Film: In the Mouth of Madness

Ever lost yourself in a good book?

A reality is just what we tell each other it is.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

The third installment of John Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy" (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness), In the Mouth of Madness explores reality, fiction, and the thin, horrific line that separates the two.

John Trent (Sam Neill), an insurance fraud investigator, has just been placed in an insane asylum. Months earlier, he was hired to find bestselling horror writer Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow). Cane has disappeared under mysterious circumstances, but his publishers think it might just be a stunt to drum up support for his next book, In the Mouth of Madness.

When Trent finds that the covers of Cane's books seem to become a map to the supposedly fictional town of Hobb's End, he and Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), who works for the publisher, decide to go there and find Cane. What they find, however, is something much worse.

This film gives examples of:

  • Anything But That!: "Oh, no. Not The Carpenters, too."
  • Apocalypse How: Though it's left deliberately vague precisely what's happening, precisely how bad it is, and precisely how real it is.
  • Arc Words: "Do you read Sutter Cane?"
    • "I can see you/He sees you."
  • Author Avatar: Literally; Cane might just be an avatar of whatever extra-reality force he has become/is channeling.
  • Author Powers: Cane's powers have become so vast that the entire world is his story.
  • Ax-Crazy: Literally. Some characters just pick up an ax and start swinging after reading Cane's book.
  • Bedlam House: At the start of the film, we find Trent locked up in a mental asylum, from which he tells the rest of the story prior to his arrival there to a psychiatrist.
  • Bigger Than Jesus: Cane says more people believe in his novels than in The Bible.
  • Bizarrchitecture: The church. On the outside, it's spooky enough, what with its rural New England location, but inside, it turns into a full-blown Eldritch Location.
  • Body Horror: Going nuts is one thing, but it's possible that Cane's book can even turn people into Eldritch Abominations.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: "Did I ever tell you my favorite color is blue?" Every character's eyes are blue in closeup, whether or not the actor/actress actually has blue eyes.
  • Brown Note: The whole premise. Cane's book clearly does terrible things to readers and, perhaps, the entire world.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Trent startles awake from his alleyway nightmare. In fact, the movie features nesting Catapult Nightmares.
  • Clingy MacGuffin: Once Trent has the manuscript, he can't get rid of it. Even when he destroys it, it reappears very quickly.
  • Confessional: Insane author Sutter Cane discusses the power of faith over reality with Trent while they sit on opposite sides of a confessional.
  • Cosmic Retcon: Essentially the entire movie.
  • Credits Gag: Right after the "No animal was harmed during the making of this film" blurb, they have a slightly different report on the humans.
  • Creepy Basement: Mrs. Pickman's basement.
  • Creepy Changing Painting: The picture in Mrs. Pickman's foyer.
  • Creepy Child: The children of Hobb's End are slowly turning into homicidal monsters and mutilate a dog.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Trent, at least before the façade starts to slip.
  • The Determinator: Trent doesn't really give a crap if Cane is God. He's still going to tell him, "Up yours."
  • Downer Ending: The film ends with the Apocalypse, as the entire world is attacked by Lovecraftian horrors and a large chunk of the population falls into insanity. Of course, if reality is relative anyway, then does this ending even matter/happen?
  • Dramatic Thunder: Thunder can be heard during Trent's stay in the mental asylum.
  • Dream Within a Dream: See Catapult Nightmare.
  • Driven to Madness: Probably Trent. Likely Cane. Maybe the whole world? Or it could be none of these people are real anyway...
  • Driven to Suicide:
    "I have to, he [Sutter Cane] wrote me this way."
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Old Ones. When they enter reality through Sutter Cane's book, they herald the end of humankind.
  • Eldritch Location: Hobb's End, but especially the interior of the church.
  • Endless Corridor: The passage way that leads back from Hobb's End to the real world.
  • Fictional Document: All of Cane's books, most notably In the Mouth of Madness.
  • The Film of the Book: In-Universe, Cane's publishing company sold the movie rights to Cane's latest novel. Trent watches it in a theater at the very end, and it turns out to be...the very movie we're just finished watching.
  • Fingore: In a Nightmare Sequence, a character gets his fingers cut off.
