Trilogy of Terror: In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

It’s easy to review horror without giving any indication that you were or are under its spell. You can talk about the inventiveness of the central concept, the performances, the casting. You can talk about the dialogue. You can talk about how predictable or unpredictable it was.

But talk about horror — actually talk, with actual people — and it becomes much more difficult. With very few exceptions, your friends won’t want to hear or talk about the gears in the machine. They’ll want to hear and talk about the film’s effect.

“It wasn’t scary,” and “It scared the hell out of me,” are two of the things you’ll hear most frequently. That’s not necessarily because your friends don’t have the vocabulary to assess the film on deeper levels; it’s because how much it spooked you is the common language of horror, just as how much something made you laugh is the common language of comedy and how much something made you cry is the common language of drama.

Horror, though, is a bit different than those other genres. We know comedy is comedy and drama is drama. We may chuckle or cry a bit when thinking back on a film, but they are still isolated experiences. Our reality is distinct from them, and we know it. By contrast, horror rewires our brains.

Growing up I had a friend who watched the film Arachnophobia, and for years afterward — into adulthood — she would never hang her feet off the edge of her bed, both knowing that there were no spiders waiting underneath and knowing for sure that there were. Another friend once told me about how he played the original Resident Evil and could no longer sleep in the same room as the game’s box; every night he checked to make sure it was somewhere else.

And, of course, there’s me, the biggest baby who still likes horror. When I was little, somebody gave me a gift for Christmas or for my birthday. It was a little plastic bank shaped like the man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors. I liked it. Its closed mouth pointed upward and there were little metal contacts on its front teeth. You’d stick a coin there and it would open up and swallow the money. Then I actually watched the movie and it scared the fuck out of me and I didn’t want anything to do with the bank anymore.

Horror makes us see shapes in the shadows. It assigns intent to sounds in the night. It follows us into our dreams and refuses to let us go.

At least, effective horror does. And that’s the great irony of horror; the better it is at fucking with us, the more often we come back. The more we come back, the more it…gets inside of us. For me, John Carpenter is the guy who most often keeps me coming back. I collect his special editions. I try to see any of his films that I can when they pop up in my local boutique theater. I have an autographed poster of his…from In the Mouth of Madness.

Others, of course, turn to other writers and directors. The characters in this film turn to novelist Sutter Cane. “I just like being scared,” one of them explains. So do his other readers, and we see what happens when his writings get into them.

Sutter Cane is a writer whose books are driving readers insane. It’s rewiring their brains not only to make them afraid of bumps in the night, but to see visions, to lash out, to murder.

It’s clear enough that H.P. Lovecraft is the real-world template for Cane’s works. The little we see and hear of his writing shares Lovecraft’s penchant for description over action, for scene setting over narrative. The effect Cane’s works has on readers is also a nod to the man, as Lovecraft’s writings feature beings so far beyond human comprehension that to even see them is to be driven permanently insane. And, of course, there’s the fact that Lovecraft’s Old Ones are similar to the creatures Cane is bringing to life, but we’ll get to that later.

Another — and arguably stronger — inspiration for Cane is Stephen King.

Allow me to vent for just a moment.

Look up Siskel and Ebert discussing In the Mouth of Madness and find strings of comments calling them out for saying Cane is a King analogue. Look at any review or retrospective that cites King in addition to or instead of Lovecraft and it will be punctuated by angry comments “correcting” the writer. Look at Wikipedia and see that the closest acknowledgement of King its editors will allow is “The film can also be seen as a reference to Stephen King.”

Let me say this clearly: Get off your damned high horse. The Cane / King connection is crucial, important, and obvious. I’ll explain why in my own words, but if you’re already preparing to ignore them, know that Carpenter himself refers to Cane as a King analogue in his own commentary for the film, so nyeh.

Cane is both Lovecraft and King. He’s Lovecraft’s mind with King’s celebrity. He’s Lovecraft’s influence with King’s merchandising. He’s Lovecraft’s visions with King’s endless releases, translations, and film adaptations.

Sutter Cane — even the sound of his name suggests Stephen King, come on now — is a product of his publisher’s marketing. We see his name plastered across marquees, book displays, posters, hats, shirts, coffee mugs, buses.

Do let me know, of course, if that sounds more like Lovecraft to you than King.

Certainly Lovecraft lived and wrote a century ago, before there was such a thing as mass merchandising, but it’s important to remember that he never experienced his own time’s equivalent of fame. Lovecraft was broke. His stories were sometimes published for a pittance, and usually they were rejected. His influence and significance have both grown over the years, but he was long dead by the time that happened. He ended his career believing himself to be a failure without an audience.

Compare that to Cane and the long lines at bookstores — and riots when they run out of copies — and you’ll see that Lovecraft alone isn’t the key to what’s happening here.

In addition, there’s Cane’s fictional town of Hobb’s End, New Hampshire, the setting for a large number (possibly all) of his stories. That’s not far removed from King’s fictional Castle Rock, Maine, which serves the same purpose. (The states even share a border.)

It’s also, of course, important to remember that “Stephen King” isn’t just a famous novelist Carpenter is likely to have heard of; Carpenter adapted Christine for the big screen. He’s personally familiar with King, with his stories, what they’re like…and how strongly his work resonates with his audience.

That’s what In the Mouth of Madness is about. Resonance. Impact. Effect.

More specifically — though definitely not exclusively — it’s about the effect it has on John Trent (Sam Neill, Memoirs of an Invisible Man), a freelance insurance investigator we meet as he’s being admitted to a mental hospital. He’s visited by Dr. Wrenn (David Warner, Body Bags) who is skeptical of Trent’s madness.

Wrenn and Trent have similar jobs, actually. Trent makes his living poking holes in people’s fraudulent insurance claims, and Wrenn here believes there’s a hole in Trent’s claim of insanity. After all, when Trent arrived he fought the orderlies, cried out for help, swore that he was sane…but as soon as he was locked up he settled down, and used a black crayon to cover himself and the padded walls with crosses.

“They’d almost have to keep you in here, once they’d seen these,” Wrenn says. “Wouldn’t they, John?”

Sure enough, Trent faked at least the severity of his madness so that he’d be locked up. Why? “It’s safer in here now,” he explains.

Trent is our protagonist, which is worth pointing out only because the other two films in this trilogy don’t have them. MacReady is our de facto protagonist in The Thing, but in the same way that he’s that team’s leader: he isn’t, but nobody else will do it. In Prince of Darkness, another version of the film could easily position Brian or the priest (or Catherine) as the protagonist, but the version we got is either an ensemble piece or a film with Satan as its star, depending on your perspective.

Here, it’s Trent and only Trent. And he’s not just the film’s protagonist; he’s also Cane’s.

Trent tells his story to Wrenn, and we follow along. It begins with him hard at work, interviewing Peter Jason (we went over his filmography with Carpenter last week) about his insurance claim, ultimately proving it fraudulent.

Trent’s occupation, demeanor, skill, and fashion sense are straight out of Double Indemnity. He’s like a character plucked from a different story. Believably human, but out of place. He keeps lighting up cigarettes like a character in a movie made 50 years ago, often then being told smoking isn’t allowed, which seems like unexpected and unwelcome information to him.

When he meets Linda Styles — Cane’s editor — his noir sensibilities are brought even more to the fore. She’s prudish and straightlaced, exactly the dame he knows from another story entirely, fully aware that she’ll take off her glasses and let down her hair and reveal the smokey sexuality he hides within. Which is exactly what happens. He even flirts with her with fast, quippy banter that feels more like it belongs in a Raymond Chandler novel than a horror film.

But Trent isn’t a character; he’s a human being. Right? At least, that what he keeps telling people, and trying to tell himself. Twice he says, “Nobody pulls my strings.” At other points he says, “I’m my own man.” “I know what I am.” “I’m not a piece of fiction.” He makes repeated claims that “this is reality.”

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

As we learn, it isn’t reality. He isn’t a person. And when he meets Cane, the mad author tells him, “I think, therefore you are.”

Again, though, we get ahead of ourselves.

Trent is hired by Cane’s publisher to find the novelist, who’s gone missing. Nobody knows where he is, if he’s coming back, or whether or not he’s still alive. All the publisher knows for sure is that his newest book, In the Mouth of Madness, is at least partially complete, because they received several chapters through his agent.

Cane’s agent would be a great person for Trent to interview, but it turns out they already met.

His agent was driven insane by those sample chapters alone. He smashed through a diner window and attempted to kill Trent before being gunned down by police.

“You’d think a guy that outsells Stephen King could find better representation,” Trent quips. His quip falls flat. He doesn’t realize he’s in a different story now.

Trent picks up a few Sutter Cane novels and gets reading. They immediately give him nightmares, literally reconfiguring in his mind things he’s seen, such a policeman beating up a vandal in reality who becomes a hideous monster in his dream. His brain is being rewired by Cane, whose writing is (clearly) effective, even if it isn’t very good.

