The 90's is often remembered as a dark time in John Carpenter's career. A lot of fans believe that was when the quality of his work started to decline. A lot of his less respected movies, like Ghosts of Mars and Escape From L.A. came out during this decade, but Carpenter still had talent. It was at this point he found himself interested in doing a movie drawing from Lovecraft, but there was one problem: how do you depict something that is indescribable, as was often the case in his writings?
The solution Carpenter reached was to do a tribute to Lovecraft rather than a direct adaptation of any of his stories, and the result was his sadly underrated horror film In The Mouth of Madness. This movie is based more on Lovecraft's ideals (specifically the bleak notion that humanity is doomed by its own insignificance) than anything else, although you probably could make a good drinking game just out of spotting all the references to different stories. Even the title itself combines At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. However, you do not have to be a die hard Lovecraft fan to appreciate this as a good horror story.
Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) is a hugely successful horror writer whose books outsell Stephen King. His stories are known to have strange effects on his readers, who are becoming extremely restless over anticipation for his latest novel titled In the Mouth of Madness. This is a book that will apparently drive anyone who reads it insane, and outbreaks of violence are occurring among his fans.
Enter John Trent (Sam Neil), an freelance insurance investigator who is hired to get information about a claim by Cane's publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston). He finds out that Cane has supposedly disappeared and Harglow doesn't even know for sure if he is still alive. Tent quickly suspects a scam is in progress and tries to figure out precisely how.
In The Mouth of Madness is a very different sort of horror film compared to what John Carpenter is usually known for. There is less of the gore that one might normally see or the claustrophobic environments. Instead, the fear largely comes from the way it warps your mind, gradually distorting your perception of reality and leaving it in serious question by the end. Just what is madness, or sanity? What happens when what we call the insane becomes the majority? These are questions raised by this strange horror film.
A lot of the fear to be found in this movie comes from the general atmosphere of the whole thing, but really they have all kinds of horror. There are some big scary monsters produced with some amazing practical effects, but we also have a bit of body horror, psychological horror, cosmic horror, and fear of the unknown. Jürgen Prochnow easily steals the show in the role of Sutter Cane whenever he is on screen, and he can be pretty unnerving.
In The Mouth of Madness is a remarkable horror movie of a very unusual sort, and an underrated little gem from the so-called "Master of Horror" responsible for popularizing the slasher film. This is definitely not a film of the sort Carpenter popularized. It is a clever and eerie tale that will warp your mind and leave you to question just what is reality and what is true madness.