Despite being a John Carpenter devotee, I didn’t realise until fairly recently that three of his movies – The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995) form a group, dubbed the Apocalypse Trilogy by the director. On the surface, they are very different in subject matter and setting, and don’t have the kind of shared universes or characters typical of sequels and trilogies. The Thing shows the infiltration a team of researchers in the Antarctic by an an alien creature that can perfectly mimic living beings; Prince of Darkness the discovery of an artefact thought to be a source of pure evil; while In the Mouth of Madness explores the strange influence of a missing horror author and the surreal journey experienced by an insurance investigator who sets out to find him. Despite these differences, the three share very similar themes – what might bring about the end of the world and whether anything could be done to prevent catastrophe.
The films explore different scenarios that could bring about the end times, each threatening different aspects of humanity: the physical, spiritual and intellectual. In The Thing, it is the physical body that is under threat, as an alien that has lain dormant in Antarctic ice awakens and takes over the bodies of the research station crew. In some of the most memorable and bizarre body horror in cinema, the visceral results of the alien possession are shown – heads sprouting spider-like legs, and chests developing sharp-toothed jaws.
These monstrous transformations only occur when the Thing is attacked, and so the true danger comes from the uncanny ability of the creature to perfectly mimic the crew members – if no-one can tell who is actually a person, then humanity could be wiped out without anyone knowing until it is too late – an apocalypse by stealth. As the speed and accuracy with which the Thing can imitate others becomes clear, the characters realize they have a potentially world-ending situation on their hands, as Blair says: “it could imitate everything on the face of the Earth!”
Prince of Darkness deals with a spiritual attack: a priest discovers a strange cylinder of green liquid in the basement of a church in Los Angeles, which is having a strange effect on local people, seemingly possessing them and making them congregate in silent hordes around the church. Concerned about the mysterious substance, a priest recruits a team of scientists to investigate. They conclude that it is a physical embodiment of evil, and that unless it can be neutralised or contained, Armageddon may be at hand.
“The[se] films explore different scenarios that could bring about the end times, each threatening different aspects of humanity: the physical, spiritual and intellectual.”
An apocalyptic future is hinted at, as several of the characters start having the same vision while asleep – in it a shadowy figure is seen in the doorway of the church while a distorted voiceover says that the image are a transmission from the year 1999. The message seems like a distress call, suggesting that the demonic force has spread and is wreaking havoc in the world. The action in the film feels very like a zombie movie, with people massing round the church like the mall zombies in Dawn of the Dead (1978), and the possession spreading among the scientists from person to person.
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The third film in the trilogy is also the weirdest. In the Mouth of Madness sees danger coming not from an alien invasion, zombie hordes or natural disaster, but from the written word – and more specifically, horror fiction. John Trent is an insurance investigator sent by a publishing house to find Sutter Cane, a popular horror novelist who has gone missing. In an ironic comment on panics about the evil influence of horror, Cane’s novels are said to be causing mental disturbances among his readers.
Trent tracks Cane to the strange, and perhaps semi-fictional, town of Hobb’s End, and he reveals that his books are being used by cosmic-horror style ancient beings as a means to conquer the world. After some apparent rending of the rules of time and space, Trent finds himself back in New York, where the influence of Cane’s works have indeed brought about widespread madness and destruction. While there isn’t a physical world-altering event, this film puts forward the far scarier idea of disaster brought about by language.
In true Carpenter style, all of these films feature a kind of creeping menace, with the characters having to gradually come to terms with the idea that the world as they know it is under threat. Although the plots are outlandish on the surface, the themes in all three reflect more down-to-earth anxieties. The isolation and cabin fever is felt by the characters in The Thing before the alien itself makes an appearance, and it is partly these fractured relationships that lead to their inability to defeat it. The spectre of professional failure haunts the team in Prince of Darkness – all experts in their fields, they struggle with the prospect that the strange substance may be outside the realms of their knowledge. One character, Susan, doesn’t even seem to be known to the rest of the group – there’s a running joke that no-one can remember her name, and know her only as “radiologist…glasses.”
As well as addressing matters of cosmic threat and inter-dimensional rifts, In the Mouth of Madness also touches on themes of mental illness, the reliability of memory, and even the perils of rampant consumerism. In all three, there is a central theme of loss of identity: the characters in The Thing and Prince of Darkness being physically taken over by external beings or forces, and the world at large in In the Mouth of Madness having their identities bound up in a fictional world, shown in the final scene, as Trent sits down in an empty cinema, watching himself play out the out the events of the film on screen.
Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy films differ in a few ways from other movies in the subgenre. Usually, we see events either the unfolding as mass destruction is taking place, or the after effects in a post-apocalyptic landscape. These three all take place in a timeframe just pre-apocalypse, showing us the approach – but not yet the devastating effects – of a world-changing catastrophe. This gives them an overall tone of pessimism, tension and dread – we see the path to ultimate destruction being laid out, and the powerlessness of the characters to stop it. Many post-apocalyptic works focus on hopeful attempts to rebuild society even after grim destruction, as in A Quiet Place (2018) or The Girl With All the Gifts (2016).
“In true Carpenter style, all of these films feature a kind of creeping menace, with the characters having to gradually come to terms with the idea that the world as they know it is under threat.“
In the Apocalypse trilogy, we see the mirror image of this – groups of people or society at large falling apart under the strain. We also tend to associate the apocalyptic landscape with vast, open spaces – from 28 Days Later (2002) to Zombieland (2009), the need to find resources and fellow humans tends to lead to a road trip across country. By contrast, Carpenter’s films take place in claustrophobic settings – tiny rooms under the LA church, the Antarctic station and the seemingly-inescapable town of Hobb’s End.
So, is there any hope for humanity in Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy? At the end of The Thing, we can suppose that either MacReady or Childs may still be human, and prepared to kill the other should they turn – although MacReady does note that neither are in much of a fit state to take on the alien if either of them have “got any surprises” for each other. At any rate, with no rescue in sight, the Thing will probably have to return to its dormant state, sparing humanity until the next ill-advised Antarctic adventure. The ending of Prince of Darkness, is relatively upbeat – several of the scientists survive, and Catherine sacrifices herself to trap the demonic entity in an alternate dimension via a mirror.
However, the last vision from the future that we see shows that the figure emerging from the church is now seemingly-possessed Catherine, suggesting that she may not have succeeded after all. After all the twists and turns of In the Mouth of Madness, it seems at the end that the whole thing may have taken place entirely within the fictional world of one of Sutter Cane’s novels. While this might not be very good news for the character of Trent, the whole world being a creepy story could perhaps constitute a pretty happy ending for horror fans.
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