“Pulp horror novels,” Trent describes them to a friend. “They all seem to have the same plot: slimy things in the dark, people go mad, they turn into monsters.” He does concede that they’re better written than he expected, but qualifies that by saying what he really means: “They sort of get to you, in a way.”

Horror doesn’t need to be good in order to be effective, and not all effective horror is good. You don’t need to believe A Nightmare on Elm Street is a good film to see Freddy pop up in your dreams. You don’t need to think The Blair Witch Project is a good film to have your thoughts haunted by it as you walk through the woods at night.

I’ve read a lot of both authors and I’d say that neither Lovecraft nor King are particularly great ones. They both, however, unquestionably have an astonishing wealth of ideas. Ideas that stick. Ideas that are so strong that they succeed in spite of whatever flaws you find in the writing. Trent calls Cane a “hack horror writer,” which might be true but doesn’t matter either way. His writing is effective, and that’s genuinely what is important…both in reality and in this film.

After a long night of studying Cane, Trent notices red lines worked into the cover art of each of his books. He cuts along those lines with scissors and ends up with pieces that fit together to form the shape of New Hampshire, with a single red dot showing, he believes, the “location” of the fictional Hobb’s End. In short, he figures this entire thing is a publicity stunt.

“Makes a great contest, doesn’t it?” Trent asks Cane’s publisher. “Put the pieces together, find the town, win a Sutter Cane lunchbox.”

His publisher swears that’s not the case, and sends Trent and Styles out to find the town, which they do. The invented town of Hobb’s End isn’t on any map, but it does exist, apparently.

The two explore the town, finding everything exactly as Cane described it, right down to a loose floorboard. They encounter characters from the novels, which worries Styles but only further convinces Trent that the entire thing is a setup…an elaborate hoax to freak him out so he will “blab to the media about Cane’s haunted little town, help you sell a few more million copies. Well, fuck that.”

He understandably refuses to believe that a novelist has willed a town into existence and is hiding there, but Styles is genuinely worried. She confesses that they had indeed planned on pulling some kind of publicity stunt — even sent Cane away to get the gossip flowing — but he never showed up at his destination. While manufacturing his disappearance, he really disappeared.

What worries her most is the fact that she’s seeing characters and events in the town that nobody else could know about, because they only appeared in the few chapters of Cane’s upcoming book that he sent to his agent. With his agent dead, only two people know what was in those pages: her and Cane himself.

Without Trent, Styles investigates the church where they think they caught a glimpse of Cane through the doors. She does indeed find him there, working at his typewriter. He expected her, of course. In fact, he wrote her.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” he tells her. “For years, I thought I was making all this up, but they were telling me what to write. Giving me the power to make it all real. And now it is.”

And that’s what Carpenter posits with In the Mouth of Madness, that Lovecraft and King and Cane and Carpenter aren’t actually founts of incredible ideas…they’re conduits. Somebody — or something — is speaking through them. They don’t close their eyes and generate their own spooky ideas that they can then pass on to an audience; they’re being fed them by something that needs their audience to be frightened into belief. To not just think there might be a monster in the dark, but to believe there is.

Cane ends up being that perfect conduit, and what author wouldn’t pounce on an opportunity like that? Once he learns that ancient creatures are using him and his popularity to bring about their rebirth, well…he keeps writing. Because people are buying it. Because people love him. Because people fight each other and claw each other’s eyes out over the last copy of his latest book at any given store.

He’s a literary celebrity, two words that even in the film don’t often go together.

Cane doesn’t kill himself or warn anybody or fight against the evil forces that use him. He willingly extends his hand so that the devil may shake it. “Someone is going to get fame and fortune in exchange for bringing about the end of the world, right?” we can assume he thinks. “It might as well be me.”

The forces of evil here operate by the opposite rules of those in Prince of Darkness. There, our belief in them made them weak. They were sealed away in a prison, and we were each its wardens. The more we turned our backs, stopped paying attention, stopped caring what it got up to its cell, the greater the chance it had to escape.

Here, our belief makes them strong. The more people who believe in Cane’s slimy, otherworldly monsters, the more people who see them in the shadows, the more people who can be convinced that they lurk under the bed, the stronger they become, and the easier it becomes for them to cross into our reality.

And, it must be said, Cane loves this. I think it’s pretty easy to agree that someone who is offered fame in exchange for destroying the world and replies, “Yes, please,” is a pretty bad guy, but that’s not all Cane is. Cane relishes his status not only as the most famous or profitable author on the planet, but as the most powerful one.

Authors create worlds that both don’t exist and do. They take the form of ink on a page. A series of letters making a series of words making a series of sentences making a series of paragraphs that bring life in the minds and hearts of readers to Captain Ahab, Ebenezer Scrooge, Harry Potter, or Count Dracula. Something that blipped into an author’s mind is encoded as text and circulated, and if it resonates with a large enough audience, the real world adopts it. It takes on a life and an endurance beyond the page. It started in a fictional world, but now it’s part of ours.

Quite literally, the author changes the world.

That’s a seductive concept. And while very, very few writers will create any characters as enduring as the ones I mentioned above, any author who is read at all does transport his fictional concepts into real human beings…where they then live, grow, evolve, haunt. They take on a life beyond the words that created them.

One of the highest compliments I’ve ever received was from somebody who had read one of my stories. She was talking to a friend and something in the conversation sparked a memory for her. Midway through relaying that memory she realized it wasn’t something that actually happened…it was a scene in my story that had stuck with her so effectively that her brain didn’t remember that it was fiction. In her mind, at least for a moment, it wasn’t something she’d read; it was something she’d experienced.

I gave her words, and she gave them life. What an incredible honor that is for any author, any writer, any director, any artist.

Carpenter certainly knows a thing or two how it feels to see his fanciful ideas shaping reality. Halloween gave generations to come a new costume. Escape from New York inspired one of the most iconic video game characters in history. When somebody jokes about a car having a mind of its own by calling it Christine, it’s Carpenter’s film that turned that name into a cultural touchpoint. King reached readers; Carpenter reached everyone else.

Cane reached readers, too, at first, but gradually gained more power. He wasn’t just filling people’s heads with visions of Hobb’s End; he was chiseling it into the New Hampshire countryside. He’d put a monster in this greenhouse, a murderous old woman in that hotel, a pack of violent children near the church.

And he’d do it because he could.

We don’t know if Cane created Trent, but it almost doesn’t matter. Trent has memories of a long life before he ever even heard of Sutter Cane, but those could be artifical. (Or, as Cane would call it, backstory.) Is he a gifted freelance insurance investigator, or is he just a character written as one? A character who only exists out of narrative necessity?

Whether he’s a real person or a fictional character, though, Cane is a powerful enough author that he holds dominion over him.

He toys with him. When Trent tries to escape the town, Cane keeps rewriting things so that every road leading out turns him right back inward. When Trent tries to lose or destroy the manuscript for In the Mouth of Madness, Cane keeps writing it right back into his hands. And in my favorite moment, while a distressed Trent dozes on the bus, Cane appears to him in a dream.

“Did I ever tell you my favorite color was blue?” Cane asks him, and Trent awakens to find everything is now blue.

In truth, this is not unique to Trent. Cane invents characters, uses them, and then writes them out. He reconfigures the world to suit his needs and his vision. Like any author, Cane is constantly editing.

Trent’s tragedy is that he is the only character who remembers the previous edits. His world is constantly being updated around him. People he grew close to are proven to never have existed. He’s been to places that nobody can find. He remembers things that can’t — and could not have — happened, all because he retains memories of those earlier drafts…those earlier versions of reality.

“Reality is not what it used to be,” a man tells Trent. The man came to Hobb’s End just like Trent did. His family was rewritten, and now he’s alone. “The thing I can’t remember is what came first,” he says. “Us, or the book.”

The man readies a gun for suicide and Trent objects. But the man doesn’t hesitate.

“I have to,” he explains. “He wrote me this way.”

As I discussed in the two previous entries, Carpenter’s films are about their characters figuring out the rules the govern the world around them. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. Trent is in the horrifying position of trying to figure out rules that are always changing, and it’s a miracle he retains his sanity as long as he does.

What finally breaks Trent is a conversation with Cane’s publisher. He learns two things. The first is that Styles never existed. Of course she did; he has memories of her and she was an integral part of the story. In fact, rewatching the movie with this in mind, we see that Styles and her boss interact a number of times, meaning Cane really did rewrite things to remove her from the story — and the world — entirely.

That’s frustrating to Trent, but not unexpected. He’s used to these tricks by now.

Then he learns something else. While explaining to the publisher why he will not turn over Cane’s final manuscript, the publisher tells him that he already has. Trent brought it to him months ago. It’s been in stores for weeks. The movie will be released shortly.

