‘In The Mouth Of Madness’ Spins A Tale Of Hallucinations, Monsters And Murder

For a while, John Carpenter seemed to be on fire. After a small start in the 1970s with Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, he made Halloween in 1978 and spent the next 10 years banging out a movie almost every year, as well as the 1979 Elvis television movie, the first collaboration with Kurt Russell.

Even after the problems he had on Big Trouble in Little China, he still made Prince of Darkness and They Live, two movies that have garnered cult classic status. In under 15 years, he made 11 feature movies and one TV movie. That’s not too bad.Then, there was silence for a few years. He turned to Hollywood to make Memoirs of an Invisble Man with Chevy Chase and Daryl Hannah, later commenting the two were some of the worst actors he ever worked with.

Then, he went to work for the “House That Freddy Built” with a script by a young writer, Michael DeLuca, who would work his way up the latter at New Line Cinema and ironically would go on to be chair of the same studio, Warner Bros., that gave him a hard time on Memoirs. In the Mouth of Madness opened during the winter of 1995 even though it premiered the previous November in Italy first. The movie would get mixed reviews and barely make any money at the box office. But, like a lot of Carpenter’s movies, it would gain a cult following in the years.

With news that Sam Neill has got stage 3 blood cancer, it’s best to look back at the movie and his underrated performance as this was his first big movie following the success of Jurassic Park. Inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, the movie begins like a lot of his stories with someone telling another person a story in flashback. While some viewers and audiences may have this format, it adds to the story that I’ll discuss later. Neill plays John Trent, an free-lance insurance investigator, who has been arrested and committed to a pscyhiatric hospital. He’s belligerent and violent to the orderlies before being thrown in a padded cell.

Dr. Wrenn (David Warner) is brought in to talk to Trent. But something very major is going on outside the hospital that the hospital adminstrator, Saperstein (John Glover), refers to vaguely. Wrenn is told that Trent has only requested one black crayon as he’s been drawing crosses all over the padded cells, his patient scrubs and his own body. With Wrenn, Trent begins to tell his story about his friend and colleague, Robinson (Bernie Casey), got him in touch with Arcane Publishing, who publishes books by Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), a reclusive horror writer who is very successful.

Arcane’s top executive Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) tells Trent that Cane is overdue on submitting the final draft of his latest manuscript. Trent is unfamiliar with Cane’s work which has been known to cause its fans to go crazy. Trent recently had a run-in with Cane’s agent, who was wielding an axe in downtown Manhattan and had used it to smash a window at a restaurant where Trent and Robinson were. The agent was shot to death by police but had a glazed look in his eye when he asked Trent about Cane who enraged him by being ignorant about the writer.

Trent goes to the nearest bookstore and buys a paperback copy of each of Cane’s previous works to get in the mind of the writer and suddenly has disturbing nightmares. One of which is a recurring one of an incident he witnessed earlier of seeing a cop beat up a homelessman in a dirty seedy alley. But in the dream, the cop’s face is now grotesque. Noticing that there’s a strange pattern on all the paperback covers, Trent deduces they were puzzle pieces in the shape of New Hampshire.

Trent takes this to Harglow and says that Cane is probably in the small town of Hobb’s End, which Cane often writes about. Even though it’s not on any of the maps, he suspects it might be a ghost town. Harglow sends Trent and Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), to New Hampshire. But they get lost and while Trent sleeps, Styles drives but she begins to hallucinate as if she’s driving through the air and sees things like a bicyclists who’s very ederly but doesn’t seem human.

Then, they suddenly find themselves in Hobb’s End when it abruptly turns from night into morning and they begin to notice strange things around town. They go around noticing things that are referenced in Cane’s books. Trent believes it’s all been staged as a publicity stunt to promote the book. Styles said the promotion was just that Cane had gone missing. However, the publishing company never set up anything in Hobb’s End, including the Byzantine style cathedral where Cane is located.

Trent and Styles go over there and witness a mob of the townspeople led by Simon (Wilhelm von Homberg) try to gain entrance to take down Cane but he unleashes dogs to attack them. Things go worse when they notice Mrs. Pickman (Frances Bay) at the local inn is acting more strange to the point that her husband beaten and naked is handcuffed to her ankle and she later morphs into a creature with tentacles.

