Dear Apocalypse Triology,
The apocalypse has to be one of the most – if not the most – explored topics in cinema, appearing in science fiction and horror films for decades. What is perhaps most interesting about the apocalypse is just how many versions tend to exist; be it the result of a viral outbreak, a nuclear cataclysm, an extra terrestrial invasion, or an interstellar collision, the end of the world is a rather popular subject for speculative fiction and never seems to happen quite the same way twice. What is most interesting about you, John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, is that your three films each contain their own scenarios for the end of the world while containing no recurring characters or plot points. You’re a conceptual trilogy, which in itself is quite a rare thing in film, but even rarer are the actual realizations for the apocalypse.
You first entry, The Thing was released in 1982 and still stands as one of the benchmarks for the sci-fi/horror genre. A remake of the 1951 film The Thing from Another World, both films were adaptations of the John W. Campbell story Who Goes There?, a tale of a group of scientists in the Antarctic encountering an interstellar visitor capable of imitating any life form perfectly. Your version was far more faithful to the source material as Carpenter and writer Bill Lancaster sought to capture the isolation and the paranoia of the plot, perfectly exemplified in Kurt Russell’s line midway through the film, “Trust is a hard thing to come by these days.” While the film was received with ambivalence from some and outright scorn from others, it was also a milestone for practical visual effects, courtesy of Rob Bottin (Legend, Robocop), which helped it stand the test of time. Less than two decades later, the film has been heralded a classic for its rather bleak visual and spiritual atmosphere. From the beginning of The Thing with the image of two men in a helicopter chasing and attempting to gun down a dog in the desolate tundra of Antarctica right onto the fiery ending as two characters unsure of each other’s humanity poised to eliminate each other and stating, “Let’s just see what happens,” there is a sense of absolute tension and fear that is absolutely palpable to the audience. It’s as much a personal apocalypse for the characters as each one is picked off either as a result of being taken over by the titular creature or because of distrust and paranoia, with A. Wilford Brimley going into a maddening and destructive rage as he cuts off the team’s modes of communication and transportation to prevent the intruder from infecting the rest of the world, famously screaming one of cinema’s most chilling lines, “That thing wanted to be us!”
Prince of Darkness, your second entry came five years later to much less acclaim. As can be inferred from the title as much as from the religious imagery that opens the film, with Carpenter favorite Donald Pleasence as a neurotic priest whose expression throughout never seems to deviate from a steely-eyed dread, this film dealt more with a spiritual apocalypse brought on by the coming of the Anti-God, preceded by the less powerful Anti-Christ. In several ways, Prince of Darkness is a much simpler story that draws on several tropes of the horror genres, primarily the haunted house scenario; or in this case, a church inhabited by the Anti-Christ, who appears as a green liquid in a strange container beneath the building that possess some characters to turn on each other. It was a modest film with a less than complex plot, despite several attempts to inject a scientific angle to what was at heart a supernatural good vs. evil story; one can imagine that this film with all of its talk on atomic theory, differential equations, and theoretical physics could have had the Ghostbusters present, albeit with a less comedic attitude. Not unlike The Thing, there is an appropriately high level of gory effects and blissfully violent character deaths, the standout perhaps being the body possessed by a swarm of insects warning the rest of the group to “pray for death.” As stated, this film dealt more with the spiritual and supernatural, offering a variation of Kurt Russell’s line from The Thing: “Faith is a hard thing to come by these days.” As well, the stakes are heightened with the recurrence of a dream – or rather, a tachyon transmission from the year “one-nine-nine-nine” – showing the coming of the Anti-God through the doors of the church, signifying the Prince of Darkness’ reign over Earth in the future should they fail to thwart his arrival.
Your final film in the series, In the Mouth of Madness almost acts as John Carpenter’s love letter to the horror genre. The story of an insurance investigator setting out to locate a missing horror author, Sam Neill portrays the main character with a smarmy and self confident skepticism that throughout the course of the story descends into insane despair. It’s another personal apocalypse, but this time exploring the breakdown of one’s self rather than one’s environment and the people in it, blurring the line between fiction and reality. Where the first two films dealt with the breakdown of trust and faith, this film varies the theme with the statement, “Reality is not what it used to be.” By its very title, it’s apparent that In the Mouth of Madness is a pastiche of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, with some clever nods to Stephen King (himself a Lovecraft devotee) thrown in. Not unlike a typical Lovecraftian tale like The Tomb or The Rats in the Walls, we begin at the end of the story, the main character deemed insane and recounting the events that led to his institutionalization. Other nods to Lovecraft are the New England setting (also attributable to King), the book titles of the missing author and even the film’s title bearing a similarity to At the Mountains of Madness (coincidentally, the novel that may have inspired Campbell’s Who Goes There?, the basis for your first film, The Thing), and even some character names such as Mrs. Pickman. The references to Lovecraft and King run rampant, making your final film almost a commentary on its own influences, and ending with the echoing cries of despair as Neill sits in an empty theater, watching the film-within-the-film, realizing that sanity and reason has left the world, the lines between reality and fiction merely words on the page of a book.
You, the Apocalypse Trilogy, are a harrowing set of films that portray the end of the world with a unique perspective. Rarely is the world at large presented in your films, instead focusing on the small and diverse cast of characters whose actions could determine the fate of mankind and the Earth, perhaps even the universe. The apocalypse is always presented and treated with the epic scope that is not always obvious in other films, but is given an even greater depth as each of your entries delves into the psychological aspects of such an event. First to go is trust (The Thing), next faith or the spirit (Prince of Darkness), and when stripped of these we fall into insanity (In the Mouth of Madness). While many stories attempt to explore this breakdown of our faculties within the range of a single story, by stretching it out across three movies, all of which are completely different treatments of the same subject, you offer a much wider understanding to what the end of the world truly means to humanity: When faced with the potential to lose everything, it is the loss of ourselves that we are truly fighting against. Your component films delve into these themes with varying degrees of success; most people will only experience you through The Thing and perhaps In the Mouth of Madness, but when taken as a whole series, you offer a truly grim and doomed outlook on the future of the world and the people in it.