This YouTube video, also embedded above, shows the concluding moments from John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994). The clip shows John Trent (Sam Neill) exiting the mental institution which he occupies during the film’s framing sequences following some kind of apocalypse. He appears to be one of the few survivors of an outbreak of mass violence, and these recent events would seem to bear out the fears he had leading up to his institutionalization. He ends up at a movie theatre showing a film-within-the-film, also called In the Mouth of Madness, which replays snatches of scenes we have already seen played out in full. Realizing that he has either just been a character in someone else’s story all along, or that reality has simply broken down to the point where he can no longer tell the difference, Trent reacts to the screening with bitter laughter and a level of hysteria entirely appropriate to the sort of mind-meld he has just gone through.
Yet there is a kind of relief here as well, in that all of Trent’s worst fears have been realized. In the elliptical flashes of scenes played back here from earlier in the film, Trent is made to face what kind of reality he is in fact inhabiting, not to mention question once again his own sanity. I found myself in quite a similar situation during the onset of my psychosis, in which a screening of Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) became something that much more closely resembles Trent’s private viewing here than a studio comedy about a cappella singing competitions. I went to the bathroom for what felt like a short period of time during the middle of the film, and when I returned it was over. This scene from In the Mouth of Madness conveys in an extremely effective way the kind of distortions of time and space that seem to accompany psychosis (and which certainly accompanied mine).
I would say that Carpenter is a master of the genre I am dubbing psychosis cinema; certainly his 1988 allegory of neoliberalism They Live falls into this grouping of films quite snugly as well. His evocations of paranoia are incredibly astute, as one finds most strikingly in his belatedly acclaimed remake of The Thing (1982), whose themes of body snatching and body horror would make for a good point of comparison with the Cronenberg and Ferrara films under discussion in some of the other entries on this blog. The mise en abyme structure deployed in Madness is perhaps a bit too clever for its own good, too easily slipping into the meta realm of the postmodern in which the boundaries enclosing a given work become ever more slippery the deeper one gets, ultimately keeping the audience at something of a distance in a way the more visceral horrors of The Thing never do.
Nevertheless, the fiction-within-a-fiction, dream-within-a-dream state set forth in Madness is undeniably effective in evoking a psychotic state, where the boundaries between the real and the fictional are rarely clear. I know that all my accumulated knowledge of narrative, from Harry Potter and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Gamer (2009) and Videodrome and beyond, came into play throughout my psychotic episode in ways large as well as small, and not necessarily to the benefit of my recovery. There is nothing scarier than the feeling you are caught up in someone else’s story, a pawn to the whims of an author whose intentions you can never fully know, and it is this sense of unease and unravelling sanity that Carpenter nails so very well here. I am happy that I can now look back on the film and particularly the ending with some sense of remove, because in the darkest moments of my psychosis it certainly felt more like documentary than fiction.
ClayDavis90. (2016, July 27). In the mouth of madness – Ending. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AUr3BtuRUI&app=desktop
King, S. (Producer), & Carpenter, J. (Director). (1994). In the mouth of madness [Motion picture]. United States: New Line Cinema.