My Awkward Key
Film essay by: Witney Seibold
When famous filmmakers are interviewed, the interviewer probably asks about the films that influenced them growing up. Woody Allen, for instance, sites the films of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini as his primary influences. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg talk about the French New Wave with reverent tones. Robert Altman was influenced by the films of Jean Renoir, Richard Linklater was influenced by Altman, and Kevin Smith was influenced by Linklater.
Each auteur and expert, though, has some story of the film or films that “broke open” the world of film for them; the one film that made them realize just how powerful films can be. There is one film for each person that reveals that going to the movies is not just a distracting activity, but a moving, gorgeous, artistic enterprise. Soon, we each begin seeking bigger and better challenges, trying to recapture (and often recapturing) the exhilaration, the joy, the awe, the catharsis felt by that first film.
Here’s where it gets a little embarrassing.
Early February 1995: I was 16 years old. My sister had hooked me up with a job in a movie theater just a few months before, and I was slowly becoming obsessed with movies. I could see a lot for free, and my view of film-watching became less an attitude of “I’ll see that because I want to,” and more “I’ll see that because I can.” Throughout the ‘90s, and even to a certain extent today, I still sit through a lot of crappy films just for the sake of being able to. I’ve grown to love the mere process of going to movies. If it’s a great film, all the better.
But during this early period of my nascent film obsession, I went to the Broadway Theater in Santa Monica, CA and plopped down the matinee price to see a film that was lowly considered by critics, unpopular amongst audiences, and, by the virtue of its February release date, considered dismissible by its own studio, New Line Cinema. The film was John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness.”
The story of “In the Mouth of Madness” is as follows: It’s told in flashback from an insane asylum. John J. Trent (versatile Irish actor Sam Neill) is an insurance investigator, who easily nails frauds without batting an eye. The opening scenes shows him busting an oily scammer (Peter Jason) who tried to burn down his own warehouse. Trent’s client (Bernie Casey) is so impressed by his skill that he recommends his services to Arcane Publishing, the riches publishing firm in the world thanks to their monopoly on the works of Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), a character modeled after Stephen King in popularity, but after H.P. Lovecraft in writing.
The head of Arcane Publishing is Jackson Harglow (of all people, Charlton Heston), and he tells Trent that Sutter Cane’s new book, In the Mouth of Madness, is past due, as Cane has mysteriously gone missing. Trent is hired to find Cane, and, to lend a hand, and for professional credibility, Cane’s editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) is sent with him on his search.
Trent reads the works of Cane, and begins to have some disturbing nightmares. Trent, however, is very much a pragmatist, and can shake off nightmares. He is not easily rattled, and usually has a half-bemused-half-cynical approach to things. He feels that Cane’s disappearance is a hoax invented to generate publicity for Arcane. The stories that have been circulating about Cane’s readers going mad and committing violence are just hokum in his mind, even though he has witnessed a few events for himself. In fact, he was attacked by an axe-wielding lunatic (Conrad Bergschneider) early in the film, a lunatic that turns out to be Cane’s agent.
Trent cleverly devises where Cane is by interpreting the cover art of the books. He and Styles make their way to a small town in New Hampshire called Hobb’s End. The trip is not easy, for, as they get closer, the more Styles begins to have violent visions of creepy kids of bicycles and flickering, spooky corridors.
Hobb’s End is an eerie place, and all of the people they encounter seem to be character straight out of Cane’s novels. Styles begins to suggest that Cane’s work is not fictional, but based on real things in this town. Trent, driven by materialism and his unstaunched realism insists that this is all staged, and how could this be a Cane novel, as Cane’s novels were populated by slimy monsters and murders?
Eventually, though, Trent begins to catch glimpses of monstrous things. Cane appears in a black Satanic church that is still standing in Hobb’s End (and how the New Hampshire tourist board miss something like that is beyond me), and he sics a pack of bloodthirsty dogs on a group of angry locals who claim he has stolen their children.
Styles finds Cane late one night, and he forces her to read In the Mouth of Madness. “You can edit this one from the inside, looking out,” he suggests. We realize that the people we’ve been following have possibly been fictions in the mind of Sutter Cane. Or perhaps it’s that Cane’s fiction has become so powerful that it is influencing reality. His work is so moving, so strong, that he can physically transform his readers. And since he is a horror author, he is turning his readers into murdering slimy monsters. Even the kindly Mrs. Pickman (played by Frances Bay, and named after a Lovecraft story) ends up handcuffing her husband to her ankle and chopping him up with an axe.
When you’re 16, this stuff is really deep. Especially if you’ve ever been powerfully moved by a story. Sometimes it can feel like you’re being physically transformed, can’t it?
Eventually Trent finds Cane lurking in the Black Church. He is given a copy of In the Mouth of Madness, and flees Hobb’s End. Cane tells him that he is just a character in the book’s drama, and it’s his job to bring it to the public, in order to transform everyone into madness. “I’m not a character in a Sutter Cane story!” He shouts. “I know who I am.” Cane gives him a look that says “Are you sure?”
“Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane became the majority.” That’s actually still a bit profound.
