Monday, October 1, 2007

Ghoul, Ghost, Killer or Fiend of the Day: SUTTER CANE

Killer novelist!

In 1995, John Carpenter released, within three months of each other, the last two interesting movies he has made. One of them, in retrospect, isn’t all that interesting. (That being the remake of Village of the Damned starring Christopher Reeve and Kirstie Alley.) But the other is a film that I pull out every year during Shocktober!, official horror movie season: the fun and ferocious In the Mouth of Madness.

The villain of the film, Sutter Cane, played by Jurgen Prochnow, was often compared to Stephen King by reviewers at the time of the film’s release, but his obvious model is H.P. Lovecraft. The squirming, slobbering beasts populating the underbelly of In the Mouth of Madness are torn directly from the pages of Lovecraft, as is the narrative framing device of the flashback from an insane asylum. (Wikipedia also tells us something I didn’t know: when characters in the film directly quote Cane’s books, they are often reading straight from actual Lovecraft stories.)

Cane doesn’t actually do much onscreen here, but he has a lilting German accent and a creepy grin—and his brain is the source of all of the evils plaguing not only the investigator sent to track him down (Sam Neill) but all the people of the town of Hobbs End. A town that really only exists in his books. And some of the townsfolk springing from Sutter Cane’s mind are pretty insane, my favorite being the old lady who keeps her husband chained, naked, to her ankle. Cane’s books are so gosh-darn powerful they drive people plum crazy--like the guy at the beginning with the axe who asks, "Do you read Sutter Cane?" before killing--and maybe even Sam Neill himself!

Okay, so I’m poking a little fun at In the Mouth of Madness while talking about how much I love it, but that’s the only way I know how to appreciate horror movies. For me, the enjoyment of horror movies is about fun shocks, interesting deaths, small transgressions.

A couple of great moments before I go:

1. A ghoulish little girl comes up to the editor accompanying Sam Neill on his trip into the fictional town to retrieve Cane and says, “You’re my mummy. And today is mummy’s day.”

2. This kid keeps riding by on his bike, a playing card in his spokes. Then he rides by and is now an old man with wispy white hair, like Einstein’s corpse riding a bike.

3. The ending. Sam Neill has been in an asylum, in the dark, for God knows how long. He walks outside. The world is deserted, some apocalypse seeming to have come while he was locked in the rubber room. He walks around for a while, then finds a theater playing In the Mouth of Madness. He goes in and is treated to a highlight reel of the film we have just watched—the life has been living. And he laughs and laughs.

And then the movie ends, and you get up and walk out, and the world is deserted, some apocalypse seeming to have come while you were in the dark of the movie theater.

(Everyday throughout Shocktober! a new Ghoul, Ghost, Killer of Fiend of the Day. Come back tomorrow for the profile on another sicko.)


Neil Sarver said...

This is a terrific movie. I struggled between this and Prince of Darkness as my choice for a John Carpenter movie on my list. Unlike in the case of Night of the Living Dead and Martin, it didn't tempt me away from my one movie per director rule, but it did force me to think a bit.

And while I think there are horror movies that are best viewed with a good degree of earnestness, I think this is one you're supposed to just have fun with.

Thom said...

"Einstein’s corpse riding a bike" -- I love that description. This flick is fun and scary enough for an annual viewing. One thing that sticks out in my memory of the movie is the recurring nightmare of the violent, ghoulish policeman.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...


What do you think the ratio of earnestness/tongue-in-cheek going on in Carpenter's work? HALLOWEEN, FOG, THING--all these are obviously to be taken seriously. But can ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK be lumped in safely with BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA? And what about later work like VALLAGE OF THE DAMNED, VAMPIRES, GHOSTS OF MARS? Are these to be viewed with a measure of irony, or does Carpenter just no longer have it in him to generate real power?


Of course! I forgot about the police-fiend. I'm reminded, too, of the father perpetually loading his shotgun and warning Sam Neill of greater evil to come.

Piper said...


Being a Carpenter fan, I have seen this movie several times. I am always excited to see it and never pleased after I do. To me the idea of it is better than the execution. But yet again, your review has made me want to see it again. We'll see how it goes.

Piper said...

Okay more thoughts.

Maybe I don't like this because it is so different from what Carpenter has done in the past. And yet, that's also why I like it. It doesn't fit neatly into a horror box because so many different things are going on.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

It is precisely this quality of not fitting neatly into any kind of box that attracts me to this film. I'm finding that a majority of the films that I'm interested in that have a horror element also have other things going on, whether it be comedy or visual beauty (or both like in DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE) or other genre miscegenation (NEAR DARK, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN...)

Terence Taylor said...

The film is on SciFi Channel right now, and I went looking to see if there were any t-shirts or mugs available after seeing them in the movie. It's one of those odd films that you don't quite know how to take the first time you see it, but enjoy more each time you see it afterwards. There are a lot of subtle little touches that get forgotten between viewings.

My favorite moment isn't the cop, but the slightly doubled irises of the mad agent near the beginning, as he bends over the hero to ask, "Do you read Sutter Cane?" before going at him with an axe -- the first intimation that what's about to happen is larger than life -- that, and the scene when the sweet little old lady behind the counter at the Bed and Breakfast is revealed to have her naked husband handcuffed to her ankle by the wrist behind the counter.

My only complaint is that by the end the world is destroyed, while I believe that the best use of dark myth is to bring us back into the light by the end, so we can deal better with our own real world horrors. But it does work well as a cautionary tale of what we could become if we don't watch out... ;)

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...


Thanks for your comments! You wrote: "It's one of those odd films that you don't quite know how to take the first time you see it, but enjoy more each time you see it afterwards."
And that's precisely why pull it out every Shocktober! and watch it again. In fact, it's about that time again this year...