a Primal Root review
“I think, therefore you are.” -Sutter Cain, In the Mouth of Madness
Few movie openings get me as pumped as that of “In the Mouth of Madness”. The opening synth licks, drums kick in, and the guitar commences to wailing as Sutter Cain’s latest book is being shot through the presses by whirring machines that could draw and quarter you faster than you can say “owee”. Never has book publishing seemed this incredibly badass. If you can imagine Metallica’s Enter Sandman but without James Hatfield’s goofy vocals and composed by cinematic renaissance man, John Carpenter, you’re halfway there. It’s a fucking spectacular start to a movie that’s basically the dark, evil, alarmist version of Reading Rainbow. Who would have ever guessed reading could be so goddamn cool and menacing? In my own head, I like to imagine that if this film had reached a wider audience, we would have seen cool, greaser types with their slicked-back hair, bad boy shades, a Marlboro dangling from chapped lips, leaning against a support beam in their favorite dive bar and flipping through a well worn-collection of Edgar Allen Poe.
So, who is this Sutter Cane fellow? Well, in the fictional 1995 realm of “In the Mouth of Madness” he is the most widley read author in history. His stories have been translated into several dozen languages, outsell every other book on the market, and have even begun to lead to riots in book stores (remember? People used to go to stores that sold books!) when they can’t supply enough to meet the demands of the author’s work. Did I mention this guy does horror? So it stands to reason that the man is also getting the blame for a recent “plague of violence” that has swept the nation with folks brutally attacking one another seemingly at random. Are they getting a little inspired by their page-turner?
As we all know, that’s absolute garbage. Entertainment has as much influence over real life violence as soft serve ice cream consumption has over the migration of gopher turtles.
But, I digress. As it turns out Sutter Cane has gone missing, and his publishing company has hired a cynical, crude, disillusioned insurance fraud investigator named John Trent (Sam Neil) to find out if Cain is alive and if he ever finished his final book, In the Mouth of Madness. Sent along with him is Cain’s editor, the more open minded and vulnerable Styles (Julie Carmen). After some rather impressive investigating along with some trippy and disturbing nightmares, Trent puts together a map which will lead them to Cane who seems to be stationed in a small New England town. And not just any small New England town, but one named after Old Scratch, himself, and which seems to be the inspiration for one of Cane’s books, “The Hobb’s End Horror”.
On their drive to the mysteriously elusive Hobb’s End Trent & Styles get to know one another while chit-chatting about Trent’s love of busting people and justifying his stone-cold cynicism with sharing his view that “the sooner mankind is off the planet, the better.” Styles speaks to her lust for horror, and that if reality as we know it should happen to shift how terrifying it would be to be the last sane one left…hmmm, foreshadowing, me thinks. There’s also an impromptu clown horn awakening that leads to a fun-sized Ruffles Potato Chip beat down that adds a little levity but really just makes me want some potato chips. Great product placement, though! I want to put those chips in my OWN personal mouth of madness where they can settle in my belly of batshit… ew.
Along their journey, Trent sleeps in the passenger seat snoring one of those irritating half snores as Styles gets a nice ripe slice of Hell. She catches a glimpse of bicycle reflectors up the road, but as she gets closer it seems to be a young man in his twenties peddling furiously in the same direction on the deserted highway in the pitch black night. As she drives past. he fades into the red of her tail lights and then disappears into the darkness. This is not a thing uncommon to humans. We pass people riding bikes, yeah, pretty much all the time. But there’s just something freakishly unsettling about this one. Something that speaks to us solely in the language of nightmares. Then, of course, there’s the next moment in which we see this soul, and he’s kind of, let’s say, changed a bit.
Several nightmare scenarios later, our dynamic duo find themselves in Hobb’s End, where the main street is lined with lovely little antique shops filled with what Trent eloquently calls “old shit”. The town looks pretty empty with the exception of a tribe of kids who can’t not run in slow motion after their dog. The two check into a quant little inn that seems to be run by Viggo the Carpathian and Mrs. Pickam (the incomparable Francis Bay). OH! and oI guess it bears mentioning that Cane’s there abducting children and transforming them into his own special brood of creatures bent on spreading his signature brand of mayhem and mutation throughout the town. And where else would HQ be but the comfy confines of THE BLACK CHURCH! A creepy, evil, place whereabouts dobermans attack en mass, the doors have a malfunctioning automatic open feature, and where Cane does all of his writing and evil plottin these days.
Still, despite every gruesome event in “The Hobb’s End Horror” playing out around them, Trent still refuses to believe his own eyes and chocks it up to a ridiculously well-staged Disney World level publicity stunt put on just for him in hopes that he’ll high-tail it back to the big city, and talk up Cain’s “haunted little town.” In this one moment, I agree with Trent when he boldly declares, “Well, FUCK THAT!”
Now, you can begin to imagine Trent getting genuinely freaked out at this point, but the man just won’t give up on trying to find the logical explanation. But it seems to become more blazingly apparent that he’s driven himself right into a hotbed of slimy monsters and crazy shit ground zero. Portraits shift and change to creep the fuck out of city folk, grannies handcuff their naked hubbies to their ankles, and giant reptilians sporting a veritable mess of tentacles occupy the outdoor patio. Yeah. Sure, guy, this is all being staged JUST FOR YOU… I’m hopping on the next non demon-riddled Greyhound and heading to Chi-town as you brush chunks of brain and gore off your shoulder from the ‘actor’ who just unloaded a shotgun into his noggin.
