For horror buffs out there, a good H.P. Lovecraft adaptation is one of the holy grails of the genre. Lovecraft’s particular brand of horror, one based on a very particular brand of insanity that relies on the indescribable and the otherworldly. It’s the sort of approach that you can get away with in prose, because you’re banking on the imagination of the reader to bridge the gaps that were purposefully left. Image rich but description light words like The Crawling Chaos or The King in Yellow do most of the heavy lifting. But when it comes to putting images to these words, that gap disappears and you’re forced to rely on the particular interpretation of the filmmakers who made the adaptation. It’s no surprise, then, that the most successful adaptation of a Lovecraft work is Re-Animator, a story that stays away from the most cosmic, abstract aspects of what has made him such an influential writer.
How indeed are you supposed to create a visual around ideas that Lovecraft claimed would make anyone who saw them immediately go insane? That’s a lot to live up to. Enter John Carpenter, who seems like just the sort of director who might succeed in giving it a shot. His horror CV is unimpeachable (Halloween and The Thing alone are enough to make someone a horror icon for life), and his films distinguish themselves for the care and uniqueness with which he approaches his material. In 1994, Carpenter got his chance with In the Mouth of Madness, written by Michael De Luca. The film stars Sam Neill as John Trent, an insurance investigator called by a publisher (Charlton Heston) to look into the disappearance of famous horror novelist Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Alongside Cane’s editor, Linda (Julie Carmen), Trent sets out to get answers. Linda is convinced that there’s something supernatural at foot, but Trent is skeptical, assuming it’s all just a PR scheme to drum up sales for Cane’s next book, the titular In the Mouth of Madness. They uncover clues that point to a town in the middle of New Hampshire, Hobb’s End, that may hold the key to unraveling the mystery of Cane’s disappearance. But upon reaching the location of the fictional town, they soon discover that they’ve bitten off far more than they could possibly chew.
It’s plain that while In the Mouth of Madness is not strictly an adaptation of a Lovecraft work, it’s clearly inspired by it. The title is a pretty clear illusion to the novella At the Mountains of Madness. The novelist at the center of the film’s intrigue, Sutter Cane, writes horror stories akin to Lovecraft with titles like The Hobb’s End Horror (The Dunwich Horror) and Haunter Out of Time (The Shadow Out of Time). He’s based in New England, with the mysterious town of Hobb’s End located in New Hampshire (Lovecraft was based out of Providence, Rhode Island). And most strikingly, the narrative is all about one man’s descent into madness in the face of the unexplainable and incomprehensible. At the time of its release, many considered this to be a meta-twist on another New England horror icon, Maine’s Stephen King, and there are certainly allusions to be found there, but the overall thrust of the narrative and the focus on sanity in the face of a cosmic scale lands it squarely in the realm of Lovecraft.
And, in practice, Carpenter’s attempt to make cosmic horror visual ends up more successful than most. It helps that In the Mouth of Madness is not the most mind-expanding of these sorts of stories. There aren’t any Elder Gods to visualize, no other wild beings. There are plenty of monsters, especially in the third act, but the camera doesn’t linger or give the audience enough time to truly comprehend what they’re seeing. What it does instead is double down on the insanity, on the brain’s ability to trick itself, on how reality is little more than how we perceive it and how fragile that really is in the face of the unknown. Carpenter makes this clear from the jump, setting up the narrative via a foregone conclusion of a framing device that finds Trent confined to a mental institution and babbling about the apocalypse and all sorts of other nonsense after drawing a litany of crosses over his face and body. The force of the rest of the story, then, is to earn Trent’s insanity, and it surely excels in doing so. The trials and tribulations he endures would render even the heartiest of men questioning what reality truly is and means.
It’s not a perfect movie, mind. It is entirely a relic of the early to mid-90s, and that becomes abundantly clear from the first scenes. In the Mouth of Madness doesn’t have the timelessness of The Thing or the formative genre-defining power of Halloween, and is a fair share weaker than those masterpieces of modern horror. As such, it could be easy to dismiss this film for at times looking cheap or cheesy, undercutting the brunt of the tension and horror. But regardless of some of the weaknesses of the presentation, John Carpenter is still John Carpenter, and that preternatural feel for the genre shines through. Compared to other attempts to bring Lovecraft (or Lovecraft-like stories) to the screen, In the Mouth of Madness stands the test of time as one of the few films to really catch the spirit of how he wrote his stories a century ago. Don’t sleep on this hidden gem, a classic piece of Carpenter horror.