In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the relentless and arbitrary suffering of human life is summarized as “a tale…, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” and the almighty writer of that tale, God, is reconceived as “an idiot.” Centuries later, that notion of a chaotic universe governed by stupidity echoes throughout IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, as director John Carpenter reveals his own version of the omnipotent idiot: God as “a hack horror writer.”
The focus of MADNESS is Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), an author in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft whose novels are so coveted that they incite riots, and so disturbing that they drive many readers insane. When Cane disappears before completing his latest manuscript, his publisher (Charlton Heston) hires the skeptical and fiercely independent John Trent (Sam Neill), an insurance investigator, to find him. Trent’s search leads to Hobb’s End, a fictional New England town from Cane’s writings that has somehow come to life, and where the warped creatures of Cane’s imagination lie in wait. These intrusions of fiction into real life prove to be only the first signs of a breakdown in reality as Trent realizes that “sane and insane [have] switched places” in Hobb’s End, and that a low-brow author of scary stories has truly become a god.
Yet even while Carpenter was telling this story of a whole population subjugated by a horror talent, his own influence as a creative force was waning. The director became a preeminent voice in horror with the release of 1978’s Halloween, a commercial triumph that originated the immensely popular slasher sub-genre. Rather than sticking to that successful formula, though, Carpenter continued to innovate with even more high concept stories such as The Thing, and They Live. Unfortunately, the cult success of those films was matched by diminishing box office returns. Following a massive flop with 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Carpenter soon found himself directing MADNESS under a cloud of failure.
It’s therefore possible to see MADNESS as a kind of dark fantasy for Carpenter, in which his decreased relevance is replaced by a popularity so profound that it reaches supernatural heights. In media coverage throughout the film, voices are frequently heard to ask, “Sutter Cane: a harmless pop phenomena or a deadly prophet of the printed page?” What becomes clear is that the pop phenomena and the deadly prophet are not mutually exclusive in this story, that pop culture has in fact become a religion. In a black church of his own making, Cane brags to Trent that he’s sold billions of copies of his books, and that “more people believe in [his] work than believe in the Bible.” The public’s love of Cane is thereby equated to the worship of him, and it’s through that worship Cane has achieved godhood. The omnipotent Cane is therefore the opposite of the stumbling talent who created him, though it was perhaps Carpenter’s shortcomings and declining fortunes that helped him picture a talent big enough to shake the world.
But if Cane represents a megalomaniacal fantasy gone wild, then perhaps Trent represents a more rational mind fighting to keep that fantasy in check. In contrast to the rabid fanbase that sees Cane’s work as gospel, Trent responds to his books by saying, “They’re all pretty familiar. They all seem to have the same plot. Slimy things in the dark, people go mad, they turn into monsters.” In other words, despite the power of Cane’s novels, they’re still just horror. Even as Trent journeys to Hobb’s End and witnesses Cane’s deification firsthand, listening to the author describe himself as a messiah of some ancient evil, Trent glibly yells, “Your books suck!” While everyone else loses their minds over Cane, Trent is able to resist because he can still recognize the writer for what he is: a fad.
Of course, within IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, a fad can do quite a bit more harm than usual. Refusing to join Cane’s fans, Trent is ultimately cast aside as an increasingly deranged culture passes him by. There’s a glimmer of Carpenter in that fate, as his career continued to suffer after completion of the movie, and he remained unable to adapt to evolving tastes. Yet as Trent stumbles through the ruins of civilization and takes refuge in an empty theater, there’s an odd sense of acceptance too. He sits down and watches a film with a familiar story, one entitled IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, and he laughs with unhinged delight. Maybe the film, in all its metafictional glory, is good enough that it justifies all the troubles leading up to it, both for its protagonist and its creator. Or maybe, when the world is falling apart around you, the only thing you can do is sit back and enjoy the show.