ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

David Del Valle looks IN THE MOUTH of MADNESS

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After the announcement recently by the great director Gullermo Del Toro that he would be adapting Lovecraft’s AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS {1936} into a motion picture, I began to think back rather fondly back to the film John Carpenter made a few years ago as an homage to Lovecraft the decidedly underrated IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.

Now at the time of the film’s release the fans and critics both seemed to be impressed with Carpenter’s nightmarish visuals courtesy of Bruce Nicholson not to mention Michael De Luca’s savvy script which managed to balance the celebrity of Stephen King with the legend that still rests at Swan Point cemetery the immortal H.P. Lovecraft. The film however was not a success and the end result would affect the career of John Carpenter for years to come.

IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is the third in what Carpenter refers to as his “Apocalypse Trilogy” the other two films in t he trilogy being THE THING and PRINCE OF DARKNESS. If one needed to build a case for Carpenter’s infatuation with Lovecraft then you need look no further than these three films. Time has also built a good case for reevaluating Carpenter's films as far more than the popcorn pleasers they were made out to be upon their release. THE THING for example is considered by many to be Carpenter’s greatest film and it well may be since the entirely male cast and ground breaking speical effects are still amazing to this very day. This film proved that Carpenter could handle a full blown Lovecraft adaptation as THE THING was very close in spirit and atmosphere to Lovecraft’s fiction with all the gory detail to the nameless creature that shambled down from the stars.

The PRINCE OF DARKNESS also holds the same argument as Carpenter creates a unique take on the concept of God and the Devil as we watch a large glass canister ooze with an eerie green glow the essence of evil as the devil waits for his chance to rule the earth while residing in a Cocteau-like mirror waiting to be pull forth with a little help from Alice Cooper.

During the 80’s and 90’s there was a rash of films brimming with what some critics were referring to as cinematic “elastic reality” fraught with the paranoid undermining of everything we know in pop culture and beyond. This theme was successfully exploited in Wes Craven’s masterful take on his own Elm Street films with WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE”. Even Woody Allan’s PURPLE ROSE OF CARIO blurred the reality of the film going experience with characters coming right off the screen and living among their fans. The real premise of IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is revealed when Julie Carmen’s character says the line “reality is just what we tell ourselves it is”.

The moment we hear the dreaded question “Do you read Sutter cane?” the reality of just reading horror fiction as opposed to living it is blurred forever. Our p rotagonist well played by Sam Neill is a skeptic who begins to doubt all that he sees and more importantly what he reads as the film takes a turn towards the abyss. When it comes to adapting Lovecraft for the movies the real flaw seems to be in misinterpreting what his fiction is all about in the first place. Lovecraft was a specialist in cosmic psychological horror, the indescribable horror filled with eldritch rites invoking timeless Gods. Lovecraft is not about beating about the bush when it comes to his nightmares and demons they come right out of your dreams and bite you without your ability to see what exactly is sinking its talons into your mortal flesh.


The current popularity of H.P. Lovecraft on screen seems to have started with Stuart Gordon’s witty and gory take on Herbert West in 1985’s REANIMATOR. The film’s that would follow gave audience’s buckets of gore and very little else, least of all the atmosphere of a classic Lovecraft short story or novel. Dan O’Bannon’s THE RESURRECTED was close in mood to the real Lovecraft with a bravura performance from Chris Sarandon portraying both Charles Dexter Ward and his ancestor, the warlock Joseph Curwen. {It is interesting to note that Vincent Price also does an admirable job in portraying the same two characters in THE HAUNTED PALACE.} Personally I feel it is a great mistake to try and update his fiction to the present day.

While THE HAUNTED PALACE will always be regarded by historians as the first real attempt to put Lovecraft's fiction on the screen it was marketed as part of Roger Corman's Poe cycle, so the credit for the first fully advertised Lovecraft adaptation to make it to the silver screen must then fall to first time director Daniel Haller with his version of THE COLOR OUT OF SPACE which was filmed under the title of HOUSE AT THE END OF THE WORLD but marketed as the hopelessly lurid DIE MONSTER DIE! (a Karloffian wish fulfillment if ever there was one as Karloff had grown weary of his old friend "The Frankenstein monster" and found himself once again being wheeled through lackluster special effects). Haller set this film in the style of the Poe films he worked on (as a set designer), but little frisson could be had at such bargain basement prices. The only moment the film has for a bit of Lovecraftian magic is in the "greenhouse from Hell" sequence, where "things from beyond the wall of sleep" coil and gibber in their cages. Karloff was given a lot of press for his return to a horror make-up but when push came to shove it was a glowing mask worn by a double. So much for the "return of the master" approach!

THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970), made at the height of the “Summer of Love”, is more proof that Lovecraft does not update to anyone’s satisfaction. Now having said that I have to admit that I find the film a real guilty pleasure as the “hippy” trappings are so removed from time and space that the film has a unique look and vibe; Les Baxter’s score is a plus as is the terrific opening credits which would have made an interesting short all by themselves. The film has its moments: when the "twin" is released from his lock-up and spins out of control toward the Devil's Hopp Yard we see what this film could have been if the producers had not been rushed to make a ROSEMARY'S BABY ripoff and stayed true to their source.

THE CRIMSON CULT followed soon after that which if remembered at all it is as the swan song for the great Karloff who died soon after but not without leaving four Mexican films that are best left forgotten, THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR as it was called in the UK was an almost unrecognizable adaptatation of Lovecraft's DREAMS IN A WITCH HOUSE this film is so bad even Barbara Steele's presence cannot save it from the pit of lost opportunities.

