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I’ve been in a Lovecraft craft for a good portion of this year, spending a lot of time reading his works and trying to figure out why there haven’t been many good adaptations of his work. Sure, Roger Corman did one (as part of his Poe Cycle), and Boris Karloff starred in one, and of course there’s Stuart Gordon’s brilliant Re-Animator, but it’s strange we don’t have more. What we do have, though, are movies that are fantastically Lovecraftian — they deftly employ the themes and imagery of the writer — without being based on any book or story.

The best of these, hands down, is John Carpenter’s 1995 movie, In the Mouth of Madness:

Once we got beyond Carpenter’s glory period — nine feature films, two TV movies between 1978 and 1988 — the master of horror/science fiction’s career started to get much more…spotty. Since 1988, he’s only released seven features, and of those, In the Mouth of Madness is clearly the best, by a country mile. It suffers from some of the issues that plague a lot of ’90s horror movies, which I’ll get into, but as a movie made for sheer scares and actual depiction of “madness,” it’s unmatched.

The story feels like an old film noir or indeed like several Lovecraft stories. Our lead character is John Trent (Sam Neill), a suave insurance investigator who has a knack for getting people to confess their various fraudulence. He gets hired by a fancy schmancy publisher (Charlton Heston) to find out what has become of their bigger-than-big literary star, Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), who has disappeared on the eve of the release of his next, long awaited horror novel. Trent thinks this is all some kind of insurance scam, or maybe even a publicity stunt, and so the publisher has an assistant named Linda (Julie Carmen) accompany Trent on his investigation, and all the while, he begins reading Cane’s work to see if there are any clues.

Trent slowly realizes that Cane’s books are leading people to do crazy things. Before he’d even been offered the case, a man with an ax breaks through the window of a diner and threatens his life, asking, “Do you read Sutter Cane?” before being shot by police. The man was Cane’s agent, by the way. Trent suspects that the fictional setting of all of Cane’s novels — Hobb’s End, New Hampshire — is where he’ll find Cane. He and Linda travel to where it ought to be, and they indeed find it. The non-existent location is not what it seems, of course, and suggests Cane is becoming an apocalyptic god. So there’s that.

There’s a lot about the plot that feels confusing and contrived. Trent notices a red line on all the covers of Cane novels, and so tears all the covers off and discovers the red lines, when arranged in an unfathomably perfect way, make the exact border of the state of New Hampshire, which is why he looks there. I’m sorry…what?

I also have to say that the movie often looks really, really chintzy. It may have to do with the look of film in that decade, or maybe it’s that Carpenter’s latter-career Cinematographer Gary Kibbe came from television, but this movie has a really muddy quality, not helped by the generic/Metallica-esque rock score by Carpenter and Jim Lang. This can be written off as elements of the period and circumstances in which the movie was made. What truly matters — what makes the movie great — is how it depicts madness.

One of the reasons I think Lovecraft is so hard to adapt to film is that so much of his writing is internal; almost all of his stories are from the perspective of an often unnamed lead character, told in the first person. And so we’re able to understand what slowly going mad feels like in relation to the “unnamable,” “indescribable,” “cyclopean” terrors that our narrator sees. But how do you visually represent a man going insane when he isn’t our first-person narrator? In the case of In the Mouth of Madness, it’s done through copious dream sequences, and the repetition of them.

Several times during the movie, Trent is seen walking passed a particular rough alleyway; the first time there’s a cop beating a homeless person, but thereafter, the cop is a zombie, or it’s full of zombies, or there’s nobody and that’s even more unsettling. And later, when Trent is desperately trying to drive out of Hobb’s End, he drives down the road and ends up back in the middle of town, confronted by a hundred torch-wielding maniacs. Carpenter shows this happen two or three times more than you think he will, just to hammer home the point that Trent is trapped, and is getting desperate, and is losing his mind.

Eventually, Trent learns that Cane’s mind is populating Hobb’s End with all of the nightmares of his writing, and that all the big monsters are ready to come out and kill. Trent runs down a crazy-nuts hallway, chased by these things, all built to look disgusting and weird and exactly like some amorphous, teeth-gnashing beasts from Lovecraft’s own mind. True to that author’s work, we can see the monsters, but never get a long enough look at them to understand the shape/full dimensions. And that’s absolutely terrifying.

Sutter Cane is a very definite mixture of both Lovecraft and Stephen King. There’s a line in the movie that Cane sells infinitely more than Stephen King, showing off just how much King’s work has permeated the culture. All of the book covers for Cane’s novels look like particular publisher’s covers for King’s work, even down to the font. The names of the novels that we see all are similar to real Lovecraft stories. (“Haunter Out of Time” is a mix of “The Shadow Out of Time” and “The Haunter of the Dark”; Cane’s is “The Whisperer of the Dark,” Lovecraft’s is “Whisperer in the Dark,” etc.) Even the title In the Mouth of Madness is similar to Lovecraft’s magnum opus, At the Mountains of Madness. Cleverly done, I think.

In the Mouth of Madness is not a perfect movie, but none of Lovecraft’s stories were perfect either. Carpenter gave us, I think, the closest representation of Lovecraftian horror, moreso than any other filmmaker. It’s a nightmare about feeling minuscule as a world-changing reality becomes clear, and that’s enough to scare anyone.

Images: New Line

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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