H.P. Lovecraft Week: This Is Not Reality – Andy Burns on In The Mouth of Madness

I’m going to let you in on something. One of my biggest fears is that one day I’ll come across something supernatural. A zombie, a vampire, a werewolf, ghost. Whatever. One day I’m going to come across one of these spooky things that are only supposed to exist on the page or the screen or in our nightmares and I’ll tell you and you won’t believe me. I’ll tell you that somebody I met didn’t cast a reflection or that I saw something walking the halls of my house, only to see it dissolve and you won’t buy it. You’ll say I’m seeing things or accuse me of playing a bad joke. Or you’ll think something worse. You’ll think I’ve gone mad, lost touch with reality.

But what happens if my reality and yours don’t match up.

That’s what John Carpenter’s 1995 film In The Mouth of Madness is really about – it’s a warning sign that someday, the reality we know could come to an end. And there’s nothing we can do about.

It’s also a kick-ass homage to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, with a great, tension-filled performance from Sam Neill. In In The Mouth of Madness, Neill plays John Trent, an insurance investigator hired by Arcane Publishing to find missing author Sutter Cane (kind of sounds like Stephen King, right?) Cane’s work has a reputation of setting off some of his less stable readers. Trent and Cane’s publicist, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) set out to find the town of Hobb’s End, the setting of many of Cane’s stories, a town that may or may not exist. They eventually encounter Hobb’s End, along with its denizens, many of whom are straight out of a Cane story. Eventually, the lines of Trent’s reality and the one Cane has created in his novels give way and the Old Ones are set loose on the world.

In The Mouth of Madness is directly inspired by so much of H.P. Lovecraft’s work. The title, a take on At The Mountains of Madness. Characters like old Mrs. Pickman? Straight from Lovecraft’s story, Pickman’s Model. One of Sutter Cane’s books is titled The Hobbs End Horror, a play on Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. When passages of Cane’s books are read throughout the film, they’re actually being quoted verbatim from Lovecraft stories. And then there’s the slimy, tentacled and horrible Old Ones that Sutter Cane’s new book is calling forth – I’d be surprised to find out that at least one of them isn’t named Cthulhu.

Even before I knew about all the Lovecraft references, I loved In The Mouth of Madness, thanks in part to the fact that it was filmed in Toronto and I can recognize all sorts of landmarks (I still miss the Coles bookstore that used to be at the corner of Charles and Yonge). Still, to this day, it’s one of, if not my favourite John Carpenter film. While it’s not the genre defining experience that Halloween was, I think it has a stronger story and characters. I love watching Sam Neill try and keep it together as his reality comes crumbling down around him. But more than anything else, I love how the film still plays upon that great fear of mine. That something strange and unexpected and unusual could happen to you and nobody would believe it.

Until it’s too late.

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