Halloween Review – In The Mouth of Madness: Carpenter + Lovecraft = Amazing

John Carpenter brings us this story that manages to capture the madness and existential terror of H.P. Lovecraft.


John Trent (Sam Neill) recounts his story to his doctor, Dr. Wrenn (David Warner). Trent was an insurance investigator who was asked to look into a claim by a publisher called Arcane Publishing. When he was first given the request, he was attacked by a man wielding an axe asking if he reads “Sutter Cane.” He discovers that the insurance claim is regarding the disappearance of horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen “Das Boot” Prochnow), and that the axe-wielding man was Cane’s agent, who went mad from reading Cane’s work. Arcane Publishing’s director, Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), assigns Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), to help Trent find the missing author. Trent manages to piece together the covers to all of Cane’s books into a map to a location from Cane’s book called Hobb’s End. Styles and Trent head off to find it.

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If I ever get published, I’m hiding maps in the covers. Maps to various Shoney’s restaurants.

The two experience some disorienting phenomena on the drive, only to end up suddenly appearing in Hobb’s End. They wander around the town, finding characters and places from Cane’s novels, which Trent claims are part of a publicity stunt. Styles disagrees, admitting that the initial insurance claim was a stunt, but that the town was not part of it. Styles heads inside the church of the town trying to find Cane, who shows her his last book, In the Mouth of Madness. She quickly goes mad for him, literally and figuratively. A mob of the people in the town start to attack Trent, and he attempts to drive away, only to find that any attempts to drive out of the town only lead back into the center of the village. He crashes his car and wakes up next to Styles in the church. In the church, Cane reveals the truth of his work to Trent: Trent is one of his characters, created to deliver the manuscript of In the Mouth of Madness. Once the book is read by enough people, it will open a connection to an extradimensional realm of monsters who will destroy the world. Cane then rips himself open, becoming a portal to the monster realm. Trent escapes through the portal, with Styles staying behind, ending up in reality. 

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I would read this book, right up until the madness overtook me.

Back at Arcane publishing, Trent reports that he destroyed the manuscript and lost Styles. Harglow tells him that there is no Linda Styles. Trent was sent alone, the manuscript was delivered, the book has been published already, and a movie adaptation is set to come out soon. Trent, going insane with the realization, kills a reader of Cane’s work, getting himself committed to an asylum. After he finishes relaying the story, Trent awakens to find the asylum abandoned and evidence that monsters have overrun the world. Trent goes to see the movie version of In The Mouth of Madness, which is the same film that we just watched. Trent starts to break down when he realizes that he is, in fact, fictional. 


This movie is part of John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy along with The Thing and Prince of Darkness. The three movies are about three different concepts of how the world could be destroyed, whether by aliens, by the devil, or, as here, by creatures beyond our reality.  Unfortunately, this film is the middle child of those three, with The Thing towering over it as a masterwork in horror and Prince of Darkness being mostly forgettable. In the Mouth of Madness is in-between, with a ton of great and memorable scenes and ideas unfortunately inter-cut with a decent amount of forgettable filler. Hell, I didn’t remember some of it until this re-watch and this is like the 10th time I’ve seen this movie. Still, the good parts so far outweigh the bad that I have to recommend this movie for literally anyone that enjoys horror.

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I’ll get around to doing all three of these eventually, I’m sure. 

This is one of the best adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft on film and it’s not even a real adaptation. It’s hard to say that this isn’t a film absolutely dripping with love for his work, though. Sutter Cane’s books are all references to Lovecraft, including “The Hobb’s End Horror,” a clear nod to “The Dunwich Horror,” and the film’s titular book being derived from At The Mountains of Madness, one of the most central and broad works by Lovecraft. By playing up the themes of Lovecraftian horror without actually using the author, the film manages to use some of the best parts of it while also avoiding some of the more controversial aspects of Lovecraft’s work.

The racism. I’m talking about the racism. 

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Though, it wasn’t like he was the most racist person in the 1920s. 

The central themes of Lovecraftian horror, or cosmic horror, mostly revolve around the idea that humanity is so insignificant that all of existence is pointless or hopeless. Typically this is because of the revelation that the thing we call reality is only a small piece of it, and that we are surrounded by beings that are so much greater than us that their very presence means that all of humanity is rendered but a speck in the eye of the universe. When confronted by this revelation, characters in cosmic horror usually respond in one of two ways: madness or misanthropy. Either you go insane because the human mind isn’t capable of understanding things that exist in dimensions beyond our reality or you decide that the fact that these creatures are out there means that humanity needs to be destroyed by them. This movie has both of those reactions. 

