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A reality is just what we tell each other it is.
Do you read Sutter Cane?
John Trent (Sam Neill), insurance fraud investigator, has just been placed in an insane asylum. Months earlier, he was hired to find bestselling horror writer Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Cane has disappeared under mysterious circumstances, but his publishers think it might just be a stunt to drum up support for his next book, In the Mouth of Madness.
When Trent finds that the covers of Cane's books seem to become a map to the supposedly fictional town of Hobb's End, he and Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), who works for the publisher, decide to go there and find Cane. What they find, however, is something much worse.
The third installment of John Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy" (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness), In the Mouth of Madness explores reality, fiction, and the thin, horrific line that separates the two.
This film gives examples of:
- Analogy Backfire: Near the end of the movie:
- Apocalypse How: Humanity is in full-on societal breakdown, and may very well go extinct. It's left deliberately vague as to whether people are just losing their minds, or are being invaded by a species of Eldritch Abominations.
- Arc Words: "Do you read Sutter Cane?" and "He sees you."
- Axe Crazy: Literally, Sutter's agent in the beginning. Later on, literally everyone.
- Bedlam House: At the start of the film, we find Trent locked up in a mental asylum, from which he tells the rest of the story prior to his arrival there to a psychiatrist.
- Bigger Than Jesus: Sutter Cane repeatedly claims more people believe in his novels than believe in the Bible.
- Bizarrchitecture: The Black Church. On the outside it's spooky enough, what with its rural New England location, but inside it turns into a full blown Eldritch Location.
- Body Horror: Mrs. Pickman and Linda Styles.
- Bloodless Carnage: Averted. However, when Cane's agent gets shot dead by a cop, he doesn't bleed.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall/Unnaturally Blue Lighting: "Did I ever tell you my favorite color is blue?"
- Fridge Brilliance: Almost every characters' eyes are blue in closeup, whether or not the actor or actress actually has blue eyes.
- Brown Note: The whole premise.
- Catapult Nightmare: Trent startles awake from his alleyway nightmare, but it turns out that he's still asleep when he finds the monstrous cop sitting next to him on his living room couch. He has a second Catapult Nightmare when he wakes up for real.
- Clingy MacGuffin: Once Trent has the manuscript, he can't get rid of it. Even when he destroys it, it reappears very quickly.
- Credits Gag: Right after the "No animal was harmed during the making of this film" blurb, they have a slightly different report on the humans.
- Creator Worship: Sutter Cane, in-universe.
- Creepy Basement: Mrs. Pickman's basement. When Trent enters she has half mutated into some sort of monster, and kills her husband with an axe.
- Creepy Child: The children of Hobb's End.
- Deadpan Snarker: Trent, at least before the façade starts to slip.
- Downer Ending: The film ends with the apocalypse, as the entire world is attacked by Lovecraftian horrors and a large chunk of the population falls into insanity. Of course, if reality is relative anyway, then does this ending even matter/happen?
- Dramatic Thunder: Thunder can be heard during Trent's stay in the mental asylum.
- Dream Within a Dream: See Catapult Nightmare.
- Driven to Madness Very likely Trent at the end.
- Driven to Suicide: One of the town's residents kills himself with a shotgun after his daughter attacked him and his wife. He makes it clear that he doesn't have a choice in the matter, as he possesses in-universe Medium Awareness.
"I have to, he [Suttter Cane] wrote me this way."
- Eldritch Abomination: The Old Ones. When they enter reality through Sutter Cane's book, they herald the end of humankind.
- Eldritch Location: Hobb's End for starters, but especially the interior of the Black Church.
- Endless Corridor: The passage way that leads back from Hobb's End to the real world.
- Exact Words/Unusual Euphemism: When Cane finishes the manuscript and hands it over to Trent.
"I'll be joining my new publishers now."
- Fan Disservice: An in-universe example. After Cane possessed Linda, he makes her try to seduce Trent, who is understandably unnerved.
Possessed!Linda: It's what the readers want.
- Fictional Document: All of Cane's books, most notably In the Mouth of Madness.
