Originally published on March 31, 2017.
Throughout the month of March, Audiences Everywhere will be sharing appreciation for film trilogies, including personal reflections from our writers on some of their favorites. Today, we’re discussing the thematic link between three of John Carpenter’s masterworks.
There’s a great big hole in the world. At its center resides the agent of our undoing. So we bury it. We build foundations over it, foundations built on the unknowable things we think we know. And while that agent of undoing may be covered, that hole is not filled. Relationships, religion, and entertainment form a holy trinity of forgetting, of distraction . . . that is until reality shifts and our holy man-made trinity is made unholy by a rediscovery of that thing thought buried, that thing in a hole, in the dark. This portrait of horror is as equally true about modern America as it is about John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, and perhaps that’s the point of those films’ existence. Yes, they are wildly entertaining genre films by the master of horror himself, but they are also warnings.
Within the frames of The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness respectively, the end of the world can be contributed to what we read, what we worship, and most alarmingly, in each other. For most of his career, John Carpenter has been a filmmaker ahead of his time, and his films have suffered both critically and financially because of that fact. But now his films, particularly those that form the Apocalypse Trilogy, could not be more pertinent in terms of helping us understand where we are and how we got there. In unearthing these films, in treating them not just as pieces of entertainment, but as sacred tomes, we have the opportunity to hear a final warning, to peer into the depths of the hole we’ve tried to fill, and stave off the apocalypse.
It begins with 1982’s The Thing and a hole in the ice. A reimagining of 1951’s The Thing From Another World, itself an adaptation of John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There, The Thing is the most well-known of the Apocalypse Trilogy, and arguably the best film of John Carpenter’s career. It’s a cold film, not just because of its Antarctic setting, but because of the way it looks at people and how people look at each other. The Thing holds up the microscope to humanity, examining what they are besides skin stretched over meat and bone, and what they become when isolated amongst strangers they cannot trust. While the titular thing, a chimera of horror brought to life by practical effects wizard Rob Bottin, breeds fear and paranoia through its ability to perfectly intimate other organisms, the seeds of mistrust are already planted amongst the human inhabitants of Outpost 31. Before the thing sheds its canine casing, and reveals itself as a creature unfastened to reality of physics or biology, Carpenter makes it known that Outpost 31 sits on something fragile.
If we look at how the men stationed at Outpost 31 interact with one another, it’s clear that there are no strong bonds between anyone. They wouldn’t all turn on each other so quickly if that wasn’t the case. Clark, the kennel master, is regarded with a lack of sincerity that borders on insult, Windows is taken fully for the fool he is with no expectation that he’s capable of anything beyond his simple job, and Blair, while seemingly well-intentioned, carries himself with an air of being intellectually superior than the men he’s stationed with, his knowledge of science giving him a notion of control that he later puts into action by destroying the radios and transports. Even as we see these characters interact with each other in the film’s early scenes, even as we watch them drink, and play pool, there’s a sense of isolation, a lack of a genuine bond that feels…well, cold. This chill factor stands out as strange for a group of people who have to rely on each other as their only source companionship for however many months they’re stationed Antarctica’s barren wasteland. There’s a lot of value placed on body language here, which makes The Thing’s eventual desecration of bodies all the more fitting to the film’s themes.
The most prominent, and ultimately indispensable tell of these men’s relationships is the tension that exists between alpha-males MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David). It isn’t long before the thing reveals itself that MacReady and Childs are at each other’s throats, heated over how best to handle the situation at hand. Their tension is in part what leads to sides being taken, this human in-fighting becoming the perfect distraction for the thing to plot its escape to the rest of the world and ensure our supposed doom. Welcome to a two-party system in the nothingness of the arctic. Because Child’s comes off as more aggressive in comparison to McReady’s cool and collected confidence, it’s hard not to see him as the agitator and MacReady as our hero. Indeed, MccReady is the closest approximation to an everyman in this scenario, but as the everyman, he’s bound to the human mistakes that chart a path towards our destruction. We think of MacReady as smart, capable, and a moral pillar, but he’s driven by a fear and frustration that always results in destruction. In the first scene we meet MacReady he’s playing chess against a computer. Unable to conquer the machine, he pours his drink into the console, destroying it in a burst of fire. It’s the kind of macho, take no shit attitude that we expect from 80s heroes, but within the confines of this movie, we see that MacReady never truly moves beyond seeing this action as the best solution. When outwitted, and seemingly outmatched, McReady’s impulse is to burn it all down before something worse can occur. MacReady is the man who’ll delay the apocalypse by way of Armageddon.