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I mean, wearing a cross-drawn asylum outfit with popcorn helps sell the insanity.

However, it adds in a layer that the main character’s existence, and eventually the existence of everyone in the movie, is rendered even more pointless than the Lovecraftian cosmic horror because they become aware that they are only characters in the movie that we’re watching. While the citizenry of Hobb’s end are fictional beings in a fictional setting, by having Trent enter into the “real” world and then witness the film that we’re watching, he becomes a self-aware character who is now aware that the story is ending. When the credits roll, he stops existing. Given the state of him at the time, perhaps this is a mercy. Much like in plays by Tom Stoppard, Luigi Pirandello, or Samuel Beckett, the existence of the self-aware character questions whether or not they have an existence beyond just the show itself, but here we have a character who was created as a fictional entity within the work of yet another character, who was given life in a higher-realm (the film) only for the purpose of bringing about its end. If this is confusing, that’s kind of the point. If you were in this film and facing what Trent is, you wouldn’t just be confused, you’d be standing on ground that doesn’t really exist. Your mind would shatter, like his does. 

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I mean, he takes it in some stride.

When it came out, this movie was not a hit. In fact, it pretty well tanked, much like The Thing. While The Thing has since been recognized for the work of genius that it is, In the Mouth of Madness is begging to be reevaluated by a newer audience. This movie came out in 1994 and the only adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft we’d had so far were the Re-animator movies that don’t really address any of those themes (though those movies are awesome). This movie tried to convey a sense of the hopelessness and overwhelming insanity that would be felt by someone living in a Lovecraft story, and that’s just not what people expect from a cinematic narrative. I’m not saying this is a perfect film; it definitely lags in a lot of places and should probably be 20 minutes shorter (though a decent amount of filler IS a Lovecraft trait), but it’s essentially trying to get the audience to imagine something that’s inherently unimaginable, and that’s a hell of an ambition. 

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Although, you do get a little glimpse of some eldritch abominations.

Even at the time of release, though, people recognized the strength of Sam Neill’s performance and of Carpenter’s direction. The environment that the two create within the story is dripping with dread. Prochnow’s portrayal of Cane, while brief, is extremely memorable and powerful. The scenes of the impossible geography of the city of Hobb’s End still make me uneasy even now. 

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Also, just… damn, man. That subtle intensity. 

Overall, this is a great movie. It’s one of my favorite horror films, and if you’re a fan of the genre, you really need to take a shot at it yourself. 

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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Reader Bonus: Chain of Command (Star Trek: The Next Generation)

Alright, so, this was probably the easiest voter-bonus episode to write. I’ve watched this episode (both parts) a dozen times at least, because it is nothing short of a master stroke for Star Trek. It barely missed the cut-off for the actual list, and only because the episode that DID make it is amazing for exactly the same reason as this one, but to a greater extent: That Patrick Stewart is a global treasure.


I’m not going to revisit the premise of Star Trek in depth. There’s a ship. It goes into space on a journey. It’s staffed with the best and brightest that humanity and its associated planets have to offer. It’s called the Enterprise. This version, however, has the best captain (FIGHT ME), Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick F*CKING Stewart).

Please don’t look at me like that, Janeway

This first episode starts off with Picard losing command to be put on a covert mission to deal with the Cardassian threat. No, not the one with the sex tapes. They’re an alien race.

No, not the one with the sex tapes.


Picard is replaced by Captain Jellico (Ronny Cox), whose command style, by comparison, is… not as good. Picard goes with a small team on a mission to destroy a cache of biological weapons. They arrive on the target planet, but, finding no signs of weaponry, they suspect a trap and try to escape. Picard is captured and brought to Gul Madred (David Warner), who informs Picard that the entire mission was a setup to capture him in order to obtain secrets on the Federation. That’s the first episode, and it’s… well, only okay. But, it sets up the amazing second episode.

Jellico did actually get Troi into a uniform, though.

Madred spends the entire episode torturing Picard. Starvation, dehydration, humiliation, beating, shocking, forced nudity, degradation. The crew borrowed a list from Amnesty International when writing it, and put basically all of the ones that would be allowed on network television into the episode.

And Patrick Stewart sells it all.

It starts by Madred telling Picard that he has no name. Picard will only be called “human.” Then, Madred starts to try to break Picard’s will, and these are some of the most powerful scenes in the entire series. The most memorable exchanges involve Madred showing Picard four spotlights behind his desk. Madred asks Picard how many lights he sees. Picard says four. Madred tells him there are five, and when Picard disagrees, Madred uses a device implanted in Picard to cause him all varieties of simulated pain.

