The Themes of John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy

A special trilogy, comprising The Thing, Prince Of Darkness and In The Mouth Of Madness. We take a look...

This article originally ran on Den of Geek UK. It contains spoilers for The ThingPrince Of Darkness and In The Mouth Of Madness.

The interesting thing about thematic trilogies is that they can be linked by any number of things other than the straightforward story aspect of regular trilogies. They can be connected by recurring actors, as seen in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy, (Shaun Of The DeadHot Fuzz, and The World’s End) starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. They can be connected by a setting, like Roman Polanski’s apartment trilogy, (RepulsionRosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant) with their portraits of modern domestic horror.

But sometimes, they’re just linked by a piffling thing like the crushing inevitability of the end of all things, like John Carpenter’s apocalypse trilogy.

The Thing, Prince Of Darkness, and In The Mouth Of Madness were made several years apart from one another, with various other projects coming to the screen in between, but Carpenter considers them a set. He told the Wall Street Journal, “all three of those movies are, in one way or another, about the end of things, about the end of everything, the world we know, but in different ways. Each of those things is kind of an apocalyptic kind of movie, but a very different take on it.”

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Together, the three films form a complete picture of the gradual erosion of humanity, at least partially inspired by the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. In Lovecraft’s works, the universe is vast, uncaring and full of monsters, next to which human endeavor is woefully inconsequential. This bleak view of the cosmos is reflected in the experiences that Carpenter puts his characters through, but more importantly, the three distinct apocalypses in these movies all come out of human interference with powers larger than themselves.

More importantly, each of these films dissolves some crucial pillar of existence on the way to their respective denouements, starting with the most tangible – our sense of self.

Destruction of the individual- The Thing (1982)

“If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?”

In practical terms, snow isn’t especially festive and even when viewed at this most wonderful time of the year, Carpenter’s The Thingis especially un-Christmassy. In fact, the snow is just another obstacle to a group of Americans holed up an Antarctic research post, as they’re terrorised and assimilated by a shape-changing bastard from another world. “This thing” could be any one of them and if it gets back to civilisation, they estimate that the entire planet would be overtaken in just a matter of years, forcing them to try and flush out the invader or else perish in the snow.

With a great script and stunningly gruesome creature effects that still stand up today, The Thing is unquestionably the best known of this trilogy and certainly the one that stands alone from the rest. It’s a more faithful adaptation of John W. Campbell’s short story Who Goes There? (which was previously adapted by Howard Hawks for 1951’s The Thing From Another World) and here, the shape-shifting horror of it all is the start of an existential tract that covers all three of these movies.

Paranoia reigns in the research station as helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) reluctantly marshals the men in a bid to identify the alien among them, but in so doing, immediately draws suspicion from the others. Even as sleep deprived as he is before the mayhem goes down, we assume that Mac is the most switched-on of the group and the de facto hero of the story, but Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster leave no room for such comfortable assumptions.

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In fact, it’s the more erratic character, Childs, (Keith David) who gives voice to the real terror of this in the quote about being a perfect imitation – at various points, particularly when Palmer (David Clennon) is outed, it seems as the imitation is so perfect that they might not know they’ve been absorbed. It’s an endlessly intense watch, no matter how many times you see it, but more importantly, it completely destroys any concept of individuality that these characters have.

Even more unsettling is the complete lack of explanation of the thing’s motives. There’s no reasoning with it because it never talks, except when imitating somebody it has already absorbed. It’s an utterly ruthless animal that understandably leaves the men questioning their own identities, particularly at the absolute downer ending. At the suggestion of editor Todd C. Ramsay, Carpenter shot a slightly happier alternative ending in which Mac tests his blood and is shown to be definitively human, but wisely, this was never used and has yet to be released in any form.

As frosty as the intended ending is, the film didn’t receive any kind of warm reception upon its release. Critics weren’t up for nasty aliens after the many delights of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, which was released just a few weeks before Carpenter’s film, and were also turned off by the extremely violent content. Partly as a result of the shockingly vehement critical response, it bombed at the box office.

Poor timing aside, The Thing has since been rightly reassessed as a genre-defining monster movie and like all of these movies, it makes you think as well as making you jump out of your seat.

Destruction of God – Prince Of Darkness (1987)

“While order does exist in the universe, it is not at all what we had in mind.”

If you didn’t think this could possibly get less festive than The Thing, Prince Of Darkness, posits that God does not exist and Jesus Christ was actually a humanoid alien who came to Earth to warn us about the extra-dimensional force that we know as the Devil. It’s the end of the world, Jim, but not as we know it.

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This one begins when Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence, who was credited as Priest but named after his Halloween character) calls on a physics professor, Howard Birack (Victor Wong), to help him scientifically analyse a mysterious substance that has been discovered in the basement of an abandoned church, in order to expose a long running conspiracy upheld by the Catholic Church.

With help from some of his students, Birack investigates data that is seemingly being broadcast by the sentient green liquid and discovers evidence that the foundations of organised religion are based on the existence of an anti-matter universe – the liquid is Satan, the titular prince of darkness, and it’s angling to bring its father, an Anti-God figure, into the realm of matter by possessing various scientists inside the church.

After researching theoretical physics and atomic theory, Carpenter wrote this middle chapter himself under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass (after Nigel Kneale’s character) and it’s considered to be the weakest of the trilogy and indeed, one of the director’s weaker films overall.

However, the subtext under the more Argento-esque horror is very much in keeping with the themes of the trilogy, particularly with mankind constructing their own demise, first by denying it for so long, and then by exploring it. Both acts are forms of order that humanity has tried to impose upon the universe.

