By Michael Blyth, (Leighton Buzzard: Auteur Publishing, 2018. 124 pages). ISBN: 978-1911325-40-6
In The Mouth of Madness (1995),directed by John Carpenter, is one of his lesser known and lesser celebrated films. The Devil’s Advocates series seeks to bring previously ignored works of film fiction to the academic sphere and presents them in ways in which they have hitherto not been explored. Critical reviews of the film from the time of its release were, in the majority, negative, but Michael Blyth’s examination of the film seeks to show its academic usefulness. Blyth uses the film’s gothic and Lovecraftian themes to show this, both within the genre of gothic horror, and in the canon of Carpenter’s films, especially his Apocalypse Trilogy, consisting of The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987), and finally In the Mouth of Madness.
In his book, Michael Blyth aims to show the Lovecraftian influences on Carpenter and his filmography, suggesting that his work is reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tales in its inclusion of cosmic horror and generally misanthropic tone. The book seeks to show Carpenter’s film as a masterpiece of weird storytelling in horror cinema. Furthermore, Blyth relates the film to the career of Stephen King, in parallel to the fictional career of Sutter Cane, the horror author central to the film’s narrative.Blyth also provides a useful contextualisation of the film in terms of its initial reception by critics and audiences by situating it in the cinematic horror landscape of the 1990s. He highlights that In the Mouth of Madness, with its existentialist themes, was anomalous in the 90s trend of teen slasher flicks such as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)and Scream (1996). Blyth also establishes the film in the broader cinematography of John Carpenter. He focuses mainly on Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy,which explores ontological themes that are no doubt reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s own philosophical views; those being highly misanthropic, belittling humankind in favour of omnipotent cosmic entities.
Blyth also highlights the religious subtext of the film, pointing out the various biblical references visible in the film, such as the frequent iconography of the crucifix, both in the Christian configuration of the symbol, and in its inverted form, denoting Satanism, or other dark intentions of the like. Furthermore, perhaps most importantly, he discusses the links between the cult-like fans of Sutter Cane, the fictional omnipotent author who is the main antagonist in In The Mouth of Madness, and real-life religious fanatics, such as those who follow L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology. Blyth cites this potentially controversial comparison as one made by Michael De Luca, the film’s scriptwriter, and uses this to link religion with fiction, as Hubbard was initially a sci-fi author before starting his Church. He therefore suggests that In the Mouth of Madness is a critical reading of the way in which audiences of horror often treat the genre with the same ardor as followers of religion do.
It is this that I think is one of the strongest and most interesting arguments in the book. Blyth’s argument is that In the Mouth of Madness is a very meta film, in the way that it comments on consumers of horror whilst being a horror film. He suggests that Carpenter aimed to combine the works of Lovecraft and the career of Stephen King to have an incredibly popular author being given the power of changing the real world through his writing; this power being a gift from extraterrestrial beings. In the film, we find out that the horror author Sutter Cane is given the ability to rewrite reality through his books, resulting in the madness of his ‘characters’, who follow his wishes blindly, because that is the way he wrote them. Madness is a crucial theme in weird fiction, especially in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, and Carpenter creates with In the Mouth of Madness, as Blyth implies, a masterpiece of a weird tale.
While the religious discussion in the book was fantastic, I thought it was a shame to have not linked it with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, especially in relation to the dream-like sequences of the film. Nevertheless, the religious argument was highly compelling. Religion is not something that often collides with the nihilist tone of Lovecraftian fiction, but through his comparison of the zeal of the followers of both horror and religion, Blyth argues that the film is an existentialist reading of Hollywood’s horror landscape. Blyth takes the narrative even further into the meta realm with his statement of ‘with Cane little more than a pawn in the director’s game, the film we are watching is ultimately the Gospel according to Carpenter’ (p.70), which, though it has some merit, I believe starts to detract from the close examination of the film, as focus is pulled toward Carpenter, and away from the text too often. The contextualisation in the book as a whole is very strong and well researched, but in some areas perhaps overshadows In the Mouth Of Madness. This being said, the contextualisation of the film in the wider 90s horror genre means that, along with a very in depth and illuminating analysis of the film, Blyth’s book also provides an interesting glimpse into the landscape of the horror films of the 90s.
As a fan of existential horror, I enjoyed Blyth’s discussion of existentialist themes in the film, especially when discussing the iconic scene in which Trent, the film’s protagonist, and Styles, the film’s leading lady, travel to Hob’s End, a disorientating drive as the pair seem to pass through both time and space into a realm of Cane’s own creation. Reality in this film is, as Blyth states, ‘obsolete’ (p.43). Writing that Carpenter ‘crafts a more obtuse, surreal cinematic vision of what we might call Cartesan paranoia – crucially a horror film’ (p. 92), Blyth shows his fundamental understanding of horror, especially in an existentialist, Lovecraftian sense of the word. He positions the horror of In the Mouth of Madness in the way that it scares its audience through being thought-provoking and anxiety-inducing, especially in the way that it pictures its human protagonists to be unable to beat the evil in the film. As Trent is left institutionalised by the horrors he witnessed, we as the audience are left with the unpalatable sense that the broader universe is indifferent to humanity, and that we are ultimately completely inferior – a theme that is central to cosmic horror. As Lovecraft wrote, ‘We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far’, and Blyth’s examination perfectly encapsulates exactly why horror scares us, and then why In the Mouth of Madness is indeed ‘crucially a horror film’.
Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness is, in my opinion, a deliciously Lovecraftian film, that has indeed been excluded from the academic world. Michael Blyth shows his love for this film in what is a highly compelling and enthusiastic book. For scholars of Lovecraft, Carpenter, and horror alike, Blyth’s addition to the Devil’s Advocate series is a wonderful contribution to the literature of horror films.
Review by Kieren Hall
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