A lot of weird things happen and Trent and Styles realize that they can’t leave the town. Eventually, Styles herself, begins to act weird and she contorts her body into a way that no human can move. Trent finds himself in the church where Cane who reveals that Trent is just another character in the novel he’s completed titled In the Mouth of Madness which Styles has already read and why she can’t leave. He hands Trent the manuscript and then tears a giant photograph of Cane’s face opening a big portal where Trent runs through being chased by monsters.

But just before the monsters are going to catch him, Trent wakes up on a country road where nothing is around in the morning. A paperboy (Hayden Christiansen in his first role) passes by and asks him if he’s alright but Trent looks confused. He later speaks with government officials who say that there is no Hobb’s End in New Hampshire nor was there ever. When he stops to get a motel room, he’s told a package containing the manuscript was dropped off for him.

Taking a bus ride back to New York City, Trent begins to hallucinate and sees Cane talking to him at one time. He tries to burn the manuscript when he returns but when Trent meets with Harglow, he is confused. Styles never worked for Arcane and Harglow has no idea who she is. Trent was sent by himself months earlier and he successfully returned the manuscript and it’s set to be published in the upcoming weeks. There’s also a movie adaptation to be released in connection with the book.

Trent goes mad over the weeks leading up to the release of the book, which oddly has a drawing of a character of his likeness on the cover. The release is causing people around the world to go mad and become violent. With the same glazed look in his eyes, Trent kills a young man who leaves a bookstore with an axe which we discover led to him being in the hospital.

However, Wrenn doesn’t believe Trent’s story and thinks it’s nothing more than hallucinations and leaves.The next morning, Trent awakens and discovers the hospital abandoned as well as signs of a massacre. He had heard screaming the previous night and shadows that looked like creatures were attacking people outside his cell. News reports indicate there’s an epidemic where people have turned violent and are even turning into creatures resembling non-humans. Trent walks to the city which is mostly abandoned with the excpetion of some looters and people. He notices the movie theater is showing the adaptation of Cane’s book.

Trent walks in only to discover that what’s showing on screen are the events that began the movie with him being committed to the hospital. The movie ends with Trent laughing maniacally as what he’s watching. But it leads to several questions. Was Trent just a character in the book as Cane told him? I think it’s more than that.

As I mentioned earlier, about 95 percent of the movie is told through flashback. This puts Trent in the position of being an unreliable narrator, a constant theme in some movies and stories. We’re led to believe that Trent is telling the truth and Wrenn doesn’t believe him because Neill is playing the protagonist and Warner is a supporting actor. But I think it goes futher into telling the story and this is why Carpenter is a good director and Neill is a good (and underrated) actor.

On the face value, we can accept Madness as a straight forward monster horror movie about an insurance investigator who gets sucked into an evil writer’s world and loses his mind. Cane could be an unworldly person who has the ability to write books that make people go nuts and turn into hideous creatures. But I think that’s where the movie ignores a lot of clues it sets up that show two more possibilities.

One fan theory is that Trent is an actor who went mad and killed someone. Take the beginning where Saperstein and the staff all await for Trent to be brought in the hospital. All this for a freelance insurance investigator? And Saperstein mentions how important it is for Wrenn to come in as there are a lot of problems going on outside the hospital. Trent is a man of importance for Saperstein, Wrenn and the staff to treat him like they do. Also, they wouldn’t give Joe Nobody a crayon, which could be filed down to use as a shiv.

Trent seems to dress nicely and live in a nice apartment/condo in NYC. Yet, he wouldn’t be able to hold down this lifestyle unless he was full-time. And even then, an insurance investigator doesn’t make a lot of big money. Trent comes off as more of a Raymond Chandler like character. It’s obvious Trent has no idea of how much money an investigator makes so he’s embellishing it. This also goes to how Neill acts in the role playing a sauve but somewhat misogynistic role. Trent’s pessimism is also a cliched trope.

Going back to the scene where Trent is nearly attacked by the mad agent, this could also be a lie. Trent is only told it was Cane’s agent by Harglow, even though there would’ve been a formal investigation by police of which Trent and Robinson would’ve been questioned because it would appear the agent targeted them. This also would’ve made more news even in the mid-1990s. If the agent for Stephen King or John Grisham went on a crazy rampage, it would’ve been on the news.