- The Film of the Book: In-universe, Caine's publishing company sold the movie rights to Caine's latest novel. Trent watches it in a theater at the very end.
- The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: The movie adaptation of the Sutter Cane's book that slowly makes you insane and turns you into a monster? You just watched it!
- Fingore: In a Nightmare Sequence, a character gets his fingers cut off.
- Genre Savvy: Having read Cane's books, the characters know what to expect. Whether they choose to believe that the books correspond to reality is another matter.
- A God Am I: Zig Zagged with Sutter Cane. In this case, he may very well be, as his writings have granted him the ability to recast the entirety of reality through his novels. On the other hand, it's made clear that he is actually in service to a host of Lovecraftion terrors that are slowly invading the world.
Cane: I'm not going anywhere. I'm God now, you understand?
- Go Mad From the Revelation: During the ending, after witnessing the collapse of human civilization in a rising tide of madness and mutation, John Trent cracks when he discovers that the nightmarish book that did the deed was just a novelisation of everything he did in the last few days. He finds this out by watching the film adaptation. More to the point, it's rather implied that Trent's burst of laughing madness is due to his realization that he is in fact a fictional character, perhaps even of not only Sutter Cane, but also the screenwriter of this movie.
- Going in Circles: Trent tries to drive out of town repeatedly but ends up right where he he started.
- Groin Attack: When he's being taken in at the mental asylum, Trent attacks one of the orderlies this way.
- Hell Hotel: Mrs. Pickman's hotel.
- How We Got Here: Almost the entire story is told In Medias Res by John Trent to a psychiatrist at a mental asylum.
- I Am a Humanitarian: In Trent's nightmare, one of the monster people eats part of a person they just axed to death.
- I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: Hobb is an old English word for Devil.
- Jump Scare: Used extensively.
- Kick the Dog: Quite literally. Our introduction to the terrifying children of Hobb's End shows them running after a dog. The next time we see them, the dog has had one of its legs ripped off and is limping around forlornly.
- Kill It with Fire: Doesn't work. Since at that point, burning the book is like trying to burn the entire world.
- Laughing Mad: Trent at the very end.
- Lovecraft Country: Hobb's End. The film is inspired by, and contains Shout-Out after Shout-Out to Lovecraft. Hell, a nightmare sequence even has a Continuity Cameo from Cthulhu.
- Mad Author: Sutter Cane.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Have Sutter Cane's books triggered a mass delusion that's causing more and more people to think they're being taken over by monstrous demons? Or are monstrous demons really taking over people who have read Sutter Cane? Characters who haven't read his latest book think the former, those who have read it think the latter, and at one point Linda says it won't really matter either way once the believers outnumber the skeptics.
- Mind Screw: What's the difference between fiction and reality? According to this movie, nothing, up to and including the movie itself.
- Monochromatic Eyes: Cane's eyes during the mock-confessional.
- Name of Cain: Sutter Cane.
- Nightmare Dreams: Trent has an extensive one that takes place in an alleyway at night.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Sutter Caine is a mixture of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft.
- No Fourth Wall: An in universe example that breaks through two fourth walls. At the end, Trent views the film you are watching, only disjointed and cut up.
- Nothing Is Scarier: The Old Ones' arrival is heralded by a yawning void... of blackness. Linda reads out what the protagonist is seeing.
- One-Scene Wonder: Jürgen Prochnow and Charlton Heston, both of whom have only a few minutes of screen time. David Warner and John Glover may also qualify.
- Only Sane Man: John's insistence through almost the entire film. He gives up the pretense at the end. Although he really is the only sane man, because that's how Cane wrote him. Discussed by Cane: "Always looking for the con... even now you're trying to rationalize."
- Phlegmings: Demonstrated by the Old Ones when they pursue Trent into the portal.
- The Plague/The Virus: People beginning their slide into madness show plague-like symptoms of open sores and wonky eyes. At first it turns out Cane is behind it all, but then it's revealed that the Old Ones were directing everything Cane has done.
