Scariest Scene in John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness kicked off the second act with a memorable introductory scene to the insanity ahead.)

The cosmic terror that permeates throughout H.P. Lovecraft’s work tends to make for a tricky task when it comes to cinematic adaptations. Vast, shapeless creatures from beyond that are too horrible and strange for the human mind to comprehend, let alone describe, was the favored style of Lovecraft’s horror. That means it’s up to the reader’s imagination to fill in those blanks, which conflicts with the visual art form of film. Thus far, it seems the best approach to creating the distinct brand of Lovecraftian horror for the big screen is with an original story inspired by the author’s works.

John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, penned by Michael De Luca, wove in various references to Lovecraft stories but created an original plot that perfectly captured the unsettling, indescribable cosmic horror that shatters the minds of those who encounter it. In the Mouth of Madness announces the surrealism ahead in its opening moments. Still, it’s the simple, memorable scene that kicks off the second that chills with an unnerving declaration that Carpenter fully grasps the mind-breaking nature of Lovecraftian horror. From this moment on, reality ceases to be what it used to be.

The Setup

Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) is the world’s most renowned and prolific horror author; his work outsells even Stephen King. Just as he’s due to turn over his latest and final manuscript to his New York-based publisher, Arcane Publishing, Cane disappears without a trace. Publishing director Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) hires freelance insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) to track Cane and retrieve the manuscript. The further he gets into his investigation, though, the more he discovers that Cane’s work affects his fans in increasingly disturbing ways.

The Story So Far

Before meeting with Arcane Publishing, Trent is attacked at a diner by an ax-wielding maniac who’s shot dead by police. The man was Cane’s literary agent, driven mad after reading his work. Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), reports that Cane’s novels have been known to cause disorientation, paranoia, and memory loss among his less-stable fanbase. Though skeptical, Trent then notices all of the novel covers harbor a hidden red shape in the background. When cut out and rearranged, they reveal the state of New Hampshire, with a specific map point for Hobb’s End, the fictional town that serves as the setting for most of the novels. Harglow assigns Styles to accompany Trent as he embarks on a road trip to investigate. Trent’s become flippant in his certainty this is an elaborate publicity stunt by the publishing team, but Styles grows increasingly perplexed. 

The Scene

Styles and Trent spend all night driving from New York to New Hampshire, with time of the essence. It’s late; Styles looks exhausted as she drives while Trent is fast asleep in the passenger seat. She listens to the radio hosts relay news of a paranoid epidemic, as disconcerting music kicks in; the car’s headlights reveal a boy riding his bike in the middle of the road. In the pitch-black night. The boy looks at her as she drives by, the clacking sounds of playing cards in his bike’s spokes distinct and overwhelming. She looks at her rearview mirror and watches the boy, now washed in red from the car’s tail lights, fade into the darkness. 

Not much farther up the road, she drives past a geriatric man on a bike. Now, the rider heads in the opposite direction. The details of the bike and its owner instill deja vu nonetheless. When she puts on her glasses and checks the map, she veers into the middle of the road and right into the man, inexplicably peddling from an impossible direction. Styles and Trent stop the car and run to check on their hit and run victim. The man, sprawling on the side of the road, speaks with the voice of the young boy. “I can’t get out. He won’t let me out.” He ominously gets back up without injury and peddles off into the night once more. Styles, understandably, is shaken. 

Carpenter creates an uneasy feeling of ambiguity in this psychologically disturbing scene meant to knock the viewer as off-kilter as it does poor Styles. The late hour and the limited scope of vision make for a very sleepy driver, so it’s not immediately clear whether her eyes are playing tricks on her out of sleep deprivation or whether there’s something supernatural about the mysterious bike rider. The distorted sense of time and reality of this moment gives a strong indication that she’s experiencing a nightmare, having fallen asleep at the wheel. The time loop of the biker’s peddling, the age fluctuations, and the inescapable feeling that comes with each appearance all indicate dream logic is at play. The tension is heightened dramatically by the cacophony of sounds from the radio, the spoke cards, and the eerie score. 

It’s the third encounter, in which the biker reveals himself to be an physical presence with the car collision, that violently shatters any comfort that Styles was caught in a dream. His two short lines that hint he’s a mere pawn to the machinations of Cane bring an ominous warning that she and Trent might be fast en route to becoming pawns themselves. 

That Carpenter frames this scene in almost complete darkness, save for the light of the car, serves two purposes. It infuses this pivotal scene with palpable atmosphere, but more importantly, it’s symbolizing that our protagonists delving into the black abyss. It’s the point of no return, but only Styles is awake and aware enough to grasp the significance. The night drive scene works visually like a pitch-black tunnel that connects the world as we know it to the Lovecraftian hellscape of Cane’s mind. The bike rider is either a warning or a harbinger of doom, but the narrative doesn’t waste much time determining which. Technically simple, but so very effective in its crafting, Carpenter nailed the indescribable horrors of Lovecraft with this disorienting scene that ushered in the second act.

 

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