I think Trent made up this part to excuse why he later attacked someone with an axe. Also, the character of Robinson is no longer used in the movie. This is typical of horror movies and thrillers in general where black characters appear very briefly. Then there’s the character of Styles who’s name should be a giveaway. She seems to fit the typical woman stereotype. Almost immediately, Trent is acting like they should get it on. And Styles becomes a damsel in distress to the point that she at one point meets and makes out with Cane.

Why would Harglow order an editor to go with Trent hundreds of miles especially since the two don’t know each other. I’ve noticed the storyline of Trent and Styles going on the road to look for a town is similar to a plotline in Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which Carpenter produced. Is it possible Trent is a fan of this movie or saw it and incorporated it into his story? This might explain why Styles stays leaves the story with Harglow saying he doesn’t know who she is. He can’t keep his lies straight.

Trent also has no knowledge of the publishing process as it would take at least a year from the time a manuscript is turned in for it to be published. There are edits that need to be done followed by rewrites. A mass publication like this would take a lot of preparation. And since Cane doesn’t have an agent anymore, there would have to be business negotiations. Even if a rough draft was option for a movie, it would take at least a year as well through business deals, writings, pre-production and casting.

It’s possible Trent isn’t aware of this as he lets his own agent do all this stuff. That could be a joke as to why Trent recounts that an agent when mad and was shot. Also, the use of Trent’s likeness on the cover and movie poster further illustrates that Trent is an actor who has been retelling a story to Wrenn who obviously doesn’t believe him. He could just be telling Wrenn the plot of the movie.

This brings me to the next possibility – Trent is actually Sutter Cane. While Stephen King is mentioned briefly in the movie, it’s obvious a reference to him that he’s Sutter Cane. King and Carpenter are old friends as Carpenter directed the adaptation of King’s novel Christine. And most of King’s novels are set in New England, mostly Maine where he was born and continues to live.

However, Trent used the pen name to write the novels, so he could stay anonymous as King did with the pen name Richard Bachman. Other writers, such as Dean Koontz, did the same thing. However, King was discovered to be Bachman through some investigative journalists and he came out publicly acknowledging they were one and the same. And do you really think a novice to Cane’s work would’ve notice the artwork on his paperback novels can be but and pieced together? Someone would’ve already noticed this.

King also had a long history of substance abuse from his teenage years up to the mid-1980s where he went clean. He had started drinking a lot before he began to use cocaine in the 1970s and 1980s. When Trent is walking through the streets and sees the policeman beating up a homelessman, he has a paper bag in his hand which is obviously a liquor bottle the way he’s carrying it. Trent is suffering from alcoholism and has checked himself into a rehab center. That’s why Saperstein is so happy and cordial to see him at the beginning.

And as others have pointed out, there’s a similarity where Trent keeps walking past the alleyway with the hallway at the mental hospital. All that we’re seeing is actually Trent’s mind as he is hallucinating from both alcoholism and detox. We never do really see the monsters in most of their fullness because they exist like images in our minds and nightmares so vague we really can’t believe are real.

Sutter seems to live at the church which seems like it shouldn’t exist in a small New England town, but I think this is Trent coming to grips with his own alcoholism. The 12-step programs are usually Christian-based. Take a scene on the bus where Trent loses it from a nightmare and the driver comforts him rather than throwing him off the bus. This is similar to the way someone will comfort another person during an AA meeting.

It’s possible that when Trent sees the paperboy that is his moment of clarity when Trent is finally back in the real world outside of his alcohol-infused madness. That’s goes back to the title. The mouth of madness is alcohol. After he can’t find the answers he’s looking for he realizes he needs help and checks himself in. But that’s one way of looking at it.

Part of what I think makes Madness one of the most underrated horror movies of the last 30 years is how easy it is open to intepretation. Sadly, some criticis didn’t see this and audiences stayed away as horror wasn’t too popular at the time. Filmed in Toronto and other areas, this adds to how off the movie seems. The Cathedral of Transfiguration in Markham, Ontario was used for the church in Hobb’s End.

Carpenter has said Madness is the completion of his “apocalypse” trilogy which began with The Thing and Prince of Darkness. Audiences weren’t too willing to sit through a horror movie that left more questions than answers. But I think like most horror movies, it found its audience on home video and cable.

What do you think? Please comment.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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