At face value, McReady’s actions to combat the thing come across as logical, but it’s really paranoia perfectly imitating logic—a problematic thing in itself. Every action MacReady takes comes back to his statement, “Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By spring, it could be all of us.” Take his execution of the uninfected Clark for example, or his forced isolation of Blair, who is later revealed to be a thing. However right these actions may seem in the moment, they’re built on the fact that MacReady doesn’t know the people beside him well enough to make any conclusion about their humanity, or to feel much concern about what he does to them, even if what he does is murder.
When we don’t know our neighbor any more than we know the enemy then everyone is the enemy, and everyone is expendable in the efforts to combat that unknowable threat. We’re currently seeing the real world consequences of this kind of thinking. The thing never becomes more than its namesake, a thing—an obtuse, ubiquitous foreign entity lacking in decipherable motives. The characters in the film, and the audience by default, infer that the thing is a sinister force of evil, but it’s worth noting that the thing doesn’t act until provoked. It hides until confronted with a threat. Maybe the thing isn’t a being that’s impossible to communicate with, but a being that humans are unwilling to communicate with, for fear of what it could do. Neither MacReady or the rest of the men at Outpost 31 have the means to communicate on the thing’s level, to play its game of chess and figure out its strategy and aim. The only seeming answer is to burn it all it down, and in the end we’re left staring at two men, unrevealed, untrusting, and unsure of the other’s humanity—a figurative and literal cold war birthed from the flames of combat. Sometimes though, things survive the flames.
From the flames came Prince of Darkness and a hole in the church. The second film in John Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy centers on a group of graduate research assistants and professors who try to discover the origins of an ancient cylinder buried underneath an L.A. church. While the 1987 film lacks the narrative tautness of The Thing, it offers an ambitious reworking of Christianity that blends science-fiction and supernatural fantasy together in way that once again exposes the horror of human fallibility. It’s a film that suggests that despite the influence and permeation of religion, it is people that corrupt it through their failure to understand their own history, and its cyclical and dual nature. As Professor Birack says in the film’s beginning, “say goodbye to classical reality, because our logic collapses on the subatomic level . . . into ghosts and shadows.” And so Carpenter says goodbye, but not before he tricks us into thinking there’s foundation of reality beneath the characters in the film, a foundation built on faith.
Unlike The Thing, the characters in Prince of Darkness do form strong bonds with one another. In the film’s opening moments, we see their friendships and budding relationships before the actual horror begins. If it wasn’t for Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s thrumming score, interspersed with ominous white on black credits, one could easily mistake the film’s opening for a college-set coming-of-age romance. The most prominent of these relationships is the romantic one between Catherine and Brian, who despite Catherine’s resistance towards commitment, are still very much bound together by human connection. This human connection plays a large part in making Prince of Darkness feel different from its predecessor, even if the set-up, consisting of a group of people confined to a location that contains a sinister presence, is similar. The initial group of graduate students are bound together by their tutelage under Professor Birack (Victor Wong). When this group, and the others from different schools of research are brought together by mysterious and surname lacking Priest (Donald Pleasence), they quickly move past the stage of being strangers. They form a community built around the rules of physics and mathematics. Their rules of scientific studies are their bonds, in the same way that a country’s rule of law forms a bond between citizens, in theory. They accept each other because they can all interact on a similar level, with a language of supposed facts that they have faith in. But of course, many of these so-called facts of science and math are only theories, and faith can be broken. When the rules of science begin to break down once the origins of cylinder in the church’s basement are revealed, these bonds between the characters begin to splinter under the strain put upon their reality.