Throughout the film Trent fights against what Cane keeps telling him is his character’s purpose. Trent is the character who travels to Hobb’s End to retrieve the manuscript, get it published, and unleash unthinkable horror upon the world. Trent refuses at every turn to play his role, no matter what the emotional or psychological cost of noncompliance.

And then he learns that he did it anyway. If Trent wouldn’t cooperate, Cane would just write that he’d done it already. We don’t need to have a chapter in which he does…we just need a chapter in which he did.

Which leads to Trent either fulfilling Cane’s circular narrative or breaking out of it; he picks up an axe and murders somebody, just as Cane’s agent tried to murder him at the film’s start.

It’s an act of calculated madness. Cruel, but he feels he has no other choice. “Every species can smell its own extinction,” he tells Wrenn.

If he’s going to survive the otherworldly invasion brought about by Cane’s latest masterpiece, he’s going to need to be somewhere very secure. He gets locked away in the institution. It’s a cruel and dehumanizing place, but it’s preferable to the literal apocalypse unfolding outside its walls.

We don’t see much of the apocalypse, but we see (and hear over the radio) enough to know the situation is hopeless. Mankind is in the active process of being exterminated. Cane’s tales were so believable that people knew his monsters existed…and they certainly didn’t stop believing when the monsters actually showed up to kill them.

But even then, as the world burns, Cane isn’t done running his favorite character through the wringer.

The door to Trent’s room swings open. There’s no explanation for it. There’s no need for one. Cane is long past hiding his narrative contrivance.

Trent stumbles out. He encounters no other human being. The movie theater is within easy walking distance of the mental institution. Why not? That’s where we need it to be. It’s playing the film adaptation of Cane’s brand-new novel, In the Mouth of Madness.

Whatever was going to happen already happened. However much Trent managed to postpone tragedy — if at all — he can’t postpone it anymore. He might as well pour himself a bucket of popcorn and enjoy the show.

He sees himself on the big screen ranting about reality, insisting that reality is what he says it is, promising that it is solid and unchangeable…and the Trent watching the film laughs.

And laughs, and laughs.

What else can you do?

Early in the film, Trent and Styles debate the nature of reality. She tells him that reality is just an agreement everyone has with each other, and that what really scares her about Cane’s work is how scary reality would be if it shared his point of view.

Which is what happens. It’s what Cane wants to happen. It’s what Cane rubs Trent’s nose in at the end of the film. The Trent on the screen — actual clips from the movie we’ve just seen — was the real Trent. Now the real Trent is eating popcorn and watching it. Reality and fiction have switched places.

It’s a pretty good joke, even if Trent is the only one left who can appreciate it.

Of course, there’s another possibility: Trent really did go insane, and he did so very early in the film.

His visions and nightmares start not after but during an all-night binge of Sutter Cane. Anything we see after that could be representative of his descent into madness. Seeking out the author, exploring the town he just read about, meeting characters from the story…it’s possible that none of that happened.

And if that’s the case, well…what did happen?

We do know that Cane’s writings caused insanity, that his horror rewired minds, that his fans became fanatics. (“Do you read Sutter Cane?”) There are riots. Violence. A crazy man attempts to murder Trent with an axe. Readers bleed from the eye, move through life in a daze, ignore their personal hygiene, mutter seeming nonsense. They detach from reality. Whether that’s due to Lovecraftian Elder Gods speaking through Cane or just due to his particular, creative approach as an artist, the result is the same.

Trent’s mind wouldn’t even have to stretch very far to imagine what at first seems like a very complex hallucination. As Cane explains late in the movie, “All those horrible, slimy things trying to get back in? They’re all true.” The horror we see unfold in Hobb’s End, the specific motivations of the hideous creatures forcing their way back into our world…well, Cane already wrote that, and Trent just read it. All his mind needs to do is let fact and fiction change places.

Cane’s agent, as well, never traveled to Hobb’s End to see the monsters; he only read the sample chapters Cane sent along. Ditto everyone else participating in the violence in the streets. They didn’t go on the same pilgrimage Trent thinks he did; they just read the books. We don’t know what’s happening in their minds. Trent doesn’t know what’s happening in his.

And so when Trent appears outside of a bookstore, disheveled, carrying an axe, and starts hacking away at a Sutter Cane fan…is that an act of calculated madness to keep him safe from ancient beasts? Or, y’know, is that actual madness because he thinks the ancient beasts in Cane’s writings are real?

Remember that Dr. Wrenn, after listening to Trent’s entire tale, dismisses it. He is a professional who works with the mentally ill on a daily basis, and after listening to Trent’s elaborate, paranoid ramblings, he doesn’t see it as anything of particular worry. The guy is crazy, and now he’s in a cell. Wrenn is satisfied, professionally, with that alone.

Of course, then, what of the apocalypse? Without the monsters clawing their way back to an Earth that once was theirs, what ends the world?

Well, as we’ve been told, it ends with a whimper. We never see the monsters outside of either Trent’s tale or his point of view. The murders and deaths and killings are real, whatever Trent does or does not see as the impetus.

It’s his mind assigning that form to something very simple: The most widely read author on the planet is driving his readers nuts.

Enough people read Sutter Cane that the number of insane quickly outnumber the sane.

“Sane and insane could easily switch places,” Styles tells him early on. “If the insane were to become the majority, you would find yourself locked in a padded cell, wondering what happened to the world.”

She’s making conversation. Nothing to worry about, really.

In the Mouth of Madness is often considered Carpenter’s last great film. I don’t buy that, but I also know I’m a bit more willing to search for merit than most people. (Seriously, though, the existence of Vampires is evidence that this can’t be his last great film.) If this movie does end up standing as his final major cultural achievement, though, that’s not such a bad thing. It deserves attention, however it gets it.

It’s not a movie that I hear people talk about often. In fact, I only ended up watching it because a friend told me I needed to. It had been on my radar as a love letter to Lovecraft, but beyond that I didn’t know anything.

And while I do think it’s the weakest of the Apocalypse Trilogy, that’s less to do with any failing on this film’s part than it is to do with the incredibly high bar set by the other two films. Taken on its own merits, In the Mouth of Madness is a weird, memorable, and often very funny film.

It’s the least scary, but that’s almost certainly because its central danger is the most complex. It’s relatively easy to put yourself in the place of someone who can no longer trust anybody he knows, or someone tasked with stopping an evil presence she doesn’t even understand. I think it’s far more difficult to put yourself in the place of someone who is a character doomed to remember all the rewrites of the story he occupies.

Which, to be totally honest, is probably why Carpenter leans pretty heavily into comedy here. It doesn’t come at the expense of horror, but it keeps us tagging along, and keeps us interested in a situation it’s safe to say none of us will ever experience.

I like that, actually. I like that the Apocalypse Trilogy closes off with a film that both finally brings us the apocalypse and keeps it at a distance. We already can’t relate to Trent’s plight, so having his film be the one that actually faces the apocalypse makes it something easier to enjoy as we sit in the dark, watching, stuffing our faces with popcorn.

It’s just fiction. It’s just something some writer came up with somewhere. We just like being scared. Nobody pulls our strings.

And we’ll laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

Happy Halloween, everyone. Thank you for reading.

Trilogy of Terror: Prince of Darkness (1987)

I’ve often wondered why science and religion have such a difficult time coexisting. I’m not an especially spiritual person, but even when I was a practicing Christian, I didn’t see why the theory of evolution — as just one example — would be seen as such a threat.

Does the existence of a set of rules that govern our universe eliminate the possibility of a God? Why should it? Or, rather, should it have to? Can’t God have created and applied the rules of evolution? I’m not saying He did, or that we need a God to explain anything at all, but having a creator and having demonstrable rules never seemed to me to be mutually exclusive.

I don’t know if John Carpenter agrees with me, but Prince of Darkness certainly does. It’s a spiritual horror film that is also, to exactly the same degree, a scientific horror film. It examines one serious central threat not through two separate lenses, but through two overlapping ones. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Carpenter’s evil in this film isn’t something can be understood by either science or religion. If anyone is to get the full story, they’ll need to understand it through both, at once.

The evil is represented here by a sealed canister of swirling green liquid, locked away beneath a disused church. It’s watched over and monitored daily by a single elderly cleric of The Brotherhood of Sleep, an all-but-extinct order. This lone watchman passes away as the film begins, and nobody is left who understands it.

The responsibility falls to an unnamed priest played by the always fantastic Donald Pleasence (Dr. Loomis in Halloween and its sequels, and the president of the United States in Escape from New York), not because he is in any way, shape, or form equipped to handle the problem, but because he’s the only one anyone can think to call. The priest inherits the meager belongings of the cleric: a key to the church basement and a journal containing information that worries him immediately.

