It’s funny what you learn when you do research for other things.
In the process of putting together last weeks article Lovecraft, Films and TV I looked a little into John Carpenter’s The Thing, a classic mixture of body-horror, paranoia and cosmic horror. The concept of an immensely powerful creature descending from the stars with the power to devour us all has some rather eldritch horror elements, and while the origins for this story are more strongly tied to John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” there’s no denying the impact of the Lovecraft contemporaries from a few years prior.
Did you know it was part of a trilogy?
John Carpenter’s Apocalypse is as much a trilogy as Pegg, Frost and Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto. There are three seemingly unrelated plots, themes, casts of characters, and so far as the science fiction elements apply they could easily occupy three different universes for all that connects them, except that John Carpenter groups them together. Why? And why do we hardly know about the other two…
The Thing (1982)
I shan’t overdo this one as it’s the most famous of the lot and spawned a rather good prequel that was good enough, nothing incredible but definitely worth a watch. An arctic base, isolated, barely equipped to fight off a polar bear, let along the shapeshifting devourer that infiltrates them and their people, killing them off one at a time. In the end (spoilers… but, c’mon, 1982) the last survivors sit and watch each other until they freeze to death to make sure that the creature does not make it to more densely populated areas.
While the origins of this film are hardly shrouded in mystery there are a handful of ties to Lovecraft, and some groundwork laid for the concept of the Apocalypse. The alien lifeform being present at a frozen pole is strongly reminiscent of the city of the shoggoths in The Mountains of Madness, and the Thing’s appearance eludes to shoggoths themselves, many eyed, every changing and slithering. Theft of identity, vast alien presences, shapeless terror, all of these things are quite Cthulhoid, but without that background it stands on its own as a good, grisly horror with some rather world-ending implications.
Prince of Darkness (1987)
Here is where the love for the trilogy ends rather abruptly, and it’s a shame because somewhere in here there’s a good film. A mixture of religion and science that takes an interesting approach, it literally reduces the war between good and evil to that of matter and anti-matter, and gives us the notion of the Devil as a substance… a literal jar of evil which must somehow be prevented from breaking free if it’s confines and consuming the world. The weak of mind fall prey first, creepy crawlies, birds and the clinically insane. When scientists and theologians go to investigate, they arrive in time to fall prey to the Devil jar.
Prince of Darkness struggles to balance elements. The faith and science balance, the zombification of the scientists, the glimpses of the future, and finally the sudden involvement of mirrors towards the film’s conclusion. These failings have a common element, the writing of Martin Quartermass whom you might know better as… (drum roll) John Carpenter!
Characters are dull, dialogue a little flimsy, and while the themes are well grouped, they’re badly assembled. All of the hallmarks of a good horror film are there, but the gross-outs don’t work as well as the body-shocks of the Thing. Finding the mysterious in the depths of science is something the Lovecraftians have touched upon, such as in The Colour Out Of Space or Herbert West: Reanimator, the theme of world ending horrors just on the brink of reality keeps the theme of the trilogy, as does that of removal of self. The zombies, the cloning power of the Thing, and finally…
In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
Sam Neill is few people’s favourite actor, but he’s credible enough to play the roll of an insurance claims adjustor searching for vanished horror author Sutter Cane (a rather shameless pastiche of Stephen King) who’s rabid fans are crying out for his final book. In his pursuit of Cane (spoilers, but…) Neill finds a fictional village by following clues that seem placed for anyone to discover, although the village does not technically exist, and the people therein are odd in various extremes.
Here’s the one I would love to see remade, because while it’s not bad in itself it could be so much more. It hits on every theme that I touched upon last week but rather rushes through them, and modern special effects and film techniques would serve it well, I’d even have Sam Neill back if he was interested. While it follows none of the actual stories from the Lovecraft team it’s a near-perfect homage and a testament to Carpenter’s fandom, right from the opening scenes as our main character is dragged into an asylum to retell his side of events.
As for the apocalyptic themes and loss of self: Cane’s writings as it transpires are not his as such, but he is being used as a tool, as if he were a pen, and reality the page. It puts many characters at the complete control of this incredible intellect that seek to enter our world, and makes leaves them bereft of any hint of free will, right up until the very end, which for me was the best scene in the whole trilogy.
This is not a trilogy you need to watch all at once, in order, or even completely, I’d even advise skipping Prince of Darkness, although it’s not beyond watchable, and if you’re really keen on film then it’s worthy of study. Either way, a little digging and suddenly I am a fan of John Carpenter, and I can very clearly envision a new film marathon starting.