In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

in the mouth of madness

“God’s not supposed to be a hack horror writer.”

The Scoop: 1995 R, directed by John Carpenter and starring Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Charlton Heston, and David Warner

Tagline: Lived Any Good Books Lately?

Summary Capsule: An insurance investigator and a book editor travel to the mythical town of Hobb’s End to discover why a novelist has disappeared, and how his new book will herald the end of mankind

Justin’s rating: Come to my window, and I’ll lop your head off.

Justin’s review: Say you and I happened to be pulled to stand in the same police line-up. As we’re lounging there, admiring our reflections in the opposite two-way mirror, you realize you finally have the opportunity to ask me that burning question that has always rested upon your heart.

“Justin,” you say. “What is your favorite horror movie of the ’90s? Is it Scream, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, or even Leprechaun 4: In Space?”

I will turn to you, before the police drag your body to the awaiting cell, and gently reply, “No, deranged lunatic. I’d have to say my favorite is In The Mouth Of Madness.” You gasp in surprise, but you have no time to reply as you’re already being subdued by pistol-whipping.

It’s quite probable you’ve never heard of this movie. Heck, I almost didn’t see it, except I was working late at the video store and needed something to keep my eyelids open. And this movie fit that bill. It’s a rarity in the horror biz: a scare flick that you can’t quite predict.

As an avid horror reader, I am used to the flak that I get from romance fans that tell me I will become a raging psychotic for having read such trash, and will probably end up slaughtering innocent village folk. To them I say, “You’re next! AHAHAHAHA!” Just kidding!

In The Mouth of Madness takes this unique section of book readers and writers, and makes everyone’s worst fears come true. A horror writer named Sutter Cane (a somewhat-subtle play on Stephen King) has written novels that have disturbed their readers. But now he has vanished, and an insurance investigator (Sam Neill, who also starred in the equally spooky Event Horizon) is hired to find him. He ends up finding a town that only exists inside the horror novels Cane writes, and discovers that he is part of a much larger problem.

While it does have its fair share of suspense and ominous tones, In The Mouth of Madness mostly prefers to be outright bloody and freaky, hosting monsters, dismembered body parts, and (of course) demon children. What’s more freaky than demon children, I ask ya? The feel of Hobb’s End (the horror novel town) is wonderfully Twin Peak-ish: it’s parts Main Street USA and middle-ages dungeon. This movie really excells with its images and sounds; it seems to know perfectly when to be loud and violent, and when to be quiet and subtle. I am not afraid to admit that I still get creeped out by this movie, and I love to spring it on unsuspecting friends. “Wanna watch a John Carpenter movie…?”

For those of you who are horror readers, I’d say this flick is a mixture of King’s small horror towns, Clive Barker’s demon creatures, and H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu-Bunny mythos. It dares to ask, “What is reality?”, the topic of most horror stories. How easily do we suspend belief to open ourselves to a movie, and then how much more do we stretch our reality to accept it’s events. Don’t watch unless you want to be disturbed. And delighted!

Kyle’s rating: Color me shallow . . .

Kyle’s review: Like Justin, I believe that In The Mouth of Madness is incredible and vastly underrated. However, since I first reviewed it, I’ve watched it many more times and I’ve come to realize something: Julie Carmen frightens me. Seriously!

At his best, John Carpenter’s films are both suspenseful and charmingly unique: I can’t exactly put my finger on his specific style, but when you see the combination of music, focus, and plot points converge on the screen Carpenter’s voice is unmistakable. Especially when he’s doing kind of scary stuff that he knows is also fun to watch, including Prince of Darkness, They Live, The Fog, and this film. Good job, Big John! That means that ITMOM has inherent creepys and crawlies, but also allows the viewer to look at something (like, say, the ever-changing painting) and go “Oh, wow, that is a cool way of presenting that particular twist into the story structure!” Or however you’d want to say it.

However, Carmen is still scary.