The priest knows this is too large a responsibility to fall to him alone, and he reaches out to quantum physicist Professor Birack (Victor Wong, the bus-diving wizard from Big Trouble in Little China) for help. Again, also not because Birack is in any way, shape, or form equipped the handle the problem, but because the priest has no other options.

One of my favorite things about Prince of Darkness is something we don’t actually see. In a one-line bit of spoken backstory from a completely different character, we learn that the priest and Birack participated years ago in a series of debates hosted by the BBC.

This debate series was certainly framed as a science vs. religion event, and we can easily see from the demeanor of the two men — and they way they interact — that the debates didn’t lead to any major conflict.

Instead, though they both view the world differently, applying the personal understandings that they believe in their hearts and minds to be true, they achieved a mutual respect. So much so that many years later they still wouldn’t hesitate to reach out to each other for advice.

Both the priest and Birack defer to each other as authorities in their disciplines, and the fact that they don’t clash and rather work together to fill in each other’s gaps is downright refreshing, and a far more interesting and rewarding narrative decision.

Prince of Darkness posits that science and religion are often two different ways of saying exactly the same thing. And “saying” (as in, consciously selecting the words you will use to express something) is important here.

The film’s central evil has been spoken about and recorded in various different ways throughout history. Indeed, one of the largest obstacles between our characters and an understanding of what they’re up against is the fact that The Brotherhood of Sleep’s texts have been rewritten and distorted many times for 2,000 years. “Writing upon writing,” the priest explains, “sometimes two or three times, and improperly erased.”

It’s not a simple matter of translating the texts; it’s a matter of being able to read them, understand which of the coexisting versions of the material are most important or most accurate, and deciphering why they were rewritten — or, I suppose, overwritten — at all. It’s a tangle of scripture and equations that probably made enough sense to The Brotherhood of Sleep, but are nigh on impenetrable to anyone else.

It’s up to a group of students recruited by Professor Birack and his colleague Dr. Leahy (Carpenter’s frequent collaborator Peter Jason, from They Live, Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A., Ghosts of Mars, Body Bags, and next week’s In the Mouth of Madness) to unravel the mystery of the canister and figure out how to keep it sealed.

What they learn is that the canister contains Satan.

…sort of. The canister contains the very real force that humanity has always understood as Satan. The Brotherhood of Sleep knew that whatever this evil thing really is would be beyond the comprehension of…well, pretty much everyone, themselves likely included. And so in absence of an understandable scientific explanation, they came up with and successfully circulated a spiritual one.

That’s why we — and the characters of the film — know Satan as a red-skinned demon with a pitchfork. It was an image that would stick, an image that would catch on, an image that although false would serve the purpose of warning people of a very real danger. It was — if we’d like to bring yet another discipline into it — a profoundly, globally effective marketing campaign. “Just say no to Satan.”

By painting this evil force as an untrustworthy imp with hooves and horns, the Brotherhood of Sleep rebranded the swirling green liquid for the masses. It is no longer something they could ever want to get close to, let alone study or analyze. In essence, had they attempted to explain it for what it actually was, there would have been necessary holes that their knowledge couldn’t fill, and others — especially through the generations — may have felt compelled to try to learn more and plug those gaps.

By more or less saying, “This is Satan, he will send you to Hell, do not tap the glass,” The Brotherhood of Sleep kept others far away. Ultimately the right decision and outcome. It was a lie for humanity’s benefit.

And so we gradually learn the scientific truths that religion rewrote (and overwrote, and partially erased), not to hide reality from us but to actually help us understand it in simpler, more accessible terms.

They say someone was cast down from Heaven rather than that Earth received a visitor from beyond the stars. They say that God works in mysterious ways rather than that the laws of physics break down at the subatomic level. They say that Christ is the son of God, our savior whose words must be adhered to, instead of saying that he was an alien who warned humanity that opening that canister would unleash a force they could not control.

It’s honestly a fascinating enough concept on its own, and Carpenter elevates it by having it permeate almost every scene in the film. He doesn’t leave the dual, complementary understandings of the world around us in the realm of the thematic; he brings it about through the set design with its religious symbols sharing the frame with scientific instruments, and the soundtrack with its synthesized choir. Every aspect of the film and its presentation ties back to science and religion overlapping, and it’s phenomenal.

Speaking of the soundtrack, my one hesitation with saying The Thing shows Carpenter at his best is the fact that he didn’t compose (much of) that movie. That’s not to say anything negative about the legendary Ennio Morricone’s work for that film, but it does represent one of the very, very few times Carpenter didn’t score his own material.

In Prince of Darkness, Carpenter directed, wrote (under a pseudonym), and scored the experience. He had his hands in all aspects of its production, which is why I think it holds together so well and might actually be the most cohesive of his films. You are surrounded on all sides by Carpenter’s vision, and it’s not a happy one.

The first time I saw Prince of Darkness, I admired it without enjoying it. I’m paraphrasing here, but a friend of mine once described The Fog as being a great movie in search of a good ending. For me, at first, Prince of Darkness felt like a great ending in search of a good movie.

This was without question my own fault. Somehow, in my mind, I’d accumulated a few details about the film that led me to assume it carried a much different tone. I knew it was about college students unleashing Satan, and I knew it starred Alice Cooper. Of course, both things I “knew” weren’t quite correct, but going into it I expected a much lighter experience than what I got.

It sounded like a sillier, dark comedy with some fun stunt casting. I figured Cooper would play a sort of showboating Father of Lies who would work with the kids and ultimately betray them, they’d learn too late that they were in over their heads, and it would be a fun little disposable romp.

It wasn’t that, and my expectations were so profoundly off the mark that it took me a long time to adjust to what it actually was.

Here’s what it actually was: bleak.

Everything about Prince of Darkness is so stubbornly, unrelentingly bleak. It’s stiflingly bleak. It’s disturbingly bleak.

I mentioned last week that some of the fun in The Thing comes from trying to pinpoint the moment at which the characters no longer have any chance of winning. You can’t really play that game with Prince of Darkness, because the characters never had a chance of winning. They started on the losing end and things only got worse for them from there.

And that’s what caught me off guard. Not the fact that evil triumphs or that bad things happen, but that nothing good occurs at any point.

Though, of course, that isn’t true. What Carpenter manages to do is frame even the small positive moments as bleak, making them feel unnerving and unwelcome. This resulted in what I first interpreted as a tonal mismatch, but what I now see as, simply, Carpenter’s vision of this particular little universe.

The film opens with things that really shouldn’t disturb at all. Students attending a lecture, the priest talking to some nuns. The Brotherhood of Sleep cleric dies, but he does so in his bed, without incident, quietly in the night. If Carpenter wanted to give us a miserable death he could have, but he gave us a peaceful death that still manages to read as miserable thanks to the blocking, the editing, and the creepy, pulsing dirge of the score.

At another point in the introduction, a male student named Brian has an obvious interest in a female student named Catherine. He notices her and lets his attention linger. Then she’s joined by another man and they walk off, leaving Brian to assume they are in a romantic relationship. Oh well.

Carpenter films and presents this as though it’s absolutely harrowing. He presents Brian as a stalker and Catherine as his prey. When the other man arrives on the scene we feel a sense of relief because God knows what this guy had intended to do. It was certainly nothing good, the way he watches her from the darkness, not making himself known, dwelling…considering…planning…

And yet it’s not that. With an easy tweak of the presentation and honestly not much more of a tweak in the performances, this could be traditionally romantic.

The next time Brian and Catherine meet, they actually talk. They have a conversation. It turns out she’s not in a relationship. The two students make plans to meet up for a date. They do, it goes well, they have sex. They develop feelings for each other.

This is, more or less, the standard romantic template in film. But Carpenter never lets us feel the romance that they feel. He keeps it at a distance. We hear the soundtrack, which tells us to feel something very different from romance. We see where the camera trails off to find a too-busy nest of clicking ants.

The presentation is knowingly off-putting. As mundane things happen in the characters’ lives, we are never allowed to let our consciousness drift from the knowledge that this is a horror film. In one scene, Brian watches a science program on television. Big deal. Carpenter’s camera shows us the back of the TV, crawling and infested with insects.

The character sees one thing; Carpenter forces us to see another.

The romantic aspect of the film — which is honestly quite small — seemed so strange and out of place to me that first time. So much so that it interfered with my enjoyment of the movie.

It was weird and bizarre in a way it should not have been, or at least it seemed to be. I wondered why he was being such a creep. I wondered why she would be interested in such a creep. But that was just the presentation screwing with me.

Watching it while trying to block out Carpenter’s trickery, it’s just two college students flirting. At once point Brian makes a misjudged sexist joke, for which he immediately apologizes and she forgives him. They start over. This should be cute. The fact that it isn’t cute, or doesn’t feel cute, isn’t their fault. They didn’t choose what kind of movie they’d star in. If they could have chosen, it certainly wouldn’t have been anything like Prince of Darkness.