As a mob of mutated town folk slowly inch towards Trent and a now totally whacked-out Styles (oh, yeah, she’s been lustily possessed by her demon-crazed client), the two exchange punches to the face in a Three Stooges of Domestic Battery kind of way. It gets a good laugh in (at least from me), and they head to their car to make a quick getaway. Styles gets all emotional and attention-starved, and commences to eating the car keys. ”JEEEEEESUS!” cries our hero and goes fishing down her throat, which, I gotta say, just feels a little gross & sketchy despite the necessity. Trent takes it to that further step, bashing in Styles’s mug, hot-wiring the car, and blazing the fuck out of this podunk Hell hole.
Only Trent can’t get out. No one gets out. He’s stuck in the demonic Groundhog’s Day of road trips as he repeatedly drives down the highway, finds the road lines glow a freakish neon orange, and being transported right back to Main Street USA where a posse of Basket Case 2 rejects await him hungrily. Oh, and by this point Styles is trying to smut it up with Trent, contorted her entire body into a creeping, crackly-boned, monstrosity. The beauty of this moment? These days all this would be done in sad, ineffective CGI, but cinematic treasures like this prove that unnerving realness of scenes such as this are actually pulled off by *real* effects such as the sideshow contortionist who rocked even the creepiest of moments.
After several tedious attempts to escape Trent tries a more direct approach flooring his jalopy right into the crowd! They clear a path which leads right to Styles who just stands there grinning like she just drank all the sherry. Trent jerks his steering wheel to the right and directly into a nasty collision which leaves him unconscious as the minions of mutations laugh and talk amongst themselves in the distance.
Trent then wakes up to have a one on one with the man, himself, Sutter Cain. Okay, this is it. Here is Trent’s chance to defend humanity! And what does he do? Too preoccupied with trying to light his last cigarette, Trent settles on insulting Cain by telling him his books suck. Eh, I hardly think that’s going to bruise the man’s ego, Trent. And then he drops the bomb. Trent, himself, is Sutter’s creation. A character in a book he is writes and controls. Nothing more. Understandably, Trent’s more than a little unsettled by all this, even more so when Sutter rips into his own face with is bare hands to reveal a dark pit framed by torn shreds of a novels pages. Yeah, this is looking less and less like a promotional stunt…
We’re led through a fantastic sequence wherein Trent peers into the darkness while Styles reads from Sutter’s new “bible”. This, of course, plays as narration as he is living the story she reads. It’s a wonderfully creepy piece of cinema where Trent sees creatures rising from the abyss beyond description and we, the audience, are never given a good clear shot. We are only allowed to see Trent’s face as he reacts to what he sees. Styles presents the manuscript to Trent, and Trent makes his way back into “his world”. The creatures gain, Trent trips, and all is lost…or so it seems.
Trent screams in primal terror only to open his eyes and find himself on a dirt road, back in what looks to be classical reality. Birds chirp, kids deliver the newspaper, and there are no creatures beyond description chilling out at the truck stops. Yes, things seem normal, but Trent has seen some pretty heavy shit and can’t so easily shake it. First order of business is to destroy the manuscript, which keeps mysteriously finding it’s way back into his hands. Eventually Trent heads back to the publishing company that hired him in the first place only to find out Styles never existed and that he delivered the In the Mouth of Madness manuscript months ago and that it’s been at the top of the Best Seller list for seven weeks! Trent, having no recollection of this at all, is driven even closer to the edge. He pleads with the publishers to recall the book because what’s in it will drive people insane. Trent is then gently pushed off the edge as it’s revealed that the movie adaptation of the book comes out in a week.
The epidemic of violence continues, no one can put down Sutter’s latest work, our “hero” has gone homicidal as well, bashing in skulls with an axe outside book stores., which is why he has been telling this story from within a padded sell all along. By film’s end we find Trent in a deserted city after the dark power made manifest through Sutter’s work has infected everyone, making them lash out violently and mutate, as he goes into a fully lit theater. What’s playing? In the Mouth of Madness.
Trent sits in an empty theater, popcorn bucket in hand and watches scenes fro the film we have just watched. He begins to laugh a pained, horrified laughter of sad realization. Of being broken. Tears swell up in his eyes as he tits his head back, his laughter becoming desperate and pleading as we cut to black. It”s a cold, dark, deeply unsettling ending because it brings up so many questions about who we are and reality in general. Trent, obviously was born, grew up, has gone through life and made memories, how devastating would it be to find out it were all false. That, in effect, you aren’t real. That you are simply a means to entertain someone else.
It’s a cold concept to think about, that we might be nothing more than the figment of something’s imagination who can change the rules whenever they like and wipe our slates clean in the process. It takes a pretty active imagination to contemplate such an existence, but what a sad and empty way for our world to end. With the realization that we were never, ever, anything to begin with…