We’re in the middle of a bit of a John Carpenter renaissance at the moment, which can only be a good thing. Halloween was recently reissued in a gorgeous new Blu-ray transfer, while the past year has seen terrific special edition Blu-rays of films like Assault on Precinct 13, They Live, Christine, Prince of Darkness, The Fog, Dark Star and even his TV movie Body Bags. This month’s Blu-ray debut of Carpenter’s 1995 film, In the Mouth of Madness, is important because the picture is arguably the director’s last truly effective work and also because its release now means that Carpenter’s famed “Apocalypse Trilogy” is now complete for hi-def home viewing.

While my colleague Sean Axmaker recently wrote that the evil in Carpenter’s films comes from within, the three films in the trilogy – The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987) and In the Mouth of Madness – all deal explicitly with horrors from outside. These forces – from space, an anti-matter universe and another reality respectively – all herald the end of humanity and perhaps the world. With In the Mouth of Madness, Carpenter goes one step further, suggesting that the power of imagination itself, and the existence of genre, can foster conditions that pave the way for the primeval monstrosities dreamed up by writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King.

In the script for Madness (written by Michael De Luca), the writer Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) is sort of a combination of the two: his fictional visions deal with the return of ancient entities – the dominant theme in Lovecraft’s work – while his vast popularity dwarfs even the likes of King. But can the influence of one person’s imagination be so powerful that his readers lose touch with reality and get lost in the fiction? And does that in turn allow the fiction itself to become reality?

Lovecraft is channeled heavily in Madness – in fact, it’s one of the best Lovecraftian films ever committed to celluloid, even if the old Providence spook didn’t write it himself. But Lovecraft might have given both hands for even one-tenth of the success enjoyed by Cane, and one of the things that the film does so well is anticipate the levels of fan obsession incurred in recent years by franchises like Harry Potter and Twilight. Thankfully we have not seen Potter fans tearing each other to bloody shreds in bookstore lines (although bookstores would probably welcome even that business these days). But in an age where an actor turns down a role in a high-profile adaptation of a book because he does not want to deal with the level of fan hysteria surrounding it – as Charlie Hunnam recently did when he backed out of 50 Shades of Grey – something is off.

In The Mouth of Madness Sam Neill 2

There’s an anarchic spirit to Madness right from the beginning, starting with Carpenter and Jim Lee’s heavy metal opening theme. As insurance investigator John Trent (a perfect Sam Neill) is hired to track down Cane’s whereabouts – he has vanished before delivering his new book on deadline to his publisher, played by Charlton Heston – Trent begins experiencing a series of disorienting events, including a physical assault by Cane’s agent and a string of disturbing dreams. There’s a sense that reality is slipping even from the first scene, which finds Trent in an asylum recounting his story to a psychiatrist (David Warner). Already we don’t know what is truth and what is fiction, a blurring of the line made even murkier as Trent, accompanied by Cane’s editor (Julie Carmen), somehow travels to the formerly fictional town of Hobb’s End.

The town, as well as the two leads’ stay in it for the entire second act, plays like a compendium of every horror trope ever used, ending with Trent outrunning a gelatinous horde of beings that ooze out of Cane himself as he literally rips a hole in our reality out of his own body. By this point, it’s impossible to tell whether this is really happening, whether Trent is dreaming or whether – as Cane indicates – this is all part of the plot of the author’s final novel, with Trent literally being written into the story as an unwitting character whose job is to deliver the finished manuscript and set the end times in motion.

Both The Thing and Prince of Darkness ended on ambiguous notes, but at least they ended with their ostensible heroes somehow holding back their respective menaces, even if only temporarily. In the Mouth of Madness offers no such relief: as mass death and insanity sweep the globe, an exhausted and shattered Trent sits down in a movie theater and watches the very film we have just seen. It’s somehow disturbing that he’s got a big tub of popcorn with him, but in the end, that’s part of Carpenter and De Luca’s final joke: the apocalypse, like just about everything else, has been made into entertainment that you can sit and consume even as it sweeps you and everything else away.

There are so many intriguing layers to In the Mouth of Madness, and it attempts to comment so much on genre entertainment, obsession and even corporate greed – while also being a thoroughly creepy horror film in its own right – that perhaps it said everything that Carpenter wanted to say and left him drained in the process. His films since this one, to be honest, have lacked the bite and subtext of his best work, with the Masters of Horror episode “Cigarette Burns” being the one notable exception. But if you’re ready to rediscover the high points of this often masterful director’s filmography, make sure to include In the Mouth of Madness on your list and be prepared to wonder: where does the story end and reality begin?

In the Mouth of Madness is out now on Blu-ray.