In another early moment, a homeless woman approaches the priest, takes his hand, and thanks him for reopening the church. It shouldn’t register as anything more than that, but it feels tense and sinister enough that we second guess the situation. Carpenter then shows us that she’s holding a cup full of rotted flesh, covered in writing maggots.

The priest enters the church and examines his hand, repulsed and haunted by what he’s seen. We’ll be repulsed and haunted, too.

Because neither the priest nor Birack can solve the situation with the canister, they enlist the help of a number of students, Birack dangling the prospect of extra credit. Again, not because they are in any way, shape, or form equipped to handle the problem, but because there’s nobody else around to enlist.

The plan is that the priest, Birack, and Leahy will supervise the students over the course of the weekend, putting everybody’s talents and knowledge into the problem, working non-stop until they can be sure the problem is under control.

It’s a lot of work, but they figure they can solve enough of it quickly enough to at least keep whatever in in the canister at bay.

One student works to translate the Latin as best she can, but she can’t make sense of the complicated equations in the text, so she passes those on to another. One student examines the complex locking mechanism on the canister to figure out how it works, while another monitors energy readings. Some of them seem to be little more than sets of hands, rigging up the necessary equipment. Others are strictly intellectual, interpreting data handed to them and trying to fit it all together.

While Leahy keeps them hard at work, the priest and Birack sit in sequestration, talking bigger ideas, sometimes arguing, sometimes building on each other’s knowledge, working together to figure out what, if anything, they can do to keep Satan right where he is.

The expectation is that everybody will live in this church at least through the weekend, working any moment they aren’t eating or sleeping. And it’s honestly a pretty impressive representation of the kind of dynamics you’d expect to see crop up among a group of grad students.

The students look and act like average students. They mainly keep to their friends and hew close to their own professor. One warns another that a cute girl is married. They joke with each other. They drink beer and get on each other’s nerves.

One of my favorite, perfectly human moments in any film comes when Leahy heads down to the kitchen for a snack run. He’s alone, but he amuses himself by bouncing an apple repeatedly in the air with his hand and forearm, trumpeting away through tight lips as he does so.

On his way out he passes a student watching cartoons, and he leans in to trumpet into his ear.

It’s a perfectly observed moment for anyone who has had exactly that kind of professor in the past. Someone who knows what he’s doing but also has a sort of rehearsed quirkiness and who makes sure you’re aware of it.

It’s an adorable little bit of business that immediately lets you know exactly how any conference and most lectures with Leahy are bound to go. Even with very little verbal characterization, you know precisely who he is.

The student he bothers at the kitchen table is played by Dennis Dun, who I thought was another tonal misstep for the film. He cracks wise and makes sarcastic comments and at one point even tells a complete joke — setup and punchline — while boxed into a closet by monsters. He’s comic relief, but he feels so out of place with what’s happening in the film that it’s irritating.

Of course, Dun was the deuteragonist of Big Trouble in Little China, a far more comedic film than we have here, and he was great. It’s taken me a while to warm up to his character in Prince of Darkness, but I think his comic relief falling flat is also part of Carpenter’s vision. Everything is bleak. Everything. Even in the presence of the guy who should keep things light now and then. He quips and jokes just as he should but the darkness refuses to retreat.

As they go about their work, they sleep in shifts. Sometimes planned, sometimes not. And when they sleep, they all have the same dream. They may not see all of it, but the dream repeats like an S.O.S. message…which is exactly what it is.

The dream is heavily distorted, a broadcast over a weak signal. They see the exterior of the church they are in. A dark figure appears in the doorway. A garbled voice croaks a warning we can barely make out.

The priest recognizes it from the cleric’s journal and explains the dream to them. It is indeed a broadcast…from the future. From this very spot. Something terrible has happened. Something unstoppable has been loosed. Somebody in the future is sending this distress message back in time, to anyone within the immediate vicinity, warning them, pleading with them to help.

This is what we see of the apocalypse in Prince of Darkness. In The Thing, it was a computer simulation. Here it’s an actual, direct broadcast of what is going to happen if the team can’t solve the problem. In the future, it’s too late to stop the apocalypse. Their only hope is to broadcast into the dreams of someone in the past — anyone in the past — who can stop it before it begins.

It’s a desperate gamble — a Hail Mary, if you will — but it’s all the future’s got.

While the team tries to figure out what to do, the contents of the canister establishes again and again that it’s beyond their ability to either comprehend or control.

Satan, though contained and weakened for two millennia, has enough power now to control small things. Insects. Nearby objects. Even the homeless. If he’s not outright controlling them, he’s at least influencing them, drawing them near, interfering with their minds. They surround the church to prevent anyone from leaving, and eventually barricade the doors.

When one student leaves, he’s approached by a hobo played by Alice Cooper — see! I knew he was in here somewhere… — and impaled on a bicycle.

When another (Robert Grasmere, who worked on the visual effects in this film and also had a non-speaking role in They Live) leaves, he’s stabbed to death. He then returns later, animated by insects long enough to deliver a warning (“Pray for death.”) before the bugs abandon his corpse and let it collapse.

Of course, staying inside the church isn’t any safer. At one point in the film, Satan has enough strength that he’s able to shoot a jet of the green liquid into the mouth of one of the students. She gags and stumbles around helplessly, and is soon…well, not quite possessed, but certainly not herself.

“Worker ants, driven to a higher purpose, unknown to the individual. Street people…our colleagues,” Birack says. “All controlled.” A student asks if it’s demonic possession, and Birack makes a distinction. “Of a kind,” he says. “Not what we would expect, though. Never that.”

As more of the characters are overcome, we can understand that distinction more clearly. As in Get Out, one’s consciousness is not replaced; it’s just relegated to the passenger seat. It’s still there, it’s still present, it’s still aware, but it’s no longer driving.

That’s why each of the hosts for Satan acts somewhat differently.

Lisa — Ann Yen, who has the best blank stare I’ve ever seen — types madly away at a keyboard, serving as a medium for Stan exactly as she did for The Brotherhood of Sleep when she was translating their texts. Leahy stumbles around, barely able to move, weeping over the fact that he’s no longer himself. But the most interesting host is Calder, played by Jessie Lawrence Ferguson.

In one of the film’s many unspoken bits of quiet characterization, Calder wears a cross necklace when he arrives at the church. Aside from the priest, he may be the only Christian in the film. We can’t know that and normally it wouldn’t matter, but when he’s overcome he wanders around, emptily singing “Amazing Grace.”

It’s not Satan singing that song through him; it’s Calder, fighting his possession. And when he senses that he’s going to lose the fight — fight he probably only had in him due to his faith — he slits his own throat to prevent himself from becoming one of Satan’s minions.

Of course, as we already saw with the bugs puppeteering another corpse, Satan in this film has the ability to keep his unwitting helpers going after death. Calder reanimates and wanders the church. He eventually finds a mirror and stands in front of it for almost the entire remainder of the film, transfixed. He sees himself. He sees the fact that he slit his own neck to escape from this nightmare. He sees that it has not worked.

And he laughs. He laughs and laughs and cries and laughs, because he knows there’s no way out. He knows that’s him in the mirror, but also not him, and that there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s absolutely chilling, and so perfectly executed.

Aside from giving Calder just a little bit of strength in his still-doomed struggle against Old Scratch, though, what role does faith play in Prince of Darkness?

Well, it plays the most important part, though it’s too late to do any good.

One of the characters examines the canister and figures out that it’s locked from the inside. While that might seem like a pretty massive design flaw when your prisoner is The Angel of the Abyss, it makes sense. If The Brotherhood of Sleep wished to prevent future generations from letting him out, placing the lock on the inside would solve that problem.

Of the problem of Satan unlatching his own cage, though, that’s where faith comes in. As long as stories of Satan’s evil circulate and are believed, as long as mankind wants nothing to do with him, Satan remains weak, unable to open the complicated lock on his own prison.

As the years ticked by and humanity became more scientifically literate, the number of people who understood the world through an entirely spiritual lens necessarily decreased. Not a problem in itself, but with fewer people giving Satan the time of day, his power grew, and grew, until we reached this moment, the moment at which he can begin to reassert dominion and wriggle loose of his bindings.

“It’s your disbelief that powers him,” the priest tells Birack, in the closest thing to true conflict they have. “Your stubborn faith in…in common sense…that allows his deception.”

He tells Birack that they need to spread belief again if they are to weaken him and keep him trapped.

“You must prove it scientifically,” he says, knowing even as a priest that Bible stories won’t cut it. “Convince the outside world.”

Birack, though, replies with a harsh truth: “The outside world doesn’t want to hear this kind of bullshit.”

And he’s right. The world has moved on. No scientist declaring that Satan is real will convince the masses to convert, to believe, to fear something they’ve already dismissed as legend. The best they can hope to do is to keep it imprisoned, and with every second that ticks by, it gets more and more difficult to do so.

