Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 3(2) (1995) 53-56
A dash of senseless murder, a pinch of bodily mutilation, and a smattering of general maniacal mischievousness to taste: The movie aficionado would recognize this familiar and formulaic recipe for the macabre to be a cinematic centerpiece in a creation concocted by none other than master horror movie-chef John Carpenter. Carpenter, who is most noted for his directorial efforts in such socially critical and politically satirical films as The Fog, Escape from New York, They Live, et. al., is fond of expressing his point of view primarily through the use of science fiction and pop-horror genres. These genres give him creative license for treating his fans to an explosion of bloody special effects, alongside shocking scenes of preternatural creatures and supra-natural humans jumping from behind curtains of darkness onto the prodigious movie screen of dimly lit movie houses, where such gimmicks usually cause patrons to respond by screaming aloud, having their socks scared off their feet, or hurling in the isles.
John Carpenter, however, adds yet another ingredient that seems to sweeten his theatrical creations so that they are more palatable and unique: A good script! Often lacking in most films of comparable horrific caliber, Carpenter solidifies his movie-making metier by striving to deliver strong characterizations, taut plots, and believable dialogue. Thus, in the midst of the theater-audience's screaming, freezing toes, and endless retching, they also get a sense that Carpenter is attempting more than a puerile exploitation of the their intelligence. His effects and scripts are intended to commingle deliciously in order to move the audience to a more prolific interpretation of his work. Carpenter aptly conveys his social commentary on the big screen.
In the Mouth of Madness holds true to form. In fact, those who follow Carpenter's work may offer the opinion that Madness is his best work to date, if not [End page 53] for its effects, most certainly for the message it attempts to convey.
Madness is the tale of insurance investigator John Trent who has been assigned to inquire into the disappearance of best-selling horror novelist Sutter Cane and to recover the extant manuscript for Cane's next book. Trent's search teams him with Cane's publicist, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), and the two find themselves in a circuitous search for Cane's whereabouts. Trent's intuition leads the team to a fictional New Hampshire town called Hobb's End. What Trent and Style discover is that the apparent idyllic flavor of the northern village belies its sinister nature and the evil that lurks therein. In fact, Trent and Styles startlingly conclude that the town and its denizens are actually the landscapes and characters depicted in one of Cane's novels. This realization is reinforced by a series of events that befall the two, including a young gamine's portentous warning that danger is near, a mob of armed villagers ready to storm the ecclesiastical hideaway of Cane, and a painting that appears to metamorphose each time it's viewed.
Eventually, Trent and Styles confront Cane who reveals his hand in a diabolical plot to manipulate the minds of his fans through his latest novel. Through the direction of an apocalyptic demagogue, Cane is to help usher in the end to society by inspiring mass chaos.
The student of popular culture would appreciate the way In the Mouth of Madness plays as a metaphorical satire against critics who claim that excessive violence in the media has a deleterious effect on society. Carpenter's counterclaim is clearly evidenced by the almost comical manner in which Cane's fans are universally worked into a mob frenzy when news arrives that his latest publication is to be postponed due to the his disappearance. Sutter Cane's material is described as having a "strange effect" on his readers, inducing such symptoms as "memory loss, disorientation, and paranoia." Carpenter emphasizes these effects with several scenes of mass hysteria and mob violence. In reporting on the crowd's reaction, a news anchorman rhetorically asks, "When does fiction become religion?" Interestingly, the film tries to answer this very question.
The serious critic may scoff at the tedious superficiality of Madness. Carpenter makes use of general theatrical ploys that some movie critics have [End page 54] come to regard as banal and stereotypical. For instance, Carpenter depicts the realistic ugliness in the nature of violence. In Madness, the violence is often graphic, brutal, and sanguinary. Also, the modus operandi for murder is the nontraditional use of a woodsman's ax. Several peripheral characters unmercifully butcher and mutilate their victims with unrelenting blows from the weapon. In one such scene, a seemingly harmless elderly woman comes under the evil spell of Cane, chaining the nude body of her husband to her leg to thwart his escape and dismembering him with an ax. Even Trent commits an anti-heroic act by delivering a deadly chop to the torso of an unsuspecting Cane fan.
Although the violence may seem excessively brutal, one may disclaim its excessiveness by arguing that it is a necessary gimmick in establishing Carpenter's point about media violence. It would seem inane to believe that fiction could have such a widespread effect on a discriminating public. Instead, Carpenter craftily diverts the argument away from the media and rests responsibility upon the shoulders of religion.
With poignant use of visual metaphors and trim dialogue, Madness succeeds in bringing its audience to a deeper level of philosophical and theological pondering. Once Trent has located Cane, he finds that the author has taken refuge within a church that replicates the splendorous beauty of Byzantine architecture. The church stands empty, save for Cane's presence, and is intentionally erected in a remote location far from the heart of Hobb's End. The interior of the church appears cold and uninhabitable. The aura that surrounds the church seems to convey its powerlessness to exact its spiritual and conciliatory functions. This depiction makes it believable that a deranged character such as Cane can take sanctuary within the church and work his evil upon society. In a dialogue with Trent, Cane muses that people no longer believe enough in religion to make it happen; thus, fiction becomes religion when the people give it power over their religious convictions.
In the Mouth of Madness poses many interesting questions that beg to be answered. Does excessive media violence solely inspire senseless acts of murder and mayhem in real society? Is life simply imitating art? Or, does religion have a greater role in the diminution of violence being exhibited in the streets? Would its impact indeed help to curb such violence? If [End page 55] Carpenter's criticism is valid, then religion can not afford to stand aloof from the public it intends to reach. Neither can it be ignorant to the needs of the people in society that demand equality, fairness, and justice -- values that religion supposedly supports and teaches. If religion fails to impact society in a positive manner, no doubt subcultures will form to fill the void that traditional religion has created. At that point, religion must take responsibility for its own errant practices.
Regardless of where the onus of responsibility resides, both the media and religion must share in their responsibility to, and impact on, society. Until this is recognized, however, society may be perpetually haunted by the young gamine and her portentous warning that danger is near.
School of Justice Administration
University of Louisville [End page 56]