by Adam M. Wilcox
To explain the workings of H.P. Lovecraft’s philosophy of cosmic horror is no easy task, but I will do my best as it is pertinent to our revisited review. What I will do is blend the official Google definition with what it means to me. See I am a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft, and John Carpenter, and nobody understands Lovecraft better than John Carpenter.
Cosmic horror deals with the very idea that humanity is the most insignificant thing in the entire universe. There are threats and horrors that are older than humanity itself, and are sometimes scarier than human comprehension. It is the philosophy that religion itself was created as a means to explain the unknown. God and Satan do not exist, but rather a manifestation for the existence of the supernatural. The things that go bump in the night, have done so for years, and are doing so for a reason beyond your logical comprehension. Still with me, clear as mud? Good! This is part of the experience of cosmic horror. That maybe many of the lessons you been taught your whole life, are simply not true, and something older and more menacing is at work below the surface of your perceived reality. Recent Lovecraft concepts are present in Ridley Scott’s Alien movie, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser series, and Stephen King’s. H.P. Lovecraft published most of his short stories in pulp magazines and died penniless. His posthumous fame would come to have a huge influence in our current pop culture in the science fiction horror genres. John Carpenter is one of those who have shared similar ups and downs with many of his films being initial box office failures only to develop into cult classics many years later. These three films that Carpenter himself considers his “Apocalypse Trilogy” are related only that all deal with potential world ending threats, and a very similar relation to the cosmic horror philosophies of H.P. Lovecraft.
In 1982, John Carpenter released a remake of one of his favorite films “The Thing From Another World” released in 1951. The original involved an artic research film that finds a flying saucer buried in a glacier. When they find the pilot, they bring him back to the base camp, where he is accidentally thawed out and goes on a murderous rampage. The remake is still loosely based on the original movie, but with a twist based on a short story novella “Who Goes There” written by John W. Campbell Jr. in which the alien can copy any life form, and completely destroy the original. The movie opens with a helicopter chasing a dog, and a man is perched outside with a high powered rifle shooting at the dog. As the dog seeks shelter in the camp of our cast, we learn that the assailant is Norwegian, and he is not only trying to shoot the dog, but he brought a cache of explosives to make sure he doesn’t miss. After a series of unfortunate events occur, the helicopter, and its crew are destroyed. The dog remains unscratched. We learn very early on, that the dog is not what it seems. As some of the crew decided to investigate the base where the Norwegian helicopter came from, all they find is bodies that have been burned, dismembered, or frozen solid. They also figure out what they initially found, was a saucer buried in the ice, and a large empty cube where it looks like something may have been thawed out. Once the dog has been put into the pen with the other dogs, we see the thing attack the other animals and it starts changing shape. Carpenter had told young the budding young special effects artist Rob Bottin, to go absolutely crazy with the creature effects, and to this date, this is some of the absolute best practical effects I have seen in any film ever. When the creature morphs, bones break, multiple appendages sprout out of anywhere, it is terrifying, disturbing, and beautiful all at the same time. The rest of this film deals with isolation, paranoia, and panic, as the crew of the research station realize that they are the last link between the alien threat, and the rest of the civilized world. The absolute best suspense is when they decide to do a blood test to see if a crew member is in fact the alien. The test involves heating up a hot cable wire with a blow torch and shoving it into a Petri dish of blood drawn from each crew member to see if there is some sort of defensive reaction. I have seen this movie millions of times, and I jump every sing time I see this. This is in fact the most terrifying movie I have ever seen. I firs saw it when I was about 12 or 13. I watched it in the broad daylight, in the middle of summer, and scenes from this movie gave me the chills so bad, that I could not get them out of my head for years. In my opinion, a good horror movie is one that you can not only forget, but one that you may have regretted seeing in the first place. Like most John Carpenter films, this one leaves an ambiguous ending that might piss some people off, but for the most part, this is considered a timeless classic. I like the fact, that you never truly see what this creature looks like. You only see it through various stages of morphing into other beings. The fact that this creature can perfectly copy anything else leads to the chilling suspense of fighting an enemy that you can neither see, nor truly understand. This film was panned by critics, and bombed at the box office. And yet, now it is considered a masterpiece.