Keep this in mind, by the way, for next week. Here, a lack of faith gives the enemy strength. In the Mouth of Madness will show us the exact opposite.

Actually, hey, as long as we’re connecting this to the other films in the trilogy, a student in Prince of Darkness says, “Faith is a hard thing to come by these days.” This is an almost exact lift of MacReady’s line in The Thing: “Trust is a tough thing to come by these days.”

And Calder laughing madly when he sees his helpless self reflected in the mirror? Sam Neill will do something very similar with a movie screen next week.

Anyway, the film doesn’t so much build toward its conclusion as it collapses toward it…which I mean as a compliment. Even the first time I watched Prince of Darkness and disliked it, I thought its ending was phenomenal. And still, even now, I think it’s the film’s runaway highlight.

Having made absolutely no headway toward keeping Satan contained, the few characters who don’t already serve as host to The Deceiver of the Whole World can do little more than lock themselves in tiny rooms and hope for a miracle. Or, in the priest’s case, pray for one.

One of the students serves as a dedicated vessel, and has the ability to reach through mirrors into another universe…a universe in which the more traditional, physical manifestation of Satan waits. Technically he’s referred to as this Satan’s father. The end result is the same; the scientific Satan on this end reaches across the boundary to the spiritual Satan on the other.

In such a simple, brilliant special effect, Carpenter films the surface of calm water as the surface of a mirror, and the image of the vessel reaching through to take the hand of The Devil is striking and immediately memorable.

She begins to pull him through to our world, and all is as good as lost.

Catherine realizes that this is their last chance to force evil back. She dives at the vessel and tackles her.

They fall through the mirror, leaving The Devil where he is. And before anybody can even try rescuing Catherine, the priest destroys the mirror with an axe.

She’s trapped. She’s gone. She’s stuck, alone, with the Prince of Darkness.

It’s such a perfectly unexpected moment, and yet thoroughly fitting. We expect our heroes to either live or die. It’s rare to see a character — especially one as sympathetic as Catherine — be sealed away in the depths of Hell for the crime of saving the world.

It’s an absolutely chilling fuck-you to the character. Not from Carpenter, but from the universe. And it’s so God damned perfect.

But it’s over. That’s the important thing. After several long nights of losing every battle, they’ve won the war. Catherine is gone, but so are many others. What matters is that they came out on top.

“We stopped it,” the priest says to Birack as a new day dawns. “We stopped it here. Through the grace of God, I stopped it. The future conjured up by that vile serpent will not happen now.”

It’s a time for gratitude, for thankfulness, for relief, for remembering those who died to keep the apocalypse at bay.

And then Brian has a dream. The same dream. The broadcast from the future. And this time, he can see the mysterious figure more clearly: It’s Catherine.

They stopped nothing. It was always Catherine in that vision. Always Catherine that served as Satan’s vessel in the future. That was always what was going to happen.

They didn’t fight it or postpone it at all. Everything happened the way it was always going to happen.

At least, that’s how I’ve always interpreted it, and I have difficulty seeing it any other way. I’ve read reviews and summaries that say the ending is inconclusive, or even that the characters manage to succeed at the last moment.

And I suppose I can see where they might get those ideas. Carpenter admittedly doesn’t end his film with a title card reading “THEY’RE FUCKED.” But I think Carpenter gives us enough reason to believe that the apocalypse has not been averted. (And the film being part of something call the “Apocalypse Trilogy” is only one of those reasons.)

I think the decided bleakness of the entire experience is crucial. That’s why we have to accept that when Catherine falls through the mirror, in an act of massive self-sacrifice, nobody is saved. Her act, structurally, needs to be meaningless, lest Carpenter undo every bit of groundwork he’d spent 90 minutes laying.

Throughout Prince of Darkness we are not allowed to laugh at jokes. We are not allowed to feel good about romance. We are not allowed to believe at any point that these characters have any chance of making any amount of progress. For Carpenter to undermine himself at the very end, for him to give the characters a victory — however Pyrrhic — would be for Carpenter to betray his own achievement.

No. Catherine is gone. That is both a nightmare and reality. That is what makes the movie matter. For all the blood and trauma and madness of that weekend, everybody ended up where they had to be for the apocalypse to come to pass.

At the end of The Thing, it’s possible the characters have succeeded in saving the human race. At the end of Prince of Darkness, the characters probably have not. As we will see, at the end of In the Mouth of Madness, the characters definitively haven’t. These films build on each other toward more conclusively tragic endings. If we allow ourselves to believe that good triumphed over evil in Prince of Darkness, the film loses its place in that progression.

To put it more simply, nothing about Prince of Darkness was happy. Why would its ending be?

Of the Apocalypse Trilogy, The Thing is pretty much universally considered to be the best. And as much as I love to argue…I can’t argue with that. It is the best of the three films, in almost every regard.

But Prince of Darkness is my favorite. It’s just so remarkably effective at what it does — and is bravely uncompromising in its bleakness — that I can’t help but admire it.

After I watched it the first time and disliked it, I still thought about it, constantly, for days. Honestly, it may even have been weeks. It haunted me. The feelings it triggered in me never subsided for long. It was always there, on the other side of that mirror, waiting.

And now, after I’ve seen it another five or six times, I love it. The Thing was always great, and though it grows a little bit in my estimation every time I see it, Prince of Darkness grows by enormous leaps each time. It started in a position that didn’t impress me, but improves so much each time that it’s a kind of dark miracle.

It’s also the scariest of the three films, and for my money the scariest Carpenter film overall.

I mentioned last week that nearly every Carpenter film is about the characters figuring out the rules of the universe they inhabit. I think the characters in Prince of Darkness are the ones who make the smallest amount of progress toward doing that.

Which I love, because it’s realistic. Carpenter puts his characters up against an evil so towering and unknowable that they can only be conquered by it, and then he lets that defeat unfold step by merciless step.

It’s cruel, and at no point does it pull any punches.

After all, I promise you, if Satan is clawing his way out of some underground container in our world, we aren’t smart enough to cram him back in there, either. We’ve also stopped recognizing evil for what it is. Someone probably could have stopped it a long time ago, but if you look around right now, I’m sure you’ll agree they didn’t.

And now what will happen, will happen.

I wish us all better luck next week, when we’ll look at In the Mouth of Madness.

Trilogy of Terror: The Thing (1982)

Welcome back to Trilogy of Terror, a series in which I take an in-depth look at three related horror films in the run-up to Halloween. This is the first installment in this year’s trilogy; the second will go live October 24, and the third on Halloween itself.

This also marks the start of the fifth Trilogy of Terror. When I started this series, I knew I was in for an annual treat. When horror is terrible, it’s hilarious. When horror is smart, it fuels interesting discussions. And when horror is great, it lives forever in your mind, refusing to ever let you go. In other words, no matter how good or bad any film I cover might be, there should nearly always be something interesting to say about it.

This year, though, we are spending the month with three excellent films that I recommend without hesitation: John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy.” I encourage you to watch each of them. Not necessarily because these reviews will be riddled with spoilers — though they will be, so consider this your warning — but because they’re worth watching even if (especially if?) you know what to expect.

The Apocalypse Trilogy is a phrase Carpenter has only applied to these three films (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness) in retrospect. They were not planned to connect in any way, which is why each of them can be thoroughly enjoyed in its own right without any experience of the other two.

Upon reflection, however, Carpenter noticed similarities that inspired him to start thinking about them as complementary works. In a 2014 interview with The Wall Street Journal, he had this to say:

As for the “Apocalypse Trilogy,” all three of those movies are, in one way or another, about the end of things, about the end of everything, the world we know, but in different ways. The Thing is the science fiction way, where this creature was going to imitate itself and take over the world. Prince of Darkness is another way. And then, In the Mouth of Madness, basically, is an alternate reality has taken over. Each of those things is kind of an apocalyptic kind of movie, but a very different take on it.

That’s a lot of vague language, but it’s still the most direct explanation I’ve found from the man himself. (In a different statement, which I can’t seem to find again, he essentially boiled it down to “things don’t end very well for the main characters.”)

Vague definitions are okay. When noticing a pattern in hindsight, it’s going to be looser than one you planned ahead of time. Carpenter isn’t attempting to explain his thought process or creative vision; he’s just speaking about the way three things he’s done share similar elements.

To him, it’s just an interesting coincidence he happened to notice. By referring to it as a trilogy I think he set more rigid expectations than he intended; fans have spent years dissecting the films to see how they fit together in a larger, narrative sense, finding connections that aren’t really there because they’re supposed to be there.

And that’s what we’ll do here, as well!

…sort of. I will be discussing the ways the films build different structures atop similar foundations, and I’ll point out a few neat moments of overlap and inversion, but that’s about it. These movies should not be watched as — and were emphatically not produced as — three parts of one whole. They’re three fantastic horror films that should be viewed as three fantastic horror films that shared some unintentional creative DNA.