- Police Brutality: As Trent walks through an alleyway at night, he catches a cop beating up a homeless man. He leaves it alone, but the cop is ready to dish out some more.
- Pretty in Mink: A guy burned down a warehouse of fur coats to collect the insurance. He was caught when it turned out he kept the coats safe, and gave some to his wife, and his mistress.
- Reality Warper: Sutter Cane.
- Recurring Dreams: Trent begins to suffer from these. Turned out Cane was just writing a little Foreshadowing into proceedings.
- Red Right Hand: Readers of the books of hack horror writer Sutter Cane go insane and develop strange physical afflictions, like a second pupil in their iris, or bleeding from their eyes. And berserk homicidal tendencies, of course. Over the time, these minor affliction develop into serious bodily mutations- including tentacles, distended jaws, and reversible joints.
- Ret-Gone: The eventual fate of Linda Styles.
- Rewriting Reality: Hobb's End and John Trent were written into existence by an author called Sutter Cane, who also produces a number of retcons that remove a character from existence and reshuffle an entire sequence of events within the film. By the end of the film, the entire world has apparently been absorbed by Cane's latest novel. It should be noted that once he finishes his novel close to the end of the film, Cane appears to be able to warp reality at will, as demonstrated with the conversations he has with John Trent.
- Room Full of Crazy: Notably, Trent starts out the movie having made his own filled with drawn crosses with just a single black crayon. It's even lampshaded by Dr. Wren who thinks that Trent isn't as mad as people think.
"The crosses are a nice touch. They'd almost have to keep you in here after seeing these, wouldn't they?"
- Rule of Scary: A rare in-universe example; Hobb's End runs on this because it's the product of Sutter Cane's imagination.
- Lots to H.P. Lovecraft, including several names, like Mrs. Pickman. And the title is reminiscent of both Lovecraft's novella At the Mountains of Madness, and the town of Innsmouth, mentioned in several of his stories.
- Sutter Crane is basically an Expy for Stephen King.
- Hobb's End is also a reference to the Quatermass films.
- Sapirstein is the name of the Satanist doctor in Rosemary's Baby.
- Shotguns Are Just Better: Averted. The shotgun-armed angry mob trying to confront Cane in the Black Church fail to defend themselves from his guard dogs.
- Spooky Painting: Mrs. Pickman's hotel lounge is adorned by a painting of a couple standing besides a lake. Every time Trent takes a look at it again, the couple transform more and more into shrieking human-tree hybrids.
- Stepford Smiler: Mr. Saperstein.
- Surreal Horror
- Tears of Blood: On those who read Cane's latest book.
- This Is Reality: Trent insists on this and states it word for word.
"This is reality!" *knocks on wood*
- Through the Eyes of Madness: The movie was heavily inspired by the Cosmic Horror of H.P. Lovecraft. To make it even better, the question isn't just limited to whether John Trent is (in)sane or not, but also whether he actually exists or is just a figment of the in-story horror writer's imagination (or for that matter, a figment of the screenwriter's mind). The man's not just in the mouth of madness, but being digested.
- Title Drop: The movie title is that of Sutter Cane's latest novel. It's title dropped by Sutter Cane when he finishes the novel's manuscript for Trent to return it to the real world.
"All done. In the Mouth of Madness."
- Torches and Pitchforks: Wielded by the corrupted inhabitants of Hobb's End as Trent is trying to leave with Styles.
- Touched by Vorlons: Or Eldritch Abominations, in this case.
- Town with a Dark Secret: Hobb's End. The secret being that the town only exists in Sutter Cane's mind.
- Treasure Map: Trent "discovers" the secret location of (the supposedly fictional) Hobb's End by piecing together a jigsaw map made from secret shapes hidden in the cover art of Cane's novels.
- Unreliable Narrator: What's real and what's all in Trent's head? Is the entire world the product of an Unreliable Narrator?
- Window Pain:
- Used when Cane visits Trent while he's locked up in the mental asylum.
- Cane's agent bursts into the restaurant Trent is having dinner with an employer by breaking the plate glass window with an axe.