History forms the basis of our lives, a rulebook of sorts, through which we can learn which actions to repeat or base our movements off of, and that which we should avoid. Religion, because of its historical basis, has become the easiest means for us to attempt to find a measure of goodness and truth within our rules, though as history has shown, the outcome has not always been in humanity’s favor. Even under nonbelief, agnosticism or atheism, there is an attempt to find goodness and truth, through a citation of science and the historical horrors unleashed by religious belief. Prince of Darkness positions that this is all wrong, that the Catholic Church lied to the world and continued to lie to in order to uphold a falsehood that would be more readily acceptable to the fragile human psyche. Not only is our history wrong, but also all of our religious beliefs, including nonbelief. The cylinder is revealed as a prison for Satan, and Satan is only a precursor to a worse evil, the son of a father deity known as the Anti-God. And on top of these earth-shattering revelations is also the fact that Jesus was a non-human alien sent to warn us about the coming of Satan. Displaying powers and thought to be crazy, Jesus was murdered.
This bit mythology that plays into the backstory of Prince of Darkness is particularly interesting when considered in context with The Thing. While the Apocalypse Trilogy is only a thematic one, and not tied together by an overarching story, the arrival of an alien that humans kill instead of learning from it and communicating with it, directly parallels the events that occur at Outpost 31. While we can’t say for a fact that the events of The Thing showcased a warning that went unexpressed, the murder of alien Jesus and his failed warning about Satan and the Anti-God can be taken as fact within the narrative of Prince of Darkness. As a result, religion becomes the characters’ damnation when truth doesn’t align with religious texts edited by a patriarchal establishment. We can see the ramifications of this in our current society as The Bible is cited an excuse to deny rights, persecute, and make rules that are based in power and control and not goodness and truth. We rear societies that are unprepared to have their realities, built upon religion, shifted. When evil does come, real evil, we’re left vulnerable, as evidenced by the film’s graduate students who almost all succumb to a darkness they cannot contend with, because they no longer have any historical or religious foundation to combat it.
Within Prince of Darkness, every force has a mirrored, dark reflection. The forces of good are met with equal, opposing force of evil. As the endlessly quotable Professor Birack says:
Suppose there is a universal mind controlling everything, a god willing the behavior of every subatomic particle. Well, every particle has an antiparticle, its mirror image, its negative side. Maybe this universal mind resides in the mirror image instead of in our universe as we wanted to believe. Maybe he’s anti-god, bringing darkness instead of light.
As Satan infects the students within the church, and the homeless people that surround the church’s exterior, it becomes a case of evil building its number of forces up in order to combat the forces of good that he is unable to corrupt. Both belief and nonbelief in deific forces leaves humanity exposed, corruptible by ignorance. While much of the latter half of the film plays out like any number of standard zombie movies or Demons, with the characters barricading themselves against the possessed, Carpenter does throw in an ambitious twist within the already ambitious backstory he’s created—a prophecy. The characters are plagued by dreams, later revealed to be warnings from 1999. Within the dream, we see a dark figure standing in the doorway of the church, the suggestion being that history will repeat itself. In the film’s climax, as the Anti-God reaches into the human world through a mirror, Catherine sacrifices herself, plunging both she and the Anti-God into the dark nothingness. The mirror as destroyed and evil is seemingly defeated…but that isn’t quite the case. In the film’s final moments Brian stands in front of a mirror, his finger outstretched towards it before the film cuts to black and ends. While the ending may seem ambiguous, we can surmise that Brian will attempt to bring Catherine back through a mirror, an act that will lead to the apocalyptic future that he and the others dreamed of. This act though may not be his own, and perhaps the will of the Anti-God acting with powers equal to that of God, as Professor Birack suggested earlier. The forces of the future are met with pushback from the forces of the past, a particle facing its anti-particle through the construct of time. In cracking or breaking of the mirror, the reflected image is released, so regardless of the morality behind Brian’s intentions or his free-will, a dark reflection of that will surely be unleashed.
