John (Sam Neill) is an insurance investigator with a dim view of humanity. He’s hired by a publishing company to track down its star writer Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), who has disappeared with the last half of his new book, In the Mouth of Madness. John and editor Styles (Julie Carmen) take off for small-town New England, thinking he’s hiding in Hobb’s End, the town where his books take place. Turns out Cane’s new book is about “the end of everything”—and it’s not fiction. John’s neatly ordered sense of reality is tested to the limits as he realizes that he is only a pawn in Cane’s novel.
One of the more striking aspects of the film is the recalcitrant author’s resemblance to Stephen King—at least in terms of popularity, a cult-like following, and his work regarded as “horror crap.” Stylistically Cane is actually more like H.P. Lovecraft, who also wrote about New England. The name Pickman, used in the film, is plucked from Lovecraft’s work. Cane’s tone, dialogue, use of tentacle creatures and description of “the old ones” is also more like Lovecraft. As Styles says, regarding Cane’s massive book sales, “You can forget about Stephen King.”
Something else interesting is the film’s gloomy tone, often dimly lit and frequented by nightmare sequences. John is cheerful enough in his misanthropy, but overall it seems like people are depicted as violent brain-dead sheep, ready to riot at any given moment. Then there’s the chilling motif throughout of reality vs. unreality (“I’m not a piece of fiction”) and sane vs. insane. As Styles points out, when the insane are the majority, then the sane would by default be insane. John agrees, volunteering to live in a mental hospital, claiming, “It’s safer in here now.”
I really don’t have any complaints about the movie. Cane’s creatures are left to the imagination for the most part, but the special effects aren’t bad for the mid-90s—I particularly like the scene when Cane rips himself like paper to reveal the portal for the old ones.
My favorite scene is when John leaves the hospital to go watch the movie version of In the Mouth of Madness. He watches footage of his own exploits and laughs hysterically, his eyes bulging with mirth—and madness.