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Sunday 3 March 2019

Carpenter's Trilogy

Everyone knows The Thing.

It's one of the best horror movies that has ever been made - widely acclaimed for its practical special effects, the tension in its pacing and writing, and generally brilliant performances all round. A remake of a seminal sci fi B-movie The Thing From Another World released in 1951, which in and of itself was pretty fantastic in its own way.

John Carpenter's 1982 masterstroke is one of my personal favourites, for a lot of reasons. It's a level of creepy that you can't really get out of most movies. The personal paranoia, the body horror, everything about it just makes your skin crawl. The ending, too. The ending is just... oh god. The ending.

See, it's the ending that this blog will be touching on.

Spoilers - at the end, we have our boys Childs and MacReady (played by Keith David and Kurt Russel respectively, I know, that CAST) facing each other over a stick of dynamite and a blowtorch, waiting to see if one or the other (or both of them) is actually the alien creature in disguise.

There's some theories that go round - about the fact that MacReady may have offered Childs a bottle of something undrinkable, which Childs then drinks, proving that Childs is actually the Thing - but I digress.

The fact is, we can't be sure that the Thing is dead - that one of the men froze to death and the Thing remained until discovered by another human being, and was conveyed back to civilisation. And that, as is covered in the movie, is the end of humanity in... months.

Which is why this is the first in John Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy.

Carpenter is a master of the genre - even if his output somewhat dropped off toward the end of the nineties. He still directed two and a half decades worth of exceptional cinema, not all of it horror - including The Fog, Assault On Precinct 13, Escape From New York, Halloween (yes the original), Village Of The Damned, Big Trouble In Little China and They Live.

My favourites of his, though, are - as mentioned - The Thing... and the two other parts of the Apocalypse Trilogy, in which we are presented with end-of-the-world scenarios that lead us all the way up to the tipping point. The moment in which the world begins the process of ending. Beyond the last frame of which lies nothing but our own destruction.

The second of the trilogy, and held to somewhat less acclaim, is 1987's Prince Of Darkness.

This time, we take a little Satan, and we add a dash of science. In short: there's a lot of talk of particles, of tachyons, of having to prove things. And what the protagonists - a dozen college students and their teacher, and various hangers-on including Donald Pleasance as a British priest - need to prove, is that evil is real. And it is contained in... this.

Of course, things don't go swimmingly.

This movie features Alice Cooper - yes, that Alice Cooper - amongst other regulars in the Carpenter stable of actors. Dennis Dun and Victor Wong make second appearances after Big Trouble In Little China the year before.

The entire thing is shot in such a way that it starts to build tension before anything even goes wrong, before the plot starts to even coagulate. Unsettling, upsetting imagery dropped into otherwise mundane scenes. The relationships and social interactions of these normal people, thrown into stark relief, made to appear almost inconsequential compared to the task set before them.

And that task becomes increasingly sinister, not just through the weird and supernatural, but from the gathering of scientific information throughout. Carpenter uses the actual study of the phenomenon as a way to draw us into the plot, to make the devil real, before the first tragedies even start to happen.

And then the first person falls asleep, and everything goes up a notch.

The ending is a twist that I don't really want to give away, but suffice to say - it puts the idea of the plot being resolved firmly into doubt, once more creating that borderline between "the world is fine" and "the world is literally and imminently doomed". A second Apocalypse, then. This time, not alien at all, but brought about by the titular Prince of Darkness.

It didn't do too well in the box office, but then, neither did Blade Runner. It DOES have a large cult following. It is deserved. It's a great movie, and has some exceptional cinematography and sound engineering. Great from a technical perspective.

So we have had alien horror from beyond the stars, devilish horror from the pits of hell - what makes the suitable third part of this trilogy?

Let me introduce you to the Lovecraft movie you have probably never heard of - In The Mouth Of Madness, 1994. Starring Sam Neill.

A horror writer named Sutter Cane - whose work is widely held up as disturbing the reader, as capturing something truly horrible and otherworldly - has gone missing, with the manuscript of his last book. Sam Neill plays John Trent, an insurance fraud investigator, who is hired by Cane's literary agency to find that manuscript and return it, and ascertain if Sutter Cane is dead or just a weirdo shut-in.

It's easy to believe that Cane is meant to be Steven King. He's not.

Here we see more of the creeping, unsettling imagery being slipped into the scenery. Situations that are perfectly normal, appearing to be suddenly strange, for no apparent reason. Another steady build of tension, as Trent finds the apparently-fictional town of Hobb's End, a quaint New Hampshire town with a huge, dark church on its outskirts.

It is hard enough to find the town - in the end Trent and his companion Linda Styles (played by Julie Carmen) stumble across it seemingly by accident. Or by some darker design. Because once they arrive, Trent finds it very, very hard to leave. He enters the town determined that he knows what is fiction and what is reality, and the horrors and strangeness that he sees within the town makes him not so sure.

Trent finally comes face to face with Sutter Cane himself, a man now possessed of a strange, dark power. It seems that the writer's previous horror writing was unwittingly accurate, and now, his new work - his new title - is the truth. The truth about the things, waiting on the other side of reality, waiting to creep back into our world and make it their own again.

That is how you do cosmic horror.

I don't want to give away the ending, again. Suffice to say, though, it is also the beginning of the end. The top of the downward slope toward humanity's destruction.

Sam Neill's performance is stellar. I'm a big fan of face acting and we get a lot of that. The practical special effects are once more absolutely on point - a lot of creepy squamous rugous horrible things to look at and hide from. Even if the soundtrack has started to slide into hard-rocky kind of stuff that isn't necessarily totally fitting with the material, a lot of it still hits the mark.

So, class. My homework to you is this. Catch up on any or all of these movies. Preferably in the order of their release - The Thing, Prince Of Darkness, In The Mouth Of Madness. You will probably be pleasantly surprised. Or as surprised as you can, when watching a trilogy of movies that are literally about how the world ends.

And honestly the 2011 prequel to The Thing is a pretty good watch, too. Even if it isn't John Carpenter. Just please, for the love of god...

...don't watch Ghosts Of Mars.

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