FAM: John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy

You know what, screw it. We’re taking off today. Yeah, that’s what we’re gonna do. I mean, how many times have we been told that if we don’t take those sick days we’re gonna lose ’em. Fine, if that’s the way they want to play it then maybe we’ll just take off every Friday from here on out. We’ll see how they handle the end of the quarter when the entire accounting department is home with “the swine flu”. Hope you’re mighty familiar with a calculator, ’cause we’re off to the movies, suckers!

In a fit of indecision, the FAM is super sized today, a John Carpenter Triple Feature comprised of 1982’s The Thing, 1987’s Prince of Darkness, and lastly 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness; what the director has referred to as his “Apocalypse Trilogy”. Certainly, the man has directed some shockingly awful films but his earlier work is pure gold and the first two of these rank as some of my favorite sci-fi/horror movies.

They are, in their own ways, almost unrelentingly bleak. There are no happy endings for their protagonists or, indeed, the entire human race, hence the “Apocalypse” moniker. The Thing is a more faithful adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” which had previously made its way onto the silver screen by way of 1951’s The Thing from Another World directed by Howard Hawks (who went uncredited; letting his editor, Christian Nyby, take the honor), featuring James Arness as a horrifying space-carrot. This movie is a huge source of contention between my father and me; he being a stalwart fan of the original who finds Carpenter’s version to be an excuse for gratuitous violence and I being of the opinion that space-carrots are rather silly. Needless to say he is wrong. So very, very wrong.

Next, Prince of Darkness a movie that despite it being both awesome and featuring a cameo performance by Alice Cooper, not many people I’ve met seem to have seen. This is a shame as, not only does it manage to sustain a pitch-perfect atmosphere of creepy tension over the entirety of its 102 minutes (helped by grainy dream-footage from The Future, reenacted here by a cat) but also has Alice Cooper. Also, Donald Pleasence.

Lastly is In the Mouth of Madness a film that is not so much Lovecraftian as the ultimate Lovecraft fan film containing, as it does, dozens of SUBTLE NODS AND WINKS to H.P.L.’s stories. This is definitely the weakest of the three, made during the inglorious and dismal 90s, a decade that saw Carpenter’s stock plummet dramatically meaning that the supporting cast does not contain the likes of Alice Cooper, but instead, Ben-Hur. Still, it’s fun to pick out the little hidden Lovecraft references like when the camera takes 10 seconds so you can focus on the fact that the name of the hotel is “Pickman’s Hotel”. Get it? Get it? Yeah ‘ya do.

So sit back and relax on your “sick day”; and let the cynical vision of John Carpenter wash over you; because nothing cures what ails you like the end of the human race.

12 Responses to “FAM: John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy”

  1. Chris Noble Says:

    C’mon, now- “Vampires” shockingly awful? It’s not “The Thing” by any means, but…
    … it gave *me* a woody.

  2. Luke Copping Says:

    In the mouth of Madness….. Since I was a younger man it has been one of my favorite films, not just for the Lovecraftian references, but also because I find Jürgen Prochnow to be both extremely unsettling and faintly ridiculous at the same time. Another little treat is a cameo by Wilhelm von Homburg, most recognized as Vigo in Ghostbusters 2.

    John Carpenter has indeed been criticized as being a very high point / low point director. In Halloween and the Apocalypse trilogy he is at his best. Conversely, Ghosts of Mars and Escape from LA were cinematic abortions. But he does have a notable middle ground in some of the more beloved of his campy action films like They Live and Big Trouble in Little China, not necessarily great filmmaking, but they do have a devoted audience and make great popcorn fodder.

  3. Tequila Says:

    Vampires (or Vampire$ for fans of the book) was great. It came out at a time when ALL vampire flicks were Anne Rice influenced and the grindhouse flavor so many are calling cool today was a distant memory (only 1 book existed on the subject at the time that even used the term Grindhouse in its title if I remember right.) It was dirty, silly, bloody, and fun. Loved it!

    In The Mouth of Madness I was happy to see in the theaters and I walked out in a wonderful daze from it. It’s not the same watching it at home though. That film was meant to be seen in the theaters and retains some of his best little creepy as all hell moments.

    I LIKE his 90’s work…it had an energy that was happily drowning out all the romantic comedy & drama bullshit the indie scene was SO in love with at the time. It’s not up to par with his early work of course but then again once you make Big Trouble in Little China…you can’t really top that.

  4. Mer Says:


    Y’know, I have no patience for folks who dismiss Carpenter as a hack. Sure, not all of his flicks are note-perfect, in fact many of them are deeply flawed. But I’ve lost count of the amazing concepts and imagery he’s given us at his best, or hell, even at his middling!

    Prince of Darkness is easily of the most unsettling movies I’ve ever seen. Not only is it one of my favorite Carpenter films, it’s one of my favorite horror/sci-fi films, period. It depresses me that it was so poorly received, and is still not given its just desserts. That recurring dream sequence/grainy video footage is as chilling now as it was over 20 years ago, and his use of mirrors, the creepy sound design, that drippy basement vial scenes… all done for what, 3 million fucking dollars? Such a shrewd and brilliant man.

    Also, I love the fact that “Martin Quartermass” is listed as the writer! :)

  5. permadirt Says:

    The Thing absolutely blew my mind when I first saw it; the camera work, the creepy bass, Rob Bottin’s incredible special effects…one of my favorite movies and definitely part of what made me weird.

    …and that scene with the defibrillator.

  6. wchambliss Says:

    Carpenter is our Howard Hawks.

  7. Mer Says:

    Amen, Wayne Chambliss. A-friggin-mayuhnn.

  8. Ross Rosenberg Says:

    Carpenter is a great director it’s just that when he misses, he misses.

    Chris Noble, Tequila – I stand by my opinion on Vampires; that movie is garbage. Fortunately, it is part of the minority of his work that is garbage.

    Luke Copping – Big Trouble in Little China and They Live are not middling, they are glorious. You take it back. TAKE IT BACK!

    And even though I seem a bit rough on In the Mouth of Madness I still have a soft spot for it. I saw it when it came out on VHS and my brother and I watched it three times in a row before returning it. Regardless of its lack of subtlety, it’s still a really fun ride.

  9. Alice Says:

    I know I’m going to date myself here (as an insufferably young thing, that is), but jee-whiz, those mock commercials from Grindhouse sure are even funnier now!

  10. Natasha Says:

    I don’t care if the director is bad or not, satanic possession films scare the be-hay-soos out of me! It was bad enough when there was creepy, grinning, head spinning nonsense, but then they had to make them walk upside-down and backwards on ceilings and staircases and that’s when I get out the 12 gauge..

  11. mkhall Says:

    Okay, Mer, you’ve convinced me to pick up a copy of Prince of Darkness and watch it for Hallowe’en.

  12. Ben Morris Says:

    Later this evening I am going with some friends to see The Thing at a theater nearby (a theater built in 1935 and recently restored!). I love the film but have never seen it on a big screen so I’m really looking forward to this.