The cracks in reality lead to madness and eventually total collapse. This forms the impetus behind In the Mouth of Madness and a hole in our map of charted regions. In the Mouth of Madness finds an insurance investigator on the hunt for a popular horror novelist whose disappeared before the release of his final book, a book that has had strange effects on those who read it. The final entry of Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, may be his most frightening. While the 1994 film doesn’t stick to the ribs in quite the same way as The Thing, it’s ambition matches, if not exceeds, Prince of Darkness, though its aim is less straightforward. When we look at Carpenter’s filmography, it’s not surprising that this is considered to be the last truly essential film from him. In the Mouth of Madness taps into the very basis of our love for horror stories, and the controversy that surrounds them. Riffing on Stephen King and more emphatically, H.P. Lovecraft, Carpenter explores the ramifications of ancient evil entities within a small New England town. Within this story, the things we read have a power over us, an ability to pull us in, and bind us to its narrative. Horror fiction stabs at the dark places of our mind, creating a blood swell of nightmares we try to keep at bay. In some ways, the film may seem like a condemnation of horror as a genre, but it’s really a condemnation of the people who fail to recognize the horrors paving the way to societal collapse.
In a number of ways, In the Mouth of Madness feels closer to the films of Clive Barker than Carpenter’s prior films. This film has an edge to it that’s a little sharper, a little more visceral than what we’d seen from him before. Part of this may be due to Carpenter’s transition into the ’90s, and the inspirations drawn from the emergence of new voices in horror, and, as evidenced by the film’s soundtrack, new voices in rock music. But interestingly enough, his lead character in this film is devoid of the action-hero, or booksmart romantic tropes that we see in many of the 90s films; Carpenter had already done those. For In the Mouth of Madness, he crafted a character that took us back to the days of Hitchcock or Wilder, a rational adult of conviction, integrity, and tough moral fiber, and put him out of balance with the modern world—a piece spinning counter-clockwise. Protagonist John Trent’s (Sam Neill) position as both a high-profile insurance investigator (are there such things?), and popular-fiction detractor, situates him as a bit of an anachronism. To place him in ’90s terms, he’s about as non-metal as a person could get. But there’s always a bit of madness in Sam Neill’s performances, and the seeds of Trent’s ultimate break from reality are planted in his eyes, which always seem to see too much, too early. But unlike the lead character’s in Carpenter’s previous two Apocalypse films, Trent isn’t our example of human fallibility, but our witness to it.
In the two prior entries of the Apocalypse Trilogy, there’s a clear separation between the exposition and action. Characters stand around in large groups and have theories and mythologies explained to them, and the action, spurred on by the horror element, exists in separate scenes. Within In the Mouth of Madness though, largely due to a significantly smaller cast, and a greater focus on an individual character who’s unburdened by ’80s expectations, Carpenter seems more comfortable allowing Trent to figure out what’s going on in the midst of the action, and allow for the audience to be puzzled for a more significant length of time. This gives the horror of In the Mouth of Madness an energy that feels significantly different to the previous films. We discover the secrets of Hobb’s End, New Hampshire alongside Trent, and we’re vulnerable to the same lack of information through exposition that he is, hence why this is Carpenter’s most frightening film. There are no doctors or professors to set the record straight, and not every startling image (there’s a crab walk that gives The Exorcist a run for its money) needs to be backed up by logic, only by its outcome. In this film, fear is an energy, and it doesn’t always stem from the fantastic.