Of the three, The Thing is undoubtedly the most famous and popular. It’s also, overall, the best of the three in my opinion, but there are things each of the next two films do better, which I mean not just as a compliment to them but as an enormous one.

Carpenter had had various degrees of interest in making The Thing since around 1976. The script went through a number of significant revisions. Talent signed on and dropped off. Carpenter went back and forth regarding whether Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World — a 1951 film based on the same source material, “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. — could even be outdone. (Spoiler: The Thing from Another World is not a bad film, but it ended up being very, very easily outdone.)

The characters watching The Thing from Another World in Carpenter’s own 1978 film Halloween was no coincidence; Hawks’ film was on his mind, as were his own ideas about how to tell the same story.

When we finally did get The Thing, we saw that it — appropriately, in a thematic sense — took a very different shape from the earlier film.

Received wisdom holds that Carpenter’s version is more faithful to Campbell’s original story, but I’m not sure that that’s true. It could be, but, if it is, it’s not notably so. Perhaps someone could come up with some mathematical formula to weigh all the faithful stuff in The Thing from Another World against all the faithful stuff in The Thing and see which way the scale tilts, but both films are similar and different in their own ways, to comparable degrees, and we’ll discuss those in due time.

The Thing takes place almost entirely within an antarctic research station, where a skeleton crew goes about its work without much enthusiasm or interest. Carpenter’s version of this crew is very different from the crews in Campbell’s story and Hawks’ adaptation. Those versions of the crew are large, effective, and serious about their work. Carpenter’s crew is the polar opposite. (Literally, too, as The Thing from Another World stations them at the North Pole and The Thing puts them in Antarctica.)

Campbell and Hawks have their characters work together — at least at first — and make decisions that will affect the station as a team. Every voice is heard, and the station’s commander makes the final call, which the crew rightly obeys.

Carpenter’s crew is a different beast. Their research station technically has a leader, but he’s ineffectual, which I think is important to the way this particular telling of the story pans out.

Commander Garry is in charge, but he commands no respect. Carpenter never draws direct attention to this, but the more I watch the film the more clearly I see it.

Garry is almost never consulted about what the team will do next, and when he raises concerns (such as when Doc Copper wants to take the helicopter up as a storm rolls in) he is ignored. His crew talks back to him and insults him. At times they yell at him because he doesn’t understand the situation as well as they do. As the research station descends into chaos — precisely the moment at which the crew needs strong leadership — Garry surrenders his authority to whomever else wants it.

Garry comes across as a man who earned his position through length of service rather than through any kind of achievement. His crew allows him to call himself their commander, as long as he doesn’t actually try to command them. It’s not that they actively decide not to involve him; it’s that they never think to involve him in the first place. He’s a pencil pusher, and probably not even a particularly good one.

The most consequential thing Garry does happens at the very beginning of the film. When two Norwegian researchers enter the American camp — crazed, shouting, firing at a dog they’ve pursued there and hitting someone in the leg — Garry shoots one of them through the eye, killing him instantly. (The other, in his panic, accidentally kills himself with a grenade.)

Of course, this is what allows The Thing to infiltrate the research station, but Garry could not have known that. Even so, the fact that he stopped a gunman before he could do much damage is dismissed as an idiotic impulse. “I was wondering when El Capitan was gonna get a chance to use his popgun,” one of his men says. And Garry, present for the insult, says nothing. He may not be okay with the fact that his crew doesn’t respect him, but I think he also realizes he hasn’t earned that respect.

We observe the crew going about their day and their work at various points, never quite invested in what they’re doing or with each other. They kill time by shooting pool, playing poker, and passing joints around, but never really talk to each other while doing so. These are social activities, yet nobody socializes. None of them is there because he wanted this assignment; they’re just the guys who were willing to take it.

The crew in The Thing is one of the most believable groups of characters I’ve ever seen in a film, and Carpenter pulls it off simply by letting them interact, without any specific dynamic really being brought to the foreground. You learn about who these characters are by how others react to them, and by how quickly — or reluctantly — they come to distrust each other.

Distrust, of course, is a central theme of the film. The dog that the Norwegians chased into the American camp is actually a shape-shifting extraterrestrial. It perfectly assumes the shape and the behavior of other living things, including specific people. We’ll discuss that more later, but for now it’s enough to say that the crew faces a very real and possibly unsolvable problem. As Childs, one of the researchers, says, “If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?”

Childs is posing this question believing, of course, that there is no answer…though everybody clearly wishes there were one, and that somebody will propose a solution.

Nobody does, or can.

Without any way of telling an individual apart from his artificial and dangerous replacement, no character can trust any other. And yet, with such an effective impostor in their midst, trust becomes so much more crucial than it has ever been before. The value of trust skyrockets as its supply dwindles.

Without the reliable leadership Campbell and Hawks provided their characters, Carpenter’s crew flails, flounders, and ultimately fails. Nature — and human nature — abhors a vacuum, though, and a de facto leader emerges. Not because he wishes to lead, or even because he can lead, but because enough people turn to him for support that he doesn’t have a choice.

This is R.J. MacReady, played by Kurt Russell.

Carpenter developed a habit of working with the same actors over the course of multiple films, and so while looking at the Apocalypse Trilogy I’ll do my best to point out which actors appeared elsewhere in his filmography. These three movies provide a pretty decent cross-section, even if we won’t encounter such other notables as George “Buck” Flower, Jamie Lee Curtis or Charles Cyphers.

Russell appears also in Elvis, Escape from New York, Escape from L.A., and Big Trouble in Little China. In The Thing he’s a weary helicopter pilot who seems to keep to himself, but who the other crewmen see as reliable and even-keeled. Which, of course, he may not be, as we learn in his very first scene.

We are introduced to MacReady as he plays a game of computer chess. It seems to be a close game, and MacReady believes he has ultimately outsmarted the computer (voiced by Adrienne Barbeau, who Carpenter fans have seen in Someone’s Watching Me!, The Fog, and Escape from New York).

He makes a foolish move, though, and the computer beats him. He responds by pouring his drink into the machine, frying it.

This ends up serving as an extremely efficient look at what’s to come, as his campaign against The Thing follows the same pattern. Every time MacReady thinks he sees an opening, The Thing proves that he’s left himself exposed. And when The Thing ultimately places him in check, MacReady fries the entire compound.

Characters turn to MacReady frequently, to the point that he sees it as wearisome. They respect him and what he has to say, and are perfectly happy to accept his guidance. But there is an exception: Childs, played by Keith David (who we know from They Live), is the one consistent challenger of his authority. At one point he even attempts to assume command, only to be shot down by MacReady.

“It should be somebody a little more even tempered, Childs,” says MacReady.

Remember that this the man who blew up a chess computer because he lost. Also, moments before this exchange, he threatened everybody’s lives with a bundle of dynamite.

The clash between MacReady and Childs fuels a lot of the tension in the film (and will ultimately make its ending so perfectly effective), but I don’t believe at any point they dislike each other. I think each just doesn’t believe the other can get them through this alive. (And, hey, they’re both right!)

Unfortunately for Childs, everybody else sides with MacReady. He doesn’t have the support to push back in any meaningful way, though he also never comes around to fully accepting MacReady as the boss. The trust is mutually absent.

Trust is something every one of us — us, here, in reality — takes for granted far more than we realize, and like the doomed crew in The Thing, we won’t truly realize that fact until a baseline sense of trust is no longer possible.

There’s no reason to believe that any of these characters particularly trusted the others beyond the basic assumptions of human decency, but now even that is gone. It’s not a matter of trusting someone not to steal your pot or cheat at poker; it’s a matter of no longer being able to trust anyone enough to even turn your back on them. And the moment that’s the case — that trust no longer exists — it becomes exhausting.

Carpenter even illustrates this perfectly with the genuinely sad moment of MacReady sitting alone in the dark, recording an audio log for anybody who might find it when this is all over. “Nobody trusts anybody now,” he says. “And we’re all very tired.” It’s harrowing in its understatement.

Carpenter’s shapeshifter is almost entirely in line with the beast of Campbell’s story, with the exception of the fact that Campbell introduces it in hideous alien form. The Hawks film is more faithful in that regard. (In fact, the question of whether that’s its actual form or the form of a previous victim is raised by both Campbell and Hawks, but is not even mentioned in Carpenter’s film.)

In each of those versions, the researchers discover the alien encased in ice, near to its crashed spacecraft. In each of those versions, they attempt to excavate the craft for study, only to accidentally destroy it. In each of those versions, they take the alien in a block of ice into their camp and discuss what to do, before ultimately thawing it out.

Not so with Carpenter. In The Thing, our researchers don’t get a say in the situation. The alien is found and loosed without any action on their part. They are forced to deal with the repercussions of somebody else’s actions, rather than their own. I think we can all agree that makes it a very different story.

