After The Thing and Prince of Darkness, this is the third and final part of John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. It’s a film that plays with the very notion of reality, how fictional characters perceive themselves within a narrative and issues of creation itself. It’s a natural next step after Prince of Darkness, playing with many of the same themes.
The film starts with a narrative device that will be familiar to readers of H.P. Lovecraft, as Dr. Wrenn (David Warner, The Omen, From Beyond the Grave) visits a patient in a psychiatric hospital who has written all over the walls and himself, covering them with crosses.
John Trent (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) is an insurance investigator who can smell out a co like no one else. We’re shown an example in the beginning, as he breaks down a scam being perpetrated by a business owner (Carpenter regular Peter Jason). Later, he meets with the owner of an insurance company (Bernie Casey, Gargoyles) who gives him a new case: investigating a claim made by Arcane Publishing that their biggest selling author, Sutter Cane, has disappeared.
Just then, a man attacks them with an axe. He stops to ask Trent, “Do you read Sutter Cane?” The police shoot him and later, we learn that this man was Cane’s agent, who was so influenced by reading his latest manuscript that he killed his entire family.
Trent meets Arcand Publishing owner Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston!) who asks him to look into the disappearance with the help of Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen, Fright Night Part 2). As he begins to read Cane’s books, Trent learns that his readers have been known to suffer from disorientation, memory loss and paranoia first-hand.
He’s also convinced that this disappearance is a publicity stunt. Yet he spends plenty of time tearing apart Cane’s book covers, which form the state of New Hampshire and mark Hobbs End, the location for many of Cane’s stories — which is quite like Castle Rock in Stephen King’s tales.
As they travel to the fictional town, Linda begins to see things and they both lose track of day and night. Once in the town, the people and landmarks are exactly as they appeared in the written word. Trent believes this is still a publicity stunt. Linda comes clean and says that the disappearance started as a stunt, but no one can find Cane. Everything happened from now on is real, she claims.
For example, inside their hotel room, Trent claims there should be a black church out the window. The only problem is that he didn’t read the books closely enough. While the first window he opens reveals nothing, that evil cathedral is revealed when he opens the window that faces the east.
As they travel to the church, an army of black dogs emerges to defend Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow, Dune, The Keep) who sits inside. Linda confronts him, but simply being exposed to his final novel, In the Mouth of Madness, drives her insane.
The fabric of reality has begun to tear asunder. A man (former pro wrestler Wilhelm von Homburg who played Viggo in Ghostbusters 2 who led an insane and demented life) tells Trent that Cane has his son and he can no longer save him. His own daughter attacked him and he could do nothing to stop her. He wishes that he could tell him more, but this is how Cane wrote him. With that sentence hanging in the ether, the man blows his brains out with a shotgun.
The townspeople have become monsters and the story beats of each of Cane’s tales have started to come true. Trent tries to drive away but keeps coming back to the center of town. He takes Linda with him, but she transforms into a monster. Finally, he crashes his car and wakes up inside the church. Cane explains to him that his stories ended up being true, an almost Bible for a new and more horrible world. As more of his readers began to believe in his stories, they raised a race of Ancient Ones from the before times. Again, this is well-trod ground for anyone that has read Lovecraft but not something that makes it to the screen that often.
Cane explains that Trent is just one of his characters and his role is to help end humanity by delivering his final story to Arcane. He then tears his face open, sending Trent to the dimension of the monsters from beyond time and space. As he runs down a long tunnel to come back to the real world, he begs Linda to come with him. She says that since she has read the whole book, she can’t.
Once Trent makes it back, he destroys the story. But once he visits Arcane, he learns that Linda never existed and the final book has already been published. In fact, they are almost done making a movie. Trent is then arrested after attacking readers of the book with an axe.
We come back to the asylum, where Dr. Wrenn laughs off the story and walks away to leave, only to have the attendant, Saperstein (John Glover, Gremlins 2) ask him, “Do you read Sutter Cane?”
Trent barely sleeps the night, convinced that people are fighting and dying outside the walls of his cell. He awakens to find the hospital and most of the city abandoned, with only the pages of Sutter Cane books left behind. A radio announces that mass murder and suicides are happening in every major city, with some people mutating into monsters.
Finally, he wanders into a theater where In the Mouth of Madness is playing. As he watches the entire movie replay, he begins to laugh hysterically before crying. He is just another character in another story, never real in the first place.
Between characters named Pickman and the closeness of Cane’s titles to Lovecraft’s (Sutter Cane’s novels have similar titles to H.P. Lovecraft stories: The Whisperer of the Dark is The Whisperer in Darkness, The Thing in the Basement is The Thing on the Doorstep and The Haunter Out of Time is almost The Haunter of the Dark or The Shadow Out of Time), this is probably the closest we’ll get to a major budget Lovecraft film that isn’t Re-Animator. All of the words read from Cane’s books are also from Lovecraft, including parts of The Rats in the Walls and The Haunter of the Dark.
Beyond that, even the town’s name — Hobb’s End — is a reference to a work that is close to the heart of Carpenter. It’s the train station where the spaceship is found in Quatermass and the Pit. And the inscription on the church, “Let these doors be sealed by our Lord God and let any who dare enter this unholy site be damned forever,” are similar to the words “Terribilis est locus iste” at France’s Rennes Le Château. In English, that should read “This place is terrible.”
Even more interesting, if you pause and read the movie poster for the movie within the movie, you’ll learn that other than the three main characters, all of the actual people who worked on the movie are listed. So is the movie real? Was Cane ever real? Was Trent just a made up character? Are we real? Is reality just an illusion?