Before Trent’s investigation into the missing horror writer Sutter Cane begins, we’re given a glimpse of the very real horrors of this world that are relegated to the background but are no-less important. As Trent says, “We fucked up the air, the water, we fucked up each other. Why don’t we just finish the job by flushing our brains down the toilet?” This is a toxic world Carpenter creates, one that, as the news reports in the background display, is plagued by riots and police brutality. Fiction, horror fiction in particular as Trent comes to understand, is an escape from the horrors of the real world . . . but only if we’re subscribing to a traditional notion of reality. As Trent ventures into Hobb’s End, a town that doesn’t exist on any map, a town from Sutter’s stories made real, it becomes clear that there is no separation between the horror that forms our entertainment and the horror that forms our world. These horrors feed off each other, and in this case, feed a race of elder gods, monstrosities looking to take back the Earth in true Lovecraftian fashion.
We know that fiction is inspired by reality, that it stems from real world fears with very possible chances. In this film, the line between the horror of the real world, and the horror of the world created by Sutter Cane is so thin that they merge and become altogether real. Trent has a horrific dream of a monstrous police officer brutally beating a man, and latter sees the same scenario play out in reality. Readers of Cane’s books are driven mad and commit heinous acts of violence, all the while the news shows footage of violent riots in the street. And in Hobb’s End, Trent encounters both the characters who existed in Cane’s fiction and real people who have been made characters within this grand horror story. In a bar, Trent encounters a sore-ridden man holding a shotgun to his mouth. When Trent urges him to stop, the man looks up at him and says, “I have to. He wrote me this way.” In a Mouth of Madness takes some of the questions raised about free-will and evil deities in Prince of Darkness, and doubles to down on them to display an entire town, and eventually world, that is victim the whims of a God-like writer, who again, is only a forbearer to a greater evil. Carpenter presents a vision of a world so mad, so devoid of compassion for man and the environment that it has become a horror story, one that fits right in with the populist fiction it inspired. By the film’s end, Trent is caught in a world where there is no separation between Cane’s fiction and the world he knew before, it’s all horrific, and all controlled by forces of fear.
What these three films of the Apocalypse Trilogy come down to is free-will, and their warnings are fixed in our belief or disbelief in it. The Thing, in its efforts to showcase that man, while perhaps being the warmest place to hide, is vulnerable to a coldness that allows us to easily make enemies and destroy each other. In the film’s ending, there is conclusively free-will, and man’s destruction or salvation is entirely dependent on that. Prince of Darkness takes a critical eye at humanity’s corruption of religion, the thing so many wars, disputes, and fears, are based on, and suggests that humanity doesn’t understand any of it. In this lack of understanding we are revealed as foolish and vulnerable, and our attempts to control the forces of a God we do not understand leave us exposed to unknowable evils. In this film, free-will is questioned, and regardless of heeding warnings or not, our intentions may have different results than we expect based on how much control we have. And finally, In the Mouth of Madness paints a twisted Rockwell portrait of a world spun so out of control and horrific in its lack of compassion or justice that it bridges the divide between reality and horror fiction. Free-will is definitively denied here, and it’s too late for warnings. There’s a bit of hope that’s lost in each installment of this trilogy, and while the impending apocalypse is left open ended in the first two, the last entry fully commits to displaying the end of the world. While there are supernatural elements that are always at play in these films, the true blame for the apocalypse comes down to us in each and every entry. In terms of human responsibility, these films fulfill McReady’s fear that “it could be all of us” who will bring about the apocalypse in the end. For our benefit, it is perhaps best to subscribe to the notion of free-will, that warnings can be heeded and that the future can be changed. By way of Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, there are three steps to stopping the apocalypse: To know our neighbor and seek communication. To know what we worship, and have the humility to understand that it has been altered by the hands of men with egos and aims. The third, perhaps the most difficult, is to understand how the things that make up our entertainment, reflect our real world, the fears of real people, may be fiction but sometimes that fiction inches closer to truth every day. There’s a great big hole in the world, and it’s nigh time we began to fill it, lest greater horrors emerge.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures/New Line Cinema