"Do you read Sutter Cane?"
What is my favourite John Carpenter film, you don't ask? That's a tough one, as there are so many. I could maybe give my top 5, in no particular order: Halloween, The Fog, Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing, They Live, and In the Mouth of Madness. And that's excluding many worthy also-rans like Escape From New York, Assault on Precinct 13, Christine, Prince of Darkness, etc... As you can see, picking a favourite is tough. But I will say this - the film I have watched the most (disqualifying Halloween, which I watch almost every fall as a tradition) is In the Mouth of Madness, if that means anything. I think I've seen it about half a dozen times, and it keeps beckoning me to return as the days grow shorter and the sun turns tea-weak through slate clouds. Roughly once a year, sometimes more, something calls me back to Hobb's end. Something old, dark, and wet.
The final film in Carpenter's supposed "Doomsday Trilogy" (The Thing being number one and Prince of Darkness being number two), ITMOM revolves around hack horror writer Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow, who we don't see until about halfway through the film), whose work bears no small resemblance to Stephen King. Cane's work is massively popular, more popular than King or even the Bible, we are told. Thing is, Cane has gone missing, and his latest work is having very strange effect on readers (almost everyone), driving them to madness, mayhem, and murder (hey, if you're invoking hack writers, you've got to use that most hakneyed of hack devices, alliteration). Enter John Trent (Sam "God Among Men" Neill), an insurance fraud investigator, who has been contracted by Cane's publishing firm to find the missing author. Trent is accompanied by Linda Styles, Cane's editor, and they set out to find the fictional Hobb's End, some quaint New England town that isn't supposed to exist except for in Cane's fiction. Problem is, they find it; Hobb's End harbours some dark secrets and is anything but Main St. USA.
Carpenter does a masterful job of reigning in the various aspects of the story to keep it from becoming too confusing - there are quite an array of ideas on display here, and if you remove the slimy things which crawl out of the black pit in the church (very nice tip of the Lovecraft's Old Ones), and the couple of hatchet jobs (literally) that occur in town, you'd still find yourself dealing with a very darkly comic existentialist apocalypse horror.
As always with Carpenter, the practical special effects are top notch, and the director's own throbbing-synth score is fantastic. Prochnow and Neill are worthy foils and Charlton Heston does a superb job as Cane's befuddled publisher. And keep an eye out for many of the locations, as the film was shot in and around Toronto (most notably, the RC Harris filtration plant, doubling as an insane asylum here).
Carpenter had played with Lovecraftian ideals before (most notably in The Thing), but never so obviously as he does in ITMOM. While Cane can be seen as King (or King-like), he is also operating very much within the Lovecraft mode. And, though I can't remember the exact quotation, I'm pretty certain Cane actually says "the Old Ones" at one point, or something very similar. With that in mind, the structure of the film is deceptively complex. Sure, the "story-within-a-story" thing has been done before, but Carpenter masterfully weaves the fiction with the reality (still fiction, as it is the film itself), and with a bit of suspension of disbelief, the viewer is led to believe that what is happening onscreen is happening in the real world, outside the cinema. Of course, it is less believable now, as the film and its decor have dated somewhat, but still, there is a complexity in the film that I have not found in any other of Carpenter's oeuvre (though he mildly flirted with similar concepts in his too brief, but highly enjoyable, Masters of Horror entry Cigarette Burns). In this regard, ITMOM is certainly not to the same league as something like Synechdoche, New York, but they're playing the same game.
A thought-provoking and immensely re-watchable (not to mention quotable) film, I think that for me, ITMOM is, if not my favourite Carpenter film, his most accomplished and prescient work. It marries the visceral impact of The Thing and the arcane sci-religion of Prince of Darkness and emerges as a powerful and whole work. I only watched it a week ago, and something has me wanting to pop it in again right now, if only to remind myself, as one character in the film wearily and portentously utters seconds before eating the barrels of a shotgun, "reality is not what it used to be".