As in The Thing, escape from the contained setting is made physically impossible, even in downtown Los Angeles. This time it’s due to the rabid, murderous horde of possessed people that surround the church, led by Alice Cooper in a very jarring cameo role. Likewise, the theme of identity being destroyed comes up again whenever Satan overtakes a host inside the church- unlike the thing, the liquid doesn’t bother imitating whoever it touches, but instead completely eliminates their personality.

This makes for another very claustrophobic setting in which science and religion clash dramatically. In addition to quadratic equations in ancient texts, there’s a very disturbing dream sequence that recurs throughout the film and marks all of the most unsettling moments. Whenever a character goes to sleep, their subconscious becomes receptive to a video message from the future year “one nine nine nine” trying to avert the disaster that unfolds.

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As the old Douglas Adams gag goes, by God’s own logic, to prove that God exists is to prove that God does not exist. So it goes here – in proving that Satan exists as a substance, God is notable only by his absence, but the evil force clearly remains. Only with a noble sacrifice is the Anti-God is finally foiled, but the film ends with an overt hint that humanity is doomed to repeat its mistakes.

Prince Of Darkness is not as altogether effective as The Thing, especially in its downer ending, but its ponderous metaphysical horror draws from Lovecraft and scripture in equal measure, putting a wild and entertaining science fiction spin on Christian theology. It also provides a nice tee-up to what happens next, when all logical notions of God and identity have gone down the toilet…

Destruction of reality – In The Mouth Of Madness (1995)

“Reality’s not what it used to be.”

If you’d sooner view the other two films on their own, there’s no denying that In The Mouth Of Madness is a truly climactic film, whether as part of a trilogy or as a single story about the end of everything. It’s both the funniest and the darkest of the three, and even more so than The Thing, it’s a film that rewards multiple viewings with its dense meta-textual story.

At the beginning of the film, insurance fraud investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) is covering himself and the walls of his padded cell with crosses, so as to ward off some unseen evil. Dr. Wrenn (David Warner) comes to the asylum to examine him and is told the story of how Trent was dispatched to look for the missing fantasy horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow).

Cane is a composite of Lovecraft and Stephen King, combining the former’s literary sensibility with the latter’s popularity in a character who has amassed a cult-like following with his graphic pulp horror. His publisher (Charlton Heston) needs Trent to find the reclusive author, who has gone missing along with the manuscript for his latest and greatest book, In The Mouth Of Madness.

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Ever the cynic, Trent believes it’s a publicity stunt but finds himself drawn into a world of unspeakable horror when he tracks Cane down to the town of Hobb’s End in New Hampshire, the setting for many of the author’s stories. But as it turns out, Cane’s web of horror is far more than just a publishing sensation and it challenges every assumption that Trent has ever had about the difference between fiction and reality.

What truly makes the film worth re-watching is that it only seems like an ordinary horror mystery on first viewing. It’s well made, well acted and plenty intriguing, but there’s an underwritten role for Julie Carmen as Cane’s editor and a love interest for Trent and aside from some spooky doings, it’s not until a night-time drive down a dark road to Hobb’s End that the film really livens up.

As it turns out, Cane’s maniacal fans are being stirred up into a frenzy because the author isn’t just writing books. As unrealistic as his books may seem, he’s actually writing reality. As he explains, when his fans become unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, the otherworldly monsters of his stories are able to escape back into the universe through the disconnect. Trent has been manipulated into delivering the manuscript and the death blow to humanity all at once, and he barely escapes in order to get himself committed, or so he thinks.

Near the end of the movie, Dr. Wrenn asks Trent, “What if you don’t read?” “They’re making a movie” is the bitter reply. All contrivances aside, this is still a solid movie on first viewing. What makes it a masterpiece is the final twist, in which monsters overrun the Earth and mass suicides and murders follow, leaving Trent free to escape his cell. In the deserted city, he happens across a cinema bearing a poster for… the movie we’ve just watched.

After you see that ending, when a hysterical Trent fully loses it as he watches a movie in which he insists that reality and fiction are distinct, it’s impossible to watch it in the same way again. It deliberately takes on the form of a pulp horror mystery because that’s the ending that a writer like Sutter Cane would create for existence, complete with a thinly sketched love interest and a skeptical hero who becomes captivated by terror.

Some consider it to be Carpenter’s last great movie to date, but wherever you stand on the director’s more recent work, this is a bold capper to the trilogy. Characters are gradually driven mad by the question of free will in The Thing and Prince Of Darkness, but as suggested by the title of this one, by the time we’ve sat down to watch it, the question is moot. In short, reality no longer exists.

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Conclusion – the destruction of free will

In all of these films, the essence of humanity is free will, with increasing significance placed in this concept over each film. Both The Thing and Prince Of Darknessdeal with bodysnatchers, via replacement and possession respectively, while In The Mouth Of Madness presents us with a reality which has already been bent to the will of one character.

In all three films, the characters are trapped in one location, which expands incrementally and then exponentially between each instalment. By the third film, the claustrophobic setting is basically Hobb’s End, but just as this is explicitly expanded to all of reality, so the other two films can be viewed as films in which it’s already too late for the characters to stave off Armageddon.

Viewed separately, the films of Carpenter’s apocalypse trilogy are tremendous. Viewed together, they’re a series of existential horror films that are almost relentlessly bleak, representing the dark philosophy within Lovecraft’s work without directly adapting any of it, (except for quoting excerpts from his stories to stand in for Cane’s prose) and also addressing more contemporary concerns about the disparity between mankind’s technological and personal growth.

Any trilogy in which The Thing is the most fun to watch is going to be seriously grim at times, but it’s also masterfully crafted and endlessly thought-provoking.