It is a shame as Lovecraft drew heavily on dreams for his material and this informs his fiction with a reality that makes us contemplate the "dream with a dream ' that Poe spoke of before him.


If you do any research at all into Lovecraft’s world the first thing you become aware of is his personal misplacement in the 20th Century. Lovecraft wrote and lived as if he belonged in another time and place. The long established myth that Lovecraft lived almost his entire life with his two aunts in an creepy gothic house venturing out only at night is only half right. Lovecraft traveled a great deal and kept journals of his adventures as far away from New England as Canada , it seems however that his aunts did succeed in convincing him that he was ugly and even a brief marriage to Sonia Greene [a woman with ties to Alester Crowley of all people ]could not shake this belief, During his final years his contact with the outside world was done mainly by correspondence this eccentricity made his fiction remote and otherworldly which is also part of its allure. If one were to double bill THE RESSURECTED with Roger Corman’s THE HAUNTED PALACE you could see more clearly how while O’Bannon is more respectful of the story line, setting Lovecraft in the past gives his mythos a mystery that the present day seems to deflate.

IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS while most definitely a Lovecraft saturated film is also by rights a Stephan King tribute as well. The faux author Sutter Cane played with the right amount of corn ball dedication by Jurgen Prochnow is at once recognizable as a cipher for King. The films’ opening sequence is more than enough to let us know that Sutter Kane/Stephen King is selling millions of copies of every book that bears his name. It would not been as compelling to film a similar sequence over at Sauk City Wisconsin where the very real publishing company Arkham House has been printing Lovecraft’s output in limited editions of 2500 to 5000 fo r the last half century. In reexamining Carpenter’s film I can appreciate the Lovecraftian set pieces all the more than the first time around. I particularly admire everything beginning with the nightmarish car ride to Hobbs End {a tribute to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass film} right up to the confrontation between Trent and Sutter Cane where the very walls and especially the giant wooden door behind the cursed author is literally swelling to burst allowing the slimy monstrosities to gain a foothold into this world.

It is also interesting that both the film and Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of madness is narrated by men residing in asylums. The film allows one bit of humor as one of the scripts best lines is delivered while Trent is locked away in his cell the great character actor David Warner of all people playing a doctor reminds him that “a man with a pair of swollen testicles says you want out.” This was referring to Trent’s violent actions to the guards as he was led to ! his cell.

Carpenter’s location scouts scored a real coup with the discovery of that superb Byzantine Church isolated by itself on that hill in the middle of nowhere. The sequence at Pickman’s Hotel is a textbook in Lovecratian atmosphere and dread. The surreal painting that keeps changing whenever you look away and of course that marvelously wicked old lady with her husband shackled to her leg behind the desk. In many ways this film is really like a short story Lovecraft SHOULD have penned by in the golden days of editor Farnsworth Wright’s legendary WERID TALES where Lovecraft first came to the attention of his public.

Time has been more than kind to IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and its reputation is solid among fans of both Lovecraft and Carpenter. It is regarded now as one of the last good films from Carpenter whose reputation according to critics of the time took a bit of a downward spiral directly after this film. Recently Carpenter retu rned to the themes of ITMOM with the series Masters of Horror. The short film CIGARETTE BURNS is in many ways a continuation of depicting the corruption of human beings by decadent art in both literature and cinema. In this latest venture Carpenter uses the very essence of fandom to explore the power of the cinema to reopen Pandora’s Box once again in the persona of Udo Keir who plays a wealthy memorabilia collector whose specialty is horror in an inspired moment Keir explains to the detective he employs to find this toxic film that the only reason he was not at the world premier which caused members of the audience to attack each other was the chance to meet Vincent Price in per! son so he changed his ticket for that of a screening of DR PHIBES!.

Instead of trying to locate Sutter Canes latest novel the object of everyone’s obsession is a legendary film called literally “The absolute end of the world” it seems everyone who has seen it destroys themselves dir ectly as a result of being exposed to the film itself even a few frames of it can take your soul. The end result is quite satisfying and I consider this to be a successful return to form for Carpenter. Stuart Gordon also made at the4 same time what may be his best adaptaion of Lovecraft yet with his take on DREAMS IN A WITCH HOUSE for the same company, however the old bete nor of updating it to modern times took a bit of edge off what is still a creepy addition to the canon of Lovecraft to date.

In the years since the original release of IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS the European intelligentsia has taken notice of both the film as a statement on capitalism and schizophrenia and the popularity of Lovecraft’s literary output to elevate the author to rather lofty heights. The celebrated cultural critics Deleuge-Guattari consider Lovecraft to be more than a fantasy author. Lovecraft is “an authority or source of formulation” In the mouth of madness is now regarded as a Gothic M aterialist parable. Lovecraft is referenced several times in Deleuges A THOUSAND PLATEAUS as well as his many books on Cinema now translated from the French.

The result of the constant merging of the reality of Lovecraft’s fiction from the fantastic to the real world as revealed in Carpenter’s film that the possibility that perhaps some of his nightmares are more than just imagination has erupted into a legion of websites on the internet speculating as to the reality of The Necronomicon as wrttien in Lovecraft's fiction Lovecraft himself cites Robert Chambers THE KING IN YELLOW as a souce yet Crowley and Lovecraft's wife held different views if we all wait long enough as Lovecraft would have put it maybe then "even death may die". I have personally seen so many ads on the internet offering copies of THE NECRONOMICON that I dare to ask myself if I ordered the right one could I…?



by David Del Valle

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all photos used with psionic permission

c. 2008 David Del Valle / Acidemic

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244