Cane appears to Trent in visions to help him along, and Trent is resistant, but the book has a life of its own now, and eventually is published. Trent, seeing people reading the book, and realizing that the plague has begun, axes down an innocent young man on the street. He is committed. By the time we gat back to the asylum, Trent observes: “Things are rally going to shit out there. Every species can smell its own extinction. The last ones left won’t have a pretty time with it. In ten years, maybe less, the human race will just be a bedtime story for their children. A myth, nothing more.”
Eventually Trent is able to wander free out of the asylum. The book has brought about the end of humanity. He wanders to a local moviehouse that is playing the film version of “In the Mouth of Madness!” Oh my goodness, just like we’re doing right now! In fact, it’s the same movie! The film has the same effect on people as the book, and it has transformed the world into murderous monsters. The last shot is Trent cackling madly to himself in the empty movie theater. He, the harbinger. He is mad. We saw the film. We are all mad too.
The lights came up in my theater, and for a few moments, I thought I was mad. Was all this world a fiction in our heads? Was it a fiction in the head of some malevolent puppet master? When we are moved by a book or a film or a piece of art, does it have the ability to change our minds to the point of violence? How much power do we have over art, and how much does it have over us? Does this mean that our free will can be wrenched from us by a superior will? Can a book or film become so popular that everyone must read or see it, even if it turns you into a monster? If you read Mein Kampf, and decide to kill people based on the philosophies written within, how much blame does Adolf Hitler take for that? How much is your own will, and how much is the will of the author? Is there much difference between physically transforming into a slimy Lovecraftian beast much different than becoming a murderer in real life?
These ideas were unbelievably profound to my adolescent mind.
Many of these ideas are often discussed in college classrooms, but I had not taken any of those classes yet. I had not read any of the existentialist authors, and I had not heard any lectured by Robert Solomon, so “In the Mouth of Madness” was my introduction to these schools of thought.
For the next few years “In the Mouth of Madness” became my standard by which I judged other films. I would rave about it to friends. I dragged my poor father to see it with me, insisting that it would change his life. Thanks, dad. You were a sport. Every time I sat down to see a film, I would hope that it would break my head open the same way “In the Mouth of Madness” did.
In the intervening years, I have seen many, many great films. Some of which have moved me in ways that is difficult to describe, and some of which have becomae new tentposts for my cinematic comparisons. I have grown to learn upon repeat viewings that “In the Mouth of Madness” is actually a bit slipshod, kind of murky in its mythology, and all too eager to sandwich in shocking images for the sake of it. The performances are all great, and the themes are still there, but they’re not as profound as I once found them.
Perhaps it hit me so hard because of who I was. My childhood fears were always of monsters, and nightmares so bad that they would eventually drive me insane. It was not pain or death I feared, so much as it was a madness marked by perpetual nightmare. “In the Mouth of Madness” tapped into my fears, and expanded them. Yes, the film terrified me, but put my nightmares in a larger context.
Also, and this is something I cannot explain through any amount of analysis, but the films of John Carpenter have always struck me as profound. With craft-minded filmmakers like Kubrick or Ozu, you can point to certain shots and techniques that impressed and moved you. In the realist dramas of Altman or Mike Leigh, you can point to moments or characters that strike you. Hitchcock is often cited in film textbooks as the master of mixing theme with craft. But John Carpenter does not have a style or a tonal habit that specifically draws me to him. He just does it. There is an ineffable quality that I have always been hypnotized by with Carpenter’s films. It could be his pace, his lighting, or his choice of actors – I couldn’t tell you, and I know how frustratingly unprofessional that is – but even his “bad” films get to me. He has made many stinkers in his day, including “Prince of Darkness,” “Ghosts of Mars,” and a TV movie called “Pro-Life” about a monster infant, and each of them has had power over me.
But I still have to credit “In the Mouth of Madness” for being the film that broke open the world of cinema for me. In the interviews with the above mentioned auteurs, they often cite Jen Renior’s “The Rules of the Game” as having influenced them. Or Vittorio DeSica’s “The Bicycle Thief.” Roger Ebert talks ecstatically about “La Dolce Vita” and Ozu. Almost any critic or filmmaker worth their spit will tell you how great “Citizen Kane” is. Their keys were all considered great films at the time, and have earned reputations on critical lists as the finest pieces of cinema ever exhibited. My key was “In the Mouth of Madness,” a studio cheapie by a genre filmmaker that made little money and has no critical reputation.
And one that made me realize how large the world was, one that moved me, challenged me, introduced me to new ideas, and scared the pants off of me. I may be embarrassed by its reputation as a little-known genre film, but I cannot deny how it made me feel.
To this day, it still scares me, and, as evidenced by this very essay, I champion the film. I cite Neill’s and Carmen’s performances as the tour de forces they are, and betoken the film’s strength as an intellectual treatise; it’s rare that a horror film tries to engage your mind so actively. Most are content with chasing, screaming and slashing. They say that a good horror film taps into real-life fears. If that is so, then “In the Mouth of Madness” taps into the weakness we audience members have in the presence of a superior art. It’s pretty much arguable that “In the Mouth of Madness” is superior art itself, but it’s very, very canny in the way is asks its questions.
So see it. See if I’m right. See if my 16-year-old self was right. And see if it can get under your skin the same way it once got under mine.