Eldritch Adaptations: In the Mind of John Carpenter’s Madness

Eldritch Adaptations

Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s.  His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.

John Carpenter is a director who, even if you don’t know him by name, has a familiar filmography.  Heard of Halloween (1978), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), or Big Trouble in Little China (1986)?  All directed by him.  Even if you haven’t seen or heard of these, well, if you’ve seen a slasher movie in the past three and a half decades, then you’ve seen a product of his influence.  If you’ve seen a sci-fi horror movie post-1980, then you’ve seen a product of his influence.  Martial-arts comedy, dystopian action, you name it: the dude has had his finger in that pot at some point, and the pot was never the same.

But influence is rarely a one way street, so that begs the question of who influenced one of the biggest names in popular horror?  Well, Carpenter’s horror movies—especially The Thing—share some thematic and monster-design territory with one of the greatest horror writers of all time, H.P. Lovecraft, whom I’ve written about before (see links at the top).  In fact, he has numerous great insights to the author in a solid documentary called H.P. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (findable on YouTube).  Carpenter mentions his father reading Lovecraft to him as a kid, but the extent to which the inventor of cosmic horror had an effect on the director runs deep.  Perhaps the best example is one of Carpenter’s lesser known movies that distills the influence:

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

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Taking its name from two of Lovecraft’s biggest stories—At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth—this film follows John Trent (Sam Neill).  The first scene is of Trent being ushered into a psychiatric hospital, wherein a naive Psychologist asks Trent to recant his tale.  Trent, an insurance investigator, is asked to help a publishing company find their best-selling horror author, Sutter Cane.  Cane has gone missing after publishing his most recent work, which has caused some readers to go a bit mad.  Cane himself has started to believe that his works are true rather than fictional, but the agents (including Charlton Heston for some reason, not that I’m complaining) know that he’s written a new book that they want to get on shelves: In the Mouth of Madness (that’s the name of the movie!)  Trent must find the manuscript and bring back Sutter Cane, who has crazy hair, loves speaking mysteriously, and wears a lot of black.

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“Neil Gaiman?!” —Will Standish

I don’t know about you, but I think that there are a lot of interesting ideas going on here.  The story itself is quite bizarre, as is the movie as whole, and honestly there is a reason it’s not as popular as The Thing or Halloween: the ambition isn’t always met with a perfectly eerie tone that could have been accomplished by careful direction.  The script itself also lacks stand-out moments; it goes through all the clever plot points, but rarely with any great dialogue.  But the successes of In the Mouth of Madness come out when you consider it in the context it’s meant to be viewed: as a Lovecraft story.  Can the movie be enjoyed if you’ve never even heard of the author?  Probably.  But there’s so much more going on here, and I’m going to attempt to illuminate some of it.

Grab some popcorn, ya nutters.

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Grab some popcorn, ya nutters.

Before going into the truly Lovecraftian elements, I will note that there are numerous fun references to the classic stories.  I might suggest skipping the following list and paragraph after it if you’re not unreasonably into Lovecraft. Anyways, I already mentioned the title of the movie, but Sutter Cane’s other books are also all references to Lovecraft’s stories.  The list below is formatted as Cane’s BookLovecraft’s Story (with a link to the story).

Even some Lovecraft characters/creatures are referenced directly.  I believe that the Elder Things—who are central to At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time—are directly referenced.  A creepy hotel manager is named Mrs. Pickman (Frances Bay), which is a surprisingly clever reference to Richard Upton Pickman from “Pickman’s Model.”  I say clever because Pickman, in the short story, paints remarkably detailed portraits of other-worldly creatures.  The Lovecraftian twist is that he is actually painting these creatures from photographs, meaning the beasts really exist.  Similarly, Cane in In the Mouth of Madness is writing stories that are scarily detailed, and it turns out that their basis is in reality.  Very cheeky, John Carpenter.

Extra points for making Mrs. Pickman herself look like a Lovecraftian monster.

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Extra points for making Mrs. Pickman herself look like a Lovecraftian monster.

But let’s take a closer look at Lovecraftian elements in In the Mouth of Madness aside from name-dropping. Well, the frame of the movie itself invokes standard Lovecraft tropes and structures.  The author’s stories often were written from the first person by someone who has learned too much about the world—usually something about horrible beasts that could destroy humanity—and has gone insane.  He recounts his search for information, which usually involves talking to people who have already been driven insane by the knowledge.  So there is the fundamental plot device of the already-crazed narrator telling the audience what he’s learned that got him to that point.