“How many lights do you see?”

Meanwhile, the crew of the Enterprise is told Picard is captured, but they are forced to disavow his actions, which means he’s not eligible for rights as a prisoner of war. These scenes mostly just serve to allow for time-skips on the Picard scenes.

Although, they do give Jellico some solid redemption.

Madred brings his daughter in to work, and he and Picard banter about the nature of raising children to believe that it is alright to value no other sentient life. Madred claims that the Cardassians used to have a rich spiritual society, and it led them to starve. Now, the Military rules, and everyone is fed (Update: Madred would have supported Thanos). Picard responds that Madred’s children will have full bellies, but empty spirits. He then mocks Madred by denying that there are any lights.

Does Picard have a “are you shitting me?” look? Your question is answered.

Picard is shown to start resisting by separating his mind and body, envisioning himself at his family’s home in France. As Madred tries to break him, Picard starts to turn the tables, pointing out that Madred knows torture is ineffective at getting information or control, so Madred is clearly just using it to punish people because he feels weak. Picard calls him pitiable. Madred proves him right by just shocking him again.

Picard turns the tables in the middle of a torture session. Most people would just cry.

Finally, the Enterprise is able to intercept a Cardassian ship and threaten to detonate a series of mines that would destroy them in order to force the Cardassians to release Picard.

Madred, having been told that Picard is going to be released, goes to confront a dehydrated, delirious Picard. Madred tells the captain that the Cardassians have conquered the planet that the Federation was defending and that the Enterprise was destroyed, and that they have no need for him anymore. Madred then offers to let Picard live a life of comfort in exchange for one thing: Telling Madred that he sees five lights. Picard, wavering, and uncertain, starts to speak, and then the guards come in and inform Picard that he’s being returned to the Enterprise.


In what is one of the most amazingly bad-ass moments in the history of television, Picard, a beaten, broken, shadow of a man, turns to his captor and tells him:


Couldn’t find an HD copy, but here’s the scene anyway. It’s also on Netflix.

It’s an amazing scene that would rouse the heart of even the most stoic or cynical of people. It is nothing short of a triumph of the human will against circumstances that should render a person into a shaking pile of incoherent wailing. Which is what makes it even more notable when, in the last scene of the episode, Picard talks to Counsellor Troi (Marina Sirtis), and admits to her that, during the last exchange, he did see five lights.

Picard has trouble even admitting to himself he was broken. But he still won. Amazing.


People who took High School English seriously probably have read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. One of the most iconic scenes in the book is when the protagonist, Winston Smith, is tortured by the Party’s propaganda agency, the Ministry of Love. The torturer, O’Brien, begins to try to force Winston to think in Newspeak, the Party’s language, by torturing him to the point that when he holds up four fingers, Winston will believe there are five.

‘How can I help it?’ [Winston] blubbered. ‘How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.’

‘Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.’

That is what Madred is doing here. While Madred is originally supposed to be getting specific information out of Picard, by the end, he has long forsaken that in the name of just breaking Picard’s mind. And, much like the end of the book, Madred does finally succeed, even if only for a moment. At the end of the book, Winston has learned that hope is gone, because the Party controls everything. Unlike Winston, Picard is saved by the momentary appearance of hope because he learns that the Cardassians don’t fully control him anymore. Hope is what a person can hold onto when everything else is lost, and it is anathema to being controlled.

The other central difference between Winston and Picard is that Winston never was able to challenge his torturer, because he never understood what the Party wanted to do to him or what their goals were. Picard, on the other hand, understands exactly what the Cardassians want and what Madred really is thinking at almost any given time. He is able to use that to turn the tables at certain points and regain a position of power.

Using Nineteen  Eighty-Four as a comparison here is particularly apt, because the Federation is the exact opposite of the Party. The Party, and apparently the Cardassian Empire, lives to oppress and control for the sake of control and oppression under the pretense of survival. The Federation exists to put every person within it into a state of self-actualization at any given time. Every person on Earth is cared for, and given the basics to allow them to self-determine for free for the sake of advancement. Pretty much the best possible view for the future contrasted with the worst.

But, mostly, this episode just has Patrick Stewart being awesome. If it wasn’t for the fact that the first half is slow and the intercuts with the regular crew weren’t so off-putting (seriously, it was a bad idea to put Patrick Stewart and David Warner in a scene together and not consider that it made everyone else look like worse actors by comparison), this would have made the list proper.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

The good half of the episode (the scene above starts at 45:15):