Mouth of Madness, back to publishers so they can get it on the book stands as soon as possible. The trail leads him to the New England town of Hobb's End, a supposedly fictional town from Cane's work which turns out to be real. Carpenter's directing during the mysterious first half of the movie is undoubtedly some of his finest work, and possibly the best directing ever done in a horror film. Had this pace kept up, and the movie not degenerated into fun-filled gore and insanely grotesque monsters, we may have seen the first "Best Director" nod for Carpenter. But this erosion of mystery and a trek into the nasty depths of a horror film are what make it a true cult classic, and not a rival to "The Exorcist".
Soon, John Trent's life and entire world begins to intricately resemble Cane's novels. The sweet old lady who runs his motel is actually a hideous, sadistic monster in disguise. The children are being kidnapped and turned into blood-thirsty maniacs. And Trent's belief that he knows reality when he sees it starts to fall apart. Are his memories, indeed his entire life, nothing but a novel? Or is the novel itself taking over reality, driving the world into the deepest, most depraved forms of madness unknown to the likes of man? Carpenter leaves this open for debate until the last three minutes of the movie.
Even when the movie turns into a standard blood-and-gore hack-'em-up, it is still perfectly realized. No money is wasted creating the "great old ones", each more hideous and terrifying then the last. Sadly, I don't know which is Cthulhu, which is Yog-Sothoth and so forth, but the creatures look as real as Trent and Cane, not your standard rubber monster from the depths of cult film hell. The special effects really kept this one alive for me in the end, even though the film lost its mysterious and philosophical appeal earlier on.
John Carpenter created this movie as the last in his "Apocalypse Trilogy", after The Thing and Prince of Darkness. They each describe a bizarre and horrifying way that the world may end in the world of film. And if you really think the world isn't under the control of an evil demon, take an Intro to Philosophy class and see that as far as we can prove, it may well be possible. Now that's scary.
The title of the movie comes directly from a Lovecraft novella, At the Mountains of Madness. This story takes place in Antarctica (kind of like Carpenter's The Thing), where a group of professors from the fictional Miskatonic University are doing scientific surveys of the area. You know, geology, archaeology, the standard stuff that doesn't belong in a horror story. But each professor has read The Necronomicon, an ancient book devoted to Cthulhu and his homies which is said to bring a curse to all who read it. Needless to say, the curse carries through, ancient evil things are awoken from hibernation and good times are had by none. It's a damn good story, and Carpenter should make this into a movie.
And for those readers who are confused, The Neronomicon is fictional. People have forged the book numerous times, trying to convince the world that it's real and something to be feared, and has reared its ugly head in pop culture, such as the classic Evil Dead series. Lovecraft made the book up, gave it a fake history and told other writers to run with that idea and the whole Cthulhu mythos. Not like this little statement is going to change the minds of those living the delusion, but I like to try to do my part.
If you think you have the stomach for a little blood and gore, you can't go wrong with In the Mouth of Madness. If you think that nothing Lovecraft wrote could be creepy in the least, grab a collection of his short stories. And then, if you really have the balls, pick up a copy of David Hume's Enquiry into Human Understanding.