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But slightly more interesting is the inversion of the typical Lovecraftian narrator.  You see, whereas Trent is cocky, Lovecraft protagonists are often naive-but-curious academics.  Sound like someone else I’ve mentioned in this review?  The standard narrator, if this were a classic short story and not a Carpenter flick, would be the Psychologist.  Trent would be the relayer of information, the man that experienced the madness first hand.  I think that this is Carpenter’s way of showing that he’s adding his own twist to the movie by focusing on a character that often only assists the narrator.  In fact, by introducing the Lovecraftian narrator but following what is usually a secondary character, Carpenter cuts into the heart of the themes of insanity that loom over Lovecraft’s stories and makes them omnipresent.

The themes of insanity that define Lovecraft’s stories are adapted, and not merely translated, onto the screen by virtue of some clever editing.  Take, for example, when Trent and his partner, Linda (Julie Carmen), are driving.  We see a kid on a bike—odd for the middle of the night on an empty highway—riding in the same direction as the car, and then soon after see a creepy old dude on the same bike driving toward the car.  Our ability to properly divide reality from mental instability is blurred.

When Linda starts to doze off and feel disoriented on the dark road, she sees flashes of…something, and the road becomes a bumpy path.  There are quick cuts and all kinds of disorienting editing and sound effects that make us feel like reality is suspect.  Carpenter has welcomed us into insanity.

Instead of making us watch from outside, like Sam Neill. Dick.

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Instead of making us watch from outside, like Sam Neill. Dick.

Another of Carpenter’s great successes in adapting Lovecraft’s style is the nature of the text that we’re consuming.  In the short stories, the method was often first person present, with the narrator writing about his current plight and delving into the past to reveal the circumstances that got him there.  They’re found fiction.  Similarly, the movie itself becomes a piece of found fiction through some clever ideas that I will not fully discuss lest someone still wants to see this movie without direct spoilers.  I will say that Carpenter finds a way to make his movie fit the found fiction schema in a unique and clever way.

I’d be remiss to ignore the designs of the monsters themselves, which are slimy, sometimes aquatic, extra-terrestrial, and a slew of adjectives that can best be summed up as “things you really don’t want to see in living creatures.”  I enjoyed Carpenter’s visualization of Lovecraftian creatures, but I won’t dwell on it all too much because, well, there’s not much to say other than “Well done.”

Who knew that John Carpenter could design good monsters?!

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Who knew that John Carpenter could design good monsters?

There are other minor connections, I’m sure, but I think that I’ve covered most of them here.  I think this is important not just because it gives me a chance to geek out a bit over Lovecraft, but because considering Carpenter’s movie in this light illuminates his accomplishments.  Is In the Mouth of Madness a fantastic movie?  No.  But it’s a clever, surprisingly nuanced, and well-done pastiche of one of the greatest horror writers of all time, directed by one of the greatest horror directors.  I would say that any Lovecraft fan, or Carpenter fan, should check this movie out, if only to bask in the glory that is a style of horror that, somehow, has managed to stick with us and only grow in the public consciousness over the past century.

5 thoughts on “Eldritch Adaptations: In the Mind of John Carpenter’s Madness

  1. This is actually one of my favorite movies. My dad showed it to me when I was young and I thought it was the creepiest most amazing thing ever. It might seem strange and backwards to others, but I loved this movie, then I learned it was considered “Lovecraftian,” so I figured Lovecraft must be an awesome author. I was totally right.

  2. This is, quite simply, my favorite horror movie of all time, and one of my favorite movies ever.

    Re: Mrs. Pickman – there’s also paintings of horrific creatures in her hotel. Another sly little reference.

  3. Spoilers in this comment from this movie and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare so skip the comment if you want to avoid spoilers:

    I think the film was also was very contemporary in a metafictional level. My interpretation was that Cane was actually creating reality with his writings, and the part where Linda entered Hobb’s End through the strange warp was them passing into the fictional reality created by Cane, and perhaps Linda and Trent really being just fictional characters within the story, the characters sometimes realizing they are fictional, like the guy who shot himself because “Cane wrote him that way”. Some other films from the same time utilized the similar take on fiction themselves. Last Action Hero came out a year before this and the whole concept of that was entering a fictional world, where the main character realizes it is fiction. Wes Cravens New Nightmare tells not about the world of Nighmare on Elm Street, but about the “real world” where they are making an Elm Street movie, with Wes Craven and Heather Langenkamp playing “themselves” and being stalked someone claiming to be Freddy Krueger, and at some point, Wes Craven is actually seen writing the script for “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”, the movie we are watching. In a similar vein Craven’s slasher Scream in 1996 was about teens who have seen slasher films and act knowing the cliche’s of slasher films.

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