Though his films were rarely successful at the time of release, John Carpenter has become one of the most popular and acclaimed horror filmmakers of the past 50 years. Carpenter’s 1978 slasher Halloween spawned a horror franchise that continues today and many of his other films like Escape to New York (1981), They Live (1988), and Big Trouble in Little China (1986) have become beloved genre classics. Carpenter is famous for his distinct style and synthesized scores, but his films also resonate with their audience decades after release because of their commentary on American culture and politics.
For example, Halloween terrifies us not because of its faceless villain Michael Myers; rather, it’s also because the film depicts this evil, unkillable force entering a suburban neighborhood and ruthlessly murdering several teenagers. By the 1970s a majority of middle-class American families lived in suburbs, a sort of recluse area far from the dangers of large, urban cities like New York or Chicago. But Carpenter’s Halloween shows us that we cannot escape from terror or death in suburbia. As we see in the famous opening of the film, evil was created there and always longs to return.
Carpenter previously mentioned three of his horror films formed a loose “Apocalypse Trilogy”: The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987), and In the Mouth of Madness (1994). Each film deals with a fantastical end-of-the-world scenario, but Carpenter imbues all three movies with cultural feelings and ideas familiar to any audience: Cold War paranoia, scientific breakthroughs in theoretical physics, and the fragility of reality itself. Years after their release, these films have started to move from cult classics to part of mainstream culture, making it evident that Carpenter was ahead of the game. His films are prominent examples of the ways science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres can respond to and shape our social, cultural, and political beliefs, and their relevance to our lives only makes them all the scarier.
A dog runs on to an American research station in Antarctica, pursued by two Norwegians hellbent on killing the canine. The Norwegians get killed by the Americans in self-defense, and the dog stays on the base. Only later do the 12 men discover the dog is an alien lifeform, a parasite that absorbs and then imitates any living creature. The Americans quickly become suspicious of one another, each unsure if the man next to him is really human.
The Thing was released in 1982, a year after Ronald Reagan was elected president and heightened Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union. The film itself is a remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951), which was seen as a response to the Red Scare happening throughout America at the time. This theme carries on in Carpenter’s version: the main character MacReady (Kurt Russell) famously says while tape-recording his thoughts, “Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired.” Just as Americans in the 1950s began fearing their neighbors were communists, the men in the research station start seeing everyone around them as a potential danger to themselves.
The Thing also takes the Cold War term “mutually assured destruction” quite literally. Coined in the early 1960s, the concept is meant to describe two opposing sides (the US and USSR) with a full stock of nuclear weapons that could annihilate each other should either decide to attack. Originally, this was meant to be a deterrent away from elevating Cold War conflicts, but Carpenter uses the idea differently in The Thing. Near the end, the surviving men discover that the Thing intends to freeze over the station and go back to hibernation under the ice until someone finds it again. The men decide to blow up the entire research station with explosives, killing the Thing and likely themselves in the process.
This paints an incredibly cynical picture of Cold War relations: the Americans decide to completely destroy their enemy at the cost of their own lives. This must have been especially horrifying in the context of 1982 when Reagan was rapidly accelerating the arms race against the Soviet Union. The Thing ends with the station blown up, MacReady and Childs (Keith David) the only two survivors. They drink together as the fire begins to burn out in the freezing cold, MacReady is unsure if Childs is the Thing but too exhausted to act on his suspicions. His final line reveals his despair and tired resignation: “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while? See what happens.”
Religion and science play key roles together in Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, where a priest invites a quantum physics professor and several of his students to investigate a strange cylinder filled with green liquid in an abandoned church. The priest informs the group that the liquid itself is the physical embodiment of Satan and that it wants to bring the Anti-God trapped in another dimension into our world. Prince uses complicated theoretical concepts like anti-matter and tachyons, but its story is simply good versus evil, humans fighting off devils and demons. Both the priest’s fervent Christian faith and the students’ knowledge try to prevent the Anti-God from escaping, but the group quickly sees how useless both religion and science are against this unstoppable force. The evil is a proven fact in both practices, and neither devoted prayer nor theoretical physics can combat its rising power.
Though it costs most of the group’s lives, the priest, professor, and students manage to defeat Satan and trap its physical body in the other dimension with the Anti-God. However, the survivors are uncertain if they have truly stopped the evil: several group members had received dreams of a video broadcast in the year 1999, where a shadowy figure emerges from the church. The professor suspects this dream is a warning from the future sent via tachyon particles.
At the end of Prince, college student Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) has the dream again and sees that the figure is his lover Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), who was trapped in the anti-matter dimension with Satan at the end. We are left uncertain whether the vision was just a nightmare or a sign that the future remains unchanged and the end of the world is still barrelling towards us. Carpenter shows us through Prince how advancements in science may not disprove our long-held fears of evil; instead, these discoveries may just expose them as truth and reveal how helpless we are to its machinations.
In the Mouth of Madness opens with a man (Sam Neill) trapped in a mental hospital being interviewed by a government official. The insane man tells his story: he was John Trent, an insurance investigator sent to look into the disappearance of popular horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow). The publishing company wants Cane’s new book In the Mouth of Madness, and Trent suspects that the author’s disappearance is a publicity hoax designed to make the book even more profitable. However, it is revealed that Cane’s mass audience has given him the power to bring his fiction into reality and will help him to free an ancient race of Lovecraftian monsters on Earth.
In the 1990s, many popular Hollywood films played with the idea of characters trapped in a false reality (The Matrix trilogy, Fight Club), but these false realities are usually juxtaposed with the real world. In the Mouth of Madness demonstrates that there is no reality but the one we make for ourselves, and Cane is able to control and bend it because of his readers’ firm belief in his work. As editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) tells Trent early on: “A reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane were to become the majority.”
Insanity is not just the fluid, shifting state in Carpenter’s film; it also becomes a deadly, contagious disease spread through Cane’s horror novels. Trent manages to escape the town and gives Cane’s latest novel to the publishers. The book rapidly becomes a best-seller, its readers slowly going mad and transforming into monstrous beings, and even gets made into a movie to attract audiences who don’t like to read. Carpenter presents mass media as a dangerous weapon, the only tool with the potential to reach billions of people through print or on-screen within weeks or even days. In the Mouth of Madness shows the reality within Cane’s novels literally reaching out and taking over our subjective control of the world, a concept even more frightening nowadays with social media than it was 25 years ago.
The film finishes with Trent leaving the mental hospital to find a destroyed world devoid of any life. He goes into an empty movie theater and watches the adaptation of In the Mouth of Madness, containing the same scenes of the film we have been watching. Trent chomps on popcorn and laughs dementedly at his own projected image, understanding, at last, he is just a fictional character with no control over himself or the world around him. Madness has taken over, and insanity has become the new reality.