  • The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: It is not a coincidence that the title of this film is also the title of Cane's insidious book and of its film adaptation.
  • Genre Savvy: Having read Cane's books, the characters know what to expect. Whether they choose to believe that the books correspond to reality is another matter.
  • A God Am I: Zig-Zagged with Sutter Cane. In this case, he may very well be, as his writings have granted him the ability to re-cast the entirety of reality through his novels. On the other hand, it's made clear that he is actually in service to a host of Lovecraftion terrors that are slowly invading the world.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Trent, finally realizing that he was a Sutter Cane character all along. Presumably everyone else driven mad by the book/movie had this same revelation.
  • Going in Circles: On the way to Hobbe's End, Styles passes the same boy on a bike multiple times. Later on, Trent tries to drive out of town repeatedly but ends up right where he he started.
  • Groin Attack: When he's being taken in at the mental asylum, Trent attacks one of the orderlies this way.
  • "Groundhog Day" Loop: When Hobb's End really goes to hell and people start mutating into monsters all around Trent, he decides to get the hell out of dodge and jumps in his car. Each time he tries to leave town, however, the godlike Cane resets Trent to just before he left. The only option left to him is go right through the ax-wielding mob of townspeople.
  • Hell Hotel: Mrs. Pickman's hotel.
  • How We Got Here: Almost the entire story is told In Medias Res by Trent to a psychiatrist at a mental asylum.
  • I Am A Humanitarian: In Trent's nightmare, one of the monster people eats part of a person they just axed to death.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: Hobb is an old English word for "devil."
  • In Medias Res: The film begins with Trent's commitment to the mental asylum, as he relays How We Got Here to Wren.
  • Insurance Fraud: It's Trent's job to investigate cases of this, and it's the first thing (outside the opening scene) we see him doing: A guy burns down his warehouse of fur coats, but it turns out he just stashed them away and gave one to his wife...and another to his mistress. Catching both those ladies in their coats gave the guy away.
  • Invincible Villain: Cane is basically God, at least as far as the other characters are concerned.
  • Jump Scare: Used extensively.
  • Kick the Dog: Quite literally. Our introduction to the terrifying children of Hobb's End shows them running after a dog. The next time we see them, the dog has had one of its legs ripped off and is limping around forlornly.
  • Kill It with Fire: Doesn't work.
  • Laughing Mad: Trent at the end of the film when he stumbles upon a movie theater playing John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (yes, the film he is inside of) and promptly snaps.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: When Dr. Wren asks what will happen to those who don't read (and therefore won't read Cane's book), Trent answers: "There's a movie!" He's not kidding, and that link is extremely appropriate; the movie happens to be the one you're watching.
  • Lovecraft Country: Hobb's End. The film is inspired by, and contains Shout-Out after Shout-Out to HP Lovecraft. Hell, a nightmare sequence even has a Continuity Cameo from Cthulhu.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Have Cane's books triggered a mass delusion that's causing more and more people to think they're being taken over by monstrous demons? Or are monstrous demons really taking over people who have read Sutter Cane?
  • Mind Screw: What's the difference between fiction and reality? According to this movie, nothing, up to and including the movie itself.
  • The Mistress: An Insurance Fraud scam is found out when a guy claims a warehouse full of fur coats was supposedly destroyed, but he kept the coats, giving some to his wife, who ratted on him when it turned out he gave some to his mistress.
  • Monochromatic Eyes: Cane's eyes during the mock-confessional.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Sutter Cane is the most popular (horror) writer who ever lived and he's the villain no less. At its core, the film looks at what the awesome power of writing means to the characters who occupy the novels themselves.
  • Name of Cain: Sutter Cane.
  • Nightmare Dreams: Trent has an extensive one that takes place in an alleyway at night.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Sutter Cane is an obvious stand-in for Stephen King. Less directly, he also represents director John Carpenter. Since both men were widely influenced by HP Lovecraft, Cane's works seem to strongly resemble Lovecraft's own.
  • No Fourth Wall: An in-universe example that breaks through two fourth walls. At the end, Trent views the film you are watching, only disjointed and cut up.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Cane's ultimate reveal is just a black void.
