John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors for a number of reasons, not least of which is his soundtracks. Carpenter films SOUND the same, and you almost feel like they all exist in the same universe some how. But one of the main reasons I like him is that he’s a fan of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos. He’s also the only director to get a film that is, in many ways, a version of “At the Mountains of Madness” off the ground.
It’s that film and two others that I’d like to talk about, the three films that make up Carpenter’s unofficial “Apocalypse Trilogy”.
The first film is The Thing. Released in 1982, The Thing is actually a remake of an earlier film, The Thing From Another World (1951). The movie is based on a short story, Who Goes There, by John W. Campbell Jr., written in 1938 and published in Astounding Science-Fiction. The story is about a remote base in Antarctica and a shapeshifting alien that can absorb and take over a life form. It’s a great mix of both science fiction and horror. The reason it’s part of an “apocalypse” is that during the film, Blair, the team biologist (played by DIABEETUS…er…Wilford Brimley) calculates the time it would take for the alien to take over all human life on Earth if it escapes – it’s just about three years.
The primary protagonist of the film is MacReady (Kurt Russell), who is a rough edged chopper pilot. By the end of the film, we can’t be sure if MacReady is actually human or not, nor if Childs, the only other survivor, might not be the alien. Either way, there’s no escape. Both are doomed, though one might simply go into hibernation again, to be found by a rescue crew. It’s this undefined, unknown consequence that really defines these three films. None of them end on a happy note.
The second film in the trilogy, which are not connected storywise, is 1987’s Prince of Darkness. This film also mixes science fiction with horror, this time presenting a secret that the Catholic church has kept hidden for millennia. Essentially, the Devil is a self-organizing abstract equation kept in a special glass container. A team of students from a local university are brought in to study the device after its caretaker dies and it begins to become active.
As the movie progresses, the evil in the container escapes, possessing several of the students. In the end, a sacrifice by the protagonist’s love interest stops Lucifer from bringing his father (the “anti-god”) into the world. The movie’s hero is played by Jameson Parker, mostly known for his work on Simon and Simon. He’s really not a good fit for this role, but that’s ok because the movie also features the late Victor Wong (Egg Chen in Big Trouble in Little China) and Dennis Dun (also from Big Trouble in Little China), plus a cameo of Alice Cooper as a crazed homeless man under the devil’s influence. The movie ends with a suitably creepy scene that makes you wonder if they really stopped the anti-god or not.
The final film is 1995’s In The Mouth of Madness, Carpenter’s love note to the Cthulhu Mythos by way of Stephen King. The story is about an insurance adjustor who investigates the appearance of the world’s most popular author, who happens to write Cthulhlian stories that are so popular, people actually start to become part of them. He is revealed to be in a small town that exists only in his books, and the insurance agent, played perfectly by Sam Neill, becomes the unwitting prophet that delivers the final book, the book that will drive the world into madness, to the publisher.
The movie plays with the concept of shared reality, and how much of our perception of the world is based on the rules we all agree to. Madness is more abstract here, with Neill’s character slowly slipping into insanity as the rules of reality seem to crumble around him. Carpenter has said the movie is more Stephen King that Lovecraft, but there are parts lifted directly from The Haunter of the Dark, and the Old Ones are clearly Lovecraftian. This film is probably the most successful mythos film, while not being directly connected to the mythos.
The three films together form the “apocalypse trilogy” because in the end, in all three, the world may be doomed, though only in the third, In The Mouth of Madness, is the world specifically threatened. These three films, viewed together, are very bleak. They’re a perfect rainy Sunday companion if you want to get your horror geek on.