Cosmic Horror in John Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy"
By Orrin Grey
24 October 2011
Over the course of thirteen years, director John Carpenter created three seemingly unrelated films that form what he has dubbed his "Apocalypse Trilogy:" The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987), and In the Mouth of Madness (1995). Not merely separated by time, they're also disparate in style, subject matter, and quality. They were filmed under different production companies, with different casts, and from screenplays penned by different writers. At first glance, there's nothing to tie them together besides their director, and his designation of them as a trilogy. When you begin to scratch below the surface, though, you find that they are connected by strong thematic underpinnings that could easily be overlooked or underplayed in any one of them alone, but which come strongly to the fore when all three movies are viewed as a linked trilogy.
These thematic underpinnings are basically those of what's known as cosmic horror. Cosmic horror is mostly associated with H. P. Lovecraft, though his conception of it was in turn inspired by earlier writers like Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson, and can be summed up in a quote from his collected letters where he said, "Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large." In short, cosmic horror is less the horror of some specific bogeyman, and more the horror of a cold, uncaring universe, in which humans are of no importance. Carpenter has said many times that he is a fan of the works of Lovecraft, and two years before he made the first movie in his "Apocalypse Trilogy" he was already working references to Lovecraft into some of the names in his classic ghost film The Fog. While Carpenter wouldn't go on to make an overtly Lovecraftian picture until In the Mouth of Madness, cosmic horror and Lovecraftian traits form the thematic backbone of all three movies in the "Apocalypse Trilogy," along with threats that are apocalyptic both to human life and to the basic human sense of self.
The Thing (1982)
In the present day, The Thing is widely regarded as one of John Carpenter's greatest masterpieces, and I would personally consider it a contender for the title of the best horror film ever made. It didn't always receive such a rosy reception, though. It was released in theatres just weeks after Steven Spielberg's much more blockbuster-friendly E.T., and its theatrical performance and initial critical reception weren't anything to write home about.
Perhaps because it's the first film in the "Apocalypse Trilogy," the themes that tie the three movies together are the most subtle in The Thing. The story concerns an alien creature found frozen in Antarctic ice that can absorb, digest, and then imitate perfectly any creature that it comes into contact with. What follows from its discovery is a classic meditation on paranoia, punctuated by some of the best practical special effects ever put on film. The Thing is a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks film The Thing from Another World, which was itself based on a short story by John W. Campbell called "Who Goes There?" While there aren't any direct references to Lovecraft in The Thing, there are certainly no shortage of indirect ones, beginning with the Antarctic setting (a nod to Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness"). While the creature in The Thing isn't found in a cyclopean ruined city, it is discovered in an equally gigantic spaceship, frozen in ice that one of the characters hypothesizes must be "100,000 years old at least." And, in true Lovecraftian fashion, the implications of the creature's nature drives one of the protagonists (played by Wilford Brimley) insane.
Once it is revealed, the titular Thing is almost entirely unknowable. Not only is it alien in the most literal sense, but it's also outside of normally understood biology, genetically dissimilar from all life on earth. When discussing how the Thing can do what it does, or how it can live after being frozen for so long, one of the characters (played by Kurt Russell) says, "Cuz it's different than us, see. Cuz it's from outer space." And that's about all the more understanding of its reasoning the characters ever get. Though the creature can obviously speak perfectly when it is imitating one of the humans, it never explains itself, or attempts to reason once it's found out. In fact, once revealed to be a Thing, it never speaks at all. Like Lovecraft's ancient alien gods, its psychology appears to be as far outside of man's sphere as its biology is.
As the moniker might imply, all three movies in the "Apocalypse Trilogy" concern threats with apocalyptic consequences for the human race. The goal of the titular creature in The Thing, as near as the humans can guess, is to get out of Antarctica and into the civilized world, where it can find more hosts to consume and imitate. Early in the movie, Wilford Brimley's character runs a computer simulation of what would happen if the Thing were to succeed, a simulation that ends with the prediction that the entire world's population would be assimilated roughly 27,000 hours from first contact.
In all three movies, however, the threat to the world is less disconcerting than the threat posed to the individual concept of self. The Thing's negation of the individual self is perhaps the most obvious of any of the films in the trilogy. When the creature devours someone, it produces a perfect duplicate, complete with memories and behaviors. So perfect, in fact, that the only way to tell the difference is through a blood test. "If I was an imitation," one character asks another, "a perfect imitation, how would you tell if it was me?" That moment of realizing that everything about a person could be completely subsumed and replaced by an alien imposter and no one would know the difference is more chilling than all the gory carnage that the monster wreaks when it's discovered.
Prince of Darkness (1987)
While The Thing is widely considered one of John Carpenter's best films, Prince of Darkness is just as widely considered one of his lesser ones. It's also the only one of the three movies that was written by Carpenter himself under the pen name Martin Quatermass, a reference to the character created by Nigel Kneale, a British sci-fi writer whose work shows many Lovecraftian themes and was a big influence on Prince of Darkness. Prince of Darkness is the thematic lynchpin of the trilogy, providing more hints to the trilogy's themes than any other single movie taken on its own. The lengthy opening credit sequence shows a series of ominous but unobserved events—reminiscent of the opening sequence of The Fog—while a professor (played by Victor Wong) delivers a monologue to his class that pretty succinctly sums up the themes of the movie, and the trilogy, while also acting as a sort of quickie summary of cosmic horror itself. "From Job's friends insisting that the good are rewarded and the wicked punished, to the scientists of the 1930s proving to their horror the theorem that not everything can be proved, we've sought to impose order on the universe," he says. "But we've discovered something very surprising. While order does exist in the universe, it is not at all what we had in mind."