  • Noticing The Fourth Wall: At the end of his stay in Hobb's End, Trent meets with Sutter Cane. Cane reveals that Trent is in fact one of his characters. Trent refuses to accept this, exactly how Cane had written him.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Trent is in the insane asylum for killing a Sutter Cane fan with an axe, but David Warner's character seems to think he's only pretending to be insane, perhaps to avoid a criminal trial. It's just as likely he's pretending to be insane in order to stay safe inside the asylum.
  • Only Sane Man: Trent insists that he knows what reality is, and to hell with what anyone else says. He gives up the pretense at the end. Although he really is the only sane man, because that's how Cane wrote him. Discussed by Cane: "Always looking for the con...even now you're trying to rationalize."
  • Phlegmings: Demonstrated by the Old Ones when they pursue Trent into the portal.
  • The Plague / The Virus: People beginning their slide into madness show plague-like symptoms of open sores and wonky eyes.
  • Police Brutality: As Trent walks through an alleyway at night, he catches a cop beating up a homeless man. He leaves it alone, but the cop is ready to dish out some more. He later sees a nightmare of the same scene.
  • Pretty in Mink: A guy burned down a warehouse of fur coats to collect the insurance. He was caught when it turned out he kept the coats safe and gave some to his wife...and his mistress.
  • Reality Warper: Sutter Cane becomes so powerful that he can alter reality to suit his whims. According to Word of God, Cane has no more power than any other writer. The entire film is taking place inside one of his books.
  • Recurring Dreams: Trent begins to suffer from these. Turned out Cane was just writing a little Foreshadowing into proceedings.
  • Red Right Hand: Readers of the books of hack horror writer Sutter Cane go insane and develop strange physical afflictions, like a second pupil in their iris or bleeding from their eyes. And berserk homicidal tendencies, of course. Over the time, these minor afflictions develop into serious bodily mutations, including tentacles, distended jaws, and reversible joints.
  • Ret Gone: Linda Styles.
  • Rewriting Reality: Hobb's End was written into existence by Sutter Cane, who also produces a number of retcons that remove a character from existence and reshuffle an entire sequence of events within the film. By the end of the film, the entire world has apparently been absorbed by Cane's latest novel.
  • Room Full of Crazy: Notably, Trent starts out the movie having made his own filled with drawn crosses with just a single black crayon. It's even lampshaded by Dr. Wren who thinks that Trent isn't as mad as people think.
    "The crosses are a nice touch. They'd almost have to keep you in here after seeing these, wouldn't they?"
  • Rule of Scary: Hobb's End runs on this.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Spooky Painting: Mrs. Pickman's hotel lounge is adorned by a painting of a couple standing besides a lake. Every time Trent takes a look at it again, the couple transform more and more into shrieking human/tree hybrids.
  • Stepford Smiler: Mr. Saperstein.
  • Tears of Blood: On those who read Cane's latest book.
  • This Is Reality: Trent insists on this and states it word for word.
    "This is reality!" *knocks on wood*
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: In this movie, you're not just in the mouth of madness; you're being chewed.
  • Title Drop: The movie title is that of Sutter Cane's latest novel. It's title dropped by Sutter Cane when he finishes the novel's manuscript for Trent to return it to the real world.
    "All done. In the Mouth of Madness."
    • Also earlier by a newscaster:
    "Police believe the riots began because the stores could not meet the demand for advance orders of Sutter Cane's latest novel, In the Mouth of Madness."
  • Torches and Pitchforks: Wielded by the corrupted inhabitants of Hobb's End as Trent is trying to leave with Styles.
  • Touched by Vorlons: Or Eldritch Abomination, in this case.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Hobb's End, of course.
  • Treasure Map: Trent "discovers" the secret location of (the supposedly fictional) Hobb's End by piecing together a jigsaw map made from secret shapes hidden in the cover art of Cane's novels.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Is the entire world the product of an Unreliable Narrator?
  • Unnaturally Blue Lighting: See Breaking the Fourth Wall.
  • Window Pain:
    • Used when Wren visits Trent in the mental asylum.
    • Cane's agent bursts into the restaurant Trent is having dinner with an employer by breaking the plate glass window with an ax.
  • You Have to Believe Me: First, Linda Styles tries this, only for Trent to not believe her. Eventually, Trent himself gets plenty of moments like this, particularly near the end.