Prince of Darkness
With a name like Prince of Darkness, and rock star Alice Cooper’s face prominently featured on the posters and video boxes for this film, I always casually dismissed this one as one of the more shlocky entries into the Carpenter catalog. After all, there is 1966 Christopher Lee movie called “Dracula, Prince of Darkness”, and it also happens to be Ozzy Osborne’s nick name. Even though the name of the movie makes perfect sense within the context of this film, I don’t think the title does this any justice. For the longest time, I thought I had watched this film, but I realize recently that I have never seen this movie before, which kind of plays on the Mandela effect concept, and makes it even creepier for me. This might actually be one of the scariest films I have ever seen for many reasons.
Carefully preserved in the basement of a very old church in an urban neighborhood, a large glass container containing green liquid is making homeless people wander around the church in a zombie like dream state. Donald Pleasance had enlisted the help of a team of student scientists to analyze the container, and determine the origin. The theory is that the contents of the container is essence of Satan, and that Satan himself is actually the son of a more powerful Anti-God, and Jesus was an Alien sent to warn us of impeding doom. All of this of course was hidden from the Vatican, and only certain priests were entrusted with such information and passed it down from generation to generation. Once Satan has manifested itself in human form, it may use mirrors to pull the Anti-God into our realm and kick start the end times. During the process of events, certain members of the research team are systematically possessed. For those that are not yet possessed a recurring dream is shared by every member that has come in contact of the church. The message comes off like a bad video transmission that sounds like this “we are sending this transmission from the year 1-9-9….the message shows the exterior of the church and eventually zooms in on a dark figure in the window…then abruptly ends. The longer these people stay alive, the longer the message gets each time. The idea is that whatever these people did in the church, caused the end of the world, and the message is designed as a warning to save humanity. This movie deals with such wild concepts, that I had to actually look some of these things, up and dig up more details. According to Carpenter, these concepts were merely done for dramatic effect. But when you are dealing with blending science, religion, and Lovecraft concepts of cosmic horror…you realize that this is just very good writing. Carpenter’s best work, is when he makes something that is very non descript look terrifying by just holding a shot for a second longer than you expected. Similar to the way you see Michael Myers staring at people behind a pile of sheets, and it’s creepy. This one deals with multiple homeless people staring, and Alice Cooper staring. Holy shit! John Carpenter is the master of making people look scary by having them staring. This movie staring, the motion picture! It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and I been losing sleep over this one. It’s a movie that truly deserves a look, one of the scariest movies he’s made to date. You need to check this one out! As you may have guessed, this one was also panned by critics in 1987. It didn’t loose as much money as The Thing did, but it was one of the lower grossing Carpenter films in his catalog. Go figure.
In The Mouth of Madness
While most of the for mentioned movies were allegorical in mentioning H.P. Lovecraft, In The Mouth of Madness goes all in, right down to the title. In The Mouth of Madness is a play on Lovecraft’s story “At the Mountains of Madness”. In this movie Sam Neil plays an insurance fraud investigator that is sent to find the whereabouts of a popular missing horror Novelist that is not too dissimilar from Stephen King. As the skeptical Neil investigates this novelist, he discovers that the covers of his books lead to a map to a fictional town in New Hampshire called “Hobb’s End”. As he eventually finds the town, things get really weird. The film implies that the novelist never wrote any stories, and that all of what was published was reality. Without giving too much more away, this film deals with the difference between sanity, and reality. What if you realized that you were only a character in a book, and what if the book was literally driving people to the brink of insanity itself? The movie reverences several Lovecraft images and callbacks. And Sam Neil really carries this movie all by himself. There are some decent special affects, but like the previous two movies, this is one of those psychological horrors designed to get you to think about stuff. As you might have guessed, this movie also has mixed results, and underperformed at the box office, and yet has a huge cult following. It is a masterpiece. Are you starting to notice a pattern? Lovecraft horror is not a popular pop culture phenomenon. After all these years, it is still too radical and scary for comprehend. Lovecraft horror has been covered extensively since these movies were released, but I still feel like Carpenter REALLY got the whole cosmic horror thing.
There are several collectors’ versions of these available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and while I wish they were sold and boxed as a set, they can still be enjoyed to this day individually. Any horror fan should have these in their collection, or at least seen these once or twice. Looking back, I feel like these were some of Carpenter’s best works, but that is just one Cyborg’s opinion. If your looking for something to care you to the point of being disturbed for long term. Look no further.