The story of ITMOM is also one of the strongest in Carpenter’s filmography, ranking up with Prince of Darkness and Halloween (which seems simple, but deceptively so because it’s really complex. No, really!). Lovecraft material meets King/Koontz sales numbers, the world starts going nuts, home improvement stores start running out of axes, and the publishing company of Sutter Cane, the world’s number one horror novelist, loses track of Cane. Since publishing people are geeks (ha!), they enlist less-geeky insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill = awesome) to kick some tail and find Cane. Strangely, no one makes any dinosaur jokes to Neill’s character, but he does gets saddled with Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), Cane’s editor. Trent thinks the whole Cane disappearance is a hoax, Styles is mysterious and very scary, and the answer to everything lies in a fictional-but-apparently-not town called Hobb’s End. Unfortunately, the answer is very gooey and looks like your large intestines if you vomited it up and it was sentient and started eating you. I prefer my questions unanswered, thank you very much.

ITMOM is creepy yet cool, stylish and imaginative, derivative but unique in its own way. Neill is excellent, the “oookay, I’m awake and everything seems okay OH MY GOD IT’S SATAN!” false wake-up scenes get tiring, but overall the story is interesting and the build-up from minor special effects to whipping tentacles and blood-oozing is very entertaining. The ending is a little “eh” but it’s meant to get you thinking, so be prepared to think. It’s a great Halloween movie, and if you’re a horror novel junkie it’s the kind of movie you’d love because it’s the kind of movie where you get sucked in and can’t tell if reality is fiction or vice versa and see I sucked you into this sentence so it’s kind of the same thing except everyone who worked on ITMOM got paid lots and I’m five hours from my southern California home burning down, so that sucks.

But let me tell you what frightens me more than fire, nighttime outdoor choral singing and zombie children on tricycles: Julie Carmen. Yes. I remember when I first saw ITMOM as a smaller child, and thinking “That chick isn’t so great. Trent, forget about her lost butt and get the heck outta town!” Now that I’m older, I fear her even when Trent first meets her in normal circumstances. Maybe it’s her odd eyes, or her strange demeanor, or just how her cheeks are puffy in a weird way and she looks overly covered in make-up that’s probably hiding horrible inhuman facial tattoos and mini-tentacles that she eats people with. But she’s scary, man! Watch this movie and tell me what freaks you out more: people devolving into crawling offal worms full of useless limp appendages that dribble goo all over you when they wriggle by, or Carmen. If I had to pick one as a prom date, hey, I’ll see you at the dance: I’ll be the one wiggling in gelatinous ooze on the floor with my date, Zyoneldla!

Finally, a church that caters to slimy tentacle monsters!


  • In all close-ups, every character’s eyes are blue
  • John Trent occupies cell number 9 at the asylum, and rents room number 9 at the Pickman Inn in Hobb’s End.
  • Sutter Cane’s books include “The Thing in the Basement”, “The Breathing Tunnel”, “The Feeding”, “Haunter Out of Time”, “The Hobb’s End Horror”, “The Whisperer of the Dark”, and “In The Mouth of Madness”.
  • My favorite scene was with the sweet old lady who runs the hotel (the actress is Katherine Ashby, who plays many sweet old ladies, including Adam Sandler’s grandma in Happy Gilmore). You just never can trust elderly folk in horror movies…
  • The small town is named “Hobb’s End,” an in-joke reference to the subway station where the alien ship is excavated in the movie Quartermass and the Pit.
  • The Sutter Cane character is clearly based on John Carpenter’s friend Stephen King, even referencing King’s New Hampshire roots, with Hobb’s Corner filling in for King’s Castle Rock. Carpenter directed a film version of King’s Christine.
  • This is the third film in what John Carpenter has called his Apocalypse Trilogy, the first being “The Thing” and the second being “The Prince of Darkness.”

Groovy Quotes

Styles: Who takes care of you?
Demon Child: You do. You’re our mommy. You know what today is? It’s mommy’s day.

Sutter Cane: I think, therefore you are.

Cane: Reality is not what it used to be…

Sutter Cane: Did I ever tell you my favorite color was blue?

John Trent: 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.

John Trent: Your books SUCK!

John Trent: God’s not supposed to be a hack horror writer.

John Trent: Like the book?
Teen: I love it.
John Trent: Good. Then this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Prince of Darkness
  • Event Horizon
  • Hellraiser


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