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The Classics: John Carpenter's 'Apocalypse Trilogy'

The Classics: John Carpenter's 'Apocalypse Trilogy'


A look at John Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy," made up of "The Thing," "Prince of Darkness," and "In the Mouth of Madness."

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The Thing The Classics
The Thing The Classics

The Classics are must-see, must-read, must-play works revered by The Verge staff. They offer glimpses of the future, glimpses of humanity, and a glimpse of our very souls. You should check them out.

John Carpenter has made a lot of important films, at least if you're a cult or horror movie fan. Halloween, Escape From New York, Christine, and Big Trouble In Little China are just a few of his more popular works. But there are a set of movies in Carpenter's stable of releases which I think are particularly important — and deeply upsetting.

I'm referring to Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy" — a set of films which started in 1982 with the genre-defining, utterly terrifying The Thing, continued through the '80s with Prince of Darkness, and ended in the mid-'90s with the underrated, Lynchian headfuck, In the Mouth of Madness.

Reality becomes a kind of warped enemy itself

At a casual glance, the films seem to have little in common save for their director. Upon closer inspection, however, it's clear that there is a thread that runs throughout each picture. Each movie forces its characters to combat not only a visible enemy, but an unseen enemy, one which may be immune to the nature of what they believe to be reality — in fact, reality becomes a kind of warped enemy itself. And each film features characters that are physically trapped, set apart from society with no clear possibility of escape. In The Thing, it's a remote Antarctic research center, in Prince of Darkness it is a church in the middle of desolate, downtown Los Angeles, and In the Mouth of Madness, it's a small town... and perhaps the protagonist's mind itself.

But more importantly, each film's backbone is built upon a theme of "cosmic horror," a genre essentially invented by the writer H. P. Lovecraft. In a terrific breakdown of the three movies at Strange Horizons, Orrin Grey suggests that the definition of cosmic horror is best summed up in a letter from Lovecraft: "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 the three Carpenter films, the protagonists fight against creatures and ideas that are not necessarily supernatural; rather they're of a nature unknown to them.

Part of the delight of watching these movies is that they also play on familiar tropes and iconic figures known so well in the world of horror, but turn them on their ear. In The Thing, the alien invader isn't a stalking creature but a human clone, in Prince of Darkness, the biblical devil is truly not of this world, and in In the Mouth of Madness, Carpenter pulls off what might be the best meta-horror trick of all time, making its villain the author of the movie itself.

"Human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large."

Many of John Carpenter's films are excellent, but these three stand out as truly inspired and original works of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror; movies that are uniquely Carpenter. Films that not only make you jump, but make you think — and leave you thinking long after the credits roll.