The story concerns the discovery of an ancient green liquid in the basement of a church, which was heretofore guarded by a secret sect of priests called the Brotherhood of Sleep. The last member of the sect has died and the secret has finally come to Father Loomis (played by Donald Pleasance), who brings it to the attention of the professor and some other scientists in the hopes that they can scientifically prove the nature of the substance and thereby warn mankind. The liquid proves to be a demonic force (characters sometimes call it Satan), "A substance, malevolence. Asleep, until now." It possesses insects, worms, homeless people (who stand in nicely for Lovecraft's degenerate cultists), and eventually the scientists themselves in order to bring across from another dimension its imprisoned father, the Anti-God, which all sounds very Lovecraftian once you strip off the Christian theology names. (There's a line in the diary of the last member of the Brotherhood that could have come straight out of Lovecraft: "The sleeper awakens. I have witnessed his stirrings.") Even Jesus gets in on the act, when an ancient tome found near the liquid reveals that Jesus was a member of an extraterrestrial race of human-like creatures who came to warn mankind against the devil-liquid.
Much more than even The Thing, Prince of Darkness conveys a Lovecraftian sense of slumbering malevolence, and a universe in which mankind is far from the center. While the events that would occur if the Anti-God were released from its dimensional prison are certainly world-endingly apocalyptic, once again it's really the implications for mankind's sense of self that are portrayed as the most terrifying. The devil-liquid is capable of possessing and effectively deleting the identities of those it comes into contact with, but it's mankind's cosmological selfhood as a whole that is in the greatest danger. Father Loomis talks about how the Church made a decision, "to characterize pure evil as a spiritual force, the darkness in the hearts of men," which would allow "man to remain in the center of things." The awful truth, however, is that there's a "universal mind" controlling everything on the subatomic level, the "Anti-God, bringing darkness instead of light."
In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
There are a lot of people who consider In the Mouth of Madness to be the best Lovecraftian movie ever made, which is ironic since it isn't actually an adaptation of any of Lovecraft's stories, though it's obviously heavily inspired by them. The story of In the Mouth of Madness concerns an insurance investigator named John Trent (played by Sam Neill), a skeptic and cynic, who is hired to locate a phenomenally popular horror author named Sutter Cane (think H. P. Lovecraft by way of Stephen King), who has gone missing before the completion of his latest novel. As Trent delves into the case and travels to the theoretically fictional town of Hobb's End—where Cane sets most of his books—he begins to question the nature of reality.
In the Mouth of Madness is certainly the most Lovecraftian movie in the "Apocalypse Trilogy." Lovecraft's prints are all over the film, from the title on down. Though it's inspired by his work in general, rather than any one particular story, almost everything in the movie is a nod back at Lovecraft in one way or another, from the titles of Sutter Cane's books to the names of places like the Pickman Hotel. Whenever a character reads aloud from one of Cane's books, the words are always adapted from Lovecraft's stories, including passages from "The Rats in the Walls" and "The Haunter of the Dark." The picture even opens, in classic Lovecraft fashion, with a lead character in a madhouse, insisting that he's not insane.
There are, of course, also Lovecraftian monsters, "older than mankind and wider than the known universe," waiting on the other side of reality to get in. "When people begin to lose their ability to distinguish fantasy from reality, the Old Ones begin to come back," Cane says near the end of the movie. "The more people who believe, the faster the journey." But the real cosmic horror in In the Mouth of Madness comes not from the monsters themselves, but from the flimsy and inconstant nature of reality. One of the characters sums it up neatly when she tells Trent, "Right now reality shares your point of view. What scares me about Cane's work is what might happen if reality shared his point of view."
When all three movies in the "Apocalypse Trilogy" are viewed in order, there's an undeniable progression of scope and scale in the threats of each film. While The Thing and Prince of Darkness threatened us with possible apocalypses, In the Mouth of Madness actually appears to deliver one. It begins, like in Prince of Darkness, with an early buildup. In this case, in the form of violent riots and epidemics that are transmitted to the characters (as well as the audience beyond the film's fourth wall) by television news broadcasts, etc. When someone describes the events of Cane's last book (not surprisingly titled In the Mouth of Madness) they describe "people turning into things. The end of everything." And that looks to be what the movie actually delivers, as it closes on views of a depopulated city, with a lone voice on the radio talking about a "worldwide epidemic of mass violence." Not only that, but the barriers between reality and fiction have obviously broken down (if they were ever really there at all) as Trent makes his way to an empty theatre to watch the movie version of In the Mouth of Madness which (again unsurprisingly) turns out to be the movie that we've just finished. It is perhaps the ultimate expression of cosmic horror, and the capstone of Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy." While The Thing threatened the annihilation of the human species, and Prince of Darkness posited an illogical universe in which god was malevolent, In the Mouth of Madness paints a picture of a world in which there is no objective reality at all. The creature from The Thing could replace you and mimic you perfectly, and the devil-liquid in Prince of Darkness could override your free will, but In the Mouth of Madness shows that you never really had any free will to begin with.