So who let the aliens out? Well, that would be the Norwegians.

After the bizarre assault by the two Norwegian researchers, Doc Copper convinces MacReady — and ignores Garry’s protestations — to fly him over to the Norwegian camp to find out if any survivors need assistance.

What they find is evidence of an unthinkable nightmare. It answers their immediate question — nope; nobody needs help — but raises many more.

They find the camp destroyed. Bloodied axes embedded in walls. Doors hastily barricaded. The body of a man who slit his own wrists and throat rather than…well, Doc and MacReady don’t know what the alternative was, but it clearly wasn’t anything good. Out back, the charred remains of something only vaguely human. Oh, and a block of ice from which something has been removed…or from which something removed itself.

The two take everything they can find by way of documentation — photographs, paperwork, video footage — back to their own camp, and we learn along with them what happened: The Norwegian researches found a crashed spacecraft, attempted to excavate it, took a frozen alien back with them, and let it defrost.

…which was everything the Americans did in Campbell’s and Hawks’ tales. Carpenter doesn’t discard this sequence of events, but he turns their story into his backstory. Perhaps he felt that that narrative had already been explored twice, and didn’t need a third iteration. Instead of staying up all night with a team of researchers debating what to do with their frozen monster from beyond the stars, Carpenter skips all of that and focuses on what happens after it gets out, to unfortunate innocents who get caught in its path of destruction.

Carpenter’s crew doesn’t get to decide what to do. They don’t have the luxury of making decisions about risks to take or to avoid. They might manage to exert some degree of control over the details of their extermination, but their ultimate fate is decided without them, by a group of people they (largely) never met and who never managed to warn them.

In reviewing the Norwegians’ footage, The Thing provides its only direct recreation of a scene in The Thing from Another World — in black and white, of course — with the large group of researchers circling the buried UFO to estimate its size.

MacReady and Doc bring a strange corpse with human-like features back to camp, and the entire group comes together to examine it. Between that, the recovered documentation, and the crazed state of the two men who were chasing the dog, Blair (an incredible Wilford Brimley) pieces together what happened.

Whatever the Norwegians uncovered, it has the ability to perfectly mimic other organisms. They did their suicidal best to destroy it, but ultimately failed. At some point they managed to whittle its lone surviving presence down to the dog, but a combination of bad luck on their part and a lucky shot by Garry ended their fight. The Thing is now here in the American camp, and it could be anybody.

The story is both a small one and a massive one. The film opens — we’ll eventually learn — at least 100,000 years in the past, as we watch the UFO crash to Earth. And should The Thing find its way onto more populated continents, Earth will enter its final few years. It’s the story of one tiny group being exterminated, and also the entire story of mankind.

Our nearest glimpse of the apocalypse is here:

I don’t have much to say about that in itself, but it will be interesting to note what we see of the apocalypse in the next two films.

Blair estimates that The Thing could exterminate the human race within 27,000 hours. That’s just a hair over three years away, and while it’s possible somebody could find some way to destroy it or contain it within that time, it’s unlikely; The Thing can take any form and could therefore hide anywhere at all, only to resurface later.

The fact that The Thing can shape-shift at all is one area in which Carpenter’s film is the more faithful adaptation. In Hawks’ version, The Thing is basically an intergalactic Frankenstein’s monster, and the researchers eventually discover that it’s some sort of plant-man. It’s not easy to watch that film and see the beast as much of a threat, and indeed it has an almost absurdly low body-count for a monster with its potential victims already corralled into a tight, inescapable space.

Carpenter’s Thing registers all the way through as a genuine and serious threat. It consumes the research team’s dogs and withstands gunfire without a problem. Childs roasting it with a flamethrower is only somewhat successful, as enough of the creature escapes to wreak further havoc.

What’s more, the seeming solution of burning it is eventually shown to be less final than it at first seems. As Fuchs — who takes over as lead scientist when Blair ends up indisposed — reports, “There’s still cellular activity in these burned remains. They’re not dead yet.”

In short, fire is the best weapon the team has, and even that isn’t very good. This stands in direct contrast to Campbell and Hawks, who each establish that fire definitively kills the beast. Yet another way in which Carpenter’s film is “much more faithful,” eh?

Blair is the first member of the team to be driven mad by the danger The Thing poses to humanity.

At least, that’s how it seems. His madness is based on the sad truth that this creature represents the end. He disables the camp’s vehicles and smashes up their communication equipment, ranting a rationale we almost certainly can’t make out on a first viewing. If you ever wanted to see Wilford Brimley on an axe-rampage, The Thing is a must see.

There is a literal method to his madness, though: The Thing is unstoppable, and all he can do is make sure there’s no way whatsoever for anyone here to get out or for anyone out there to get in. With a lot of luck they’ll kill it, but that’s unlikely. He’s attempting to sacrifice the researchers for the sake of marooning it in this frozen hell, hopefully for a few more hundred thousand years.

At first, Blair seems like he poses an additional threat to the crew…and, well, he does, yeah. Fair enough. But he’s a threat with humanity’s best interests at heart. Not that MacReady and the rest can be faulted for locking him away in the tool shed, though, where the character spends the rest of the film.

In a brilliantly chilling sight gag, MacReady comes out later to check on him and finds him sitting next to a noose. “I don’t want to stay out here anymore,” Blair deadpans. “I want to come back inside.”

One of the great joys of rewatching The Thing is attempting to find the precise moment at which the crew’s chances of survival reaches zero. At various points it seems like they might be able to wrestle back just a little bit of ground, but they never do.

As the movie unfolds they lose their vehicles, their radio equipment, their dogs. They start losing members of their own crew to The Thing. They lose Blair’s gifted mind to madness and Fuchs’ to desperate suicide. Doc Copper proposes a test to determine which of them is still human, but they lose their stock of blood before they can do it. Then they lose Doc Copper before he can propose an alternative.

Somewhere in there is the tipping point. I’m not personally sure where I’d place it, and while it’s fun to think about it, I’m also not sure it matters. We watch the crew and its resources get shaved down further with every minute that passes. We might think, at first, that they can make it through this. After all, the Norwegians managed to reduce The Thing to a single dog; doesn’t that mean the Americans have at least a fighting chance?

But they don’t. They can’t. There’s no solution available to them, and maybe no solution at all aside from Blair’s forced, fatal isolation.

Both Campbell and Hawks let a few token characters get picked off by the beast, but in the end both of their crews are triumphant and mop their brows in relief, humanity saved.

Carpenter, in his “much more faithful” adaptation, puts humanity squarely on the losing end. The most we can hope is that the dead crew took The Thing down with them, and that’s far from a safe bet.

Perhaps people consider Carpenter’s film to be more faithful to Campbell’s story because they haven’t paid more than superficial attention to it. At first glance it certainly seems like Carpenter brought that story’s specific crew to life. Flip casually through the story’s 40-odd pages and you’ll find names like Blair, Garry, Clark, and McReady. (Note that Carpenter added an A, making his nickname “Mac” feel a little more natural.)

But that’s about it; most of the rest of the crew is entirely Carpenter’s invention, despite the fact that there were more characters in the story than there are in this film. Hawks may have changed everybody’s names, but he stayed true to their characterization. Carpenter changes everything about them.

In the book, Garry is well-liked, respected, and carries authority. McReady is an action hero just waiting for his spotlight; he’s not weary or reluctant at all, and he has a clear plan for everything, as opposed to MacReady’s cinematic floundering.

Blair in the story believes the alien poses no harm (indeed, cannot pose any harm) to humanity and insists on studying it, exactly like his analogue in The Thing from Another World. Carpenter’s version of Blair displays concern immediately, which is only amplified and eventually explodes as he realizes exactly what they’re up against.

Does it matter that we incorrectly believe Carpenter’s film is more faithful? Absolutely it does, because it misrepresents just how much he actually brought to the film, and what an achievement it is.

Carpenter was clearly familiar with both other tellings, and if you — the viewer — were familiar with them as well, he used your expectations against you.

The characters you thought you knew behave differently. The long stretches of quiet deliberation are missing completely, as our crew here never has a chance to catch its breath. And, perhaps most significantly, characters that are replaced by The Thing in the original story are not replaced by The Thing in this film.

In fact, if memory serves, Blair is the only character replaced by The Thing in both Campbell’s and Carpenter’s versions. Every other character has his fate altered, keeping viewers on their toes even if they’re familiar with the source material. Perhaps even moreso.

And of course there’s the fact that Campbell’s story ends with most of the crew surviving, whereas Carpenter’s ends with MacReady and Childs — the latter being a unique creation of the film — sitting together in the snow while their world burns around them, passing a bottle back and forth as they wait to freeze to death.

Carpenter’s adaptation is so faithful, it swings all the way back around to being not faithful at all!

In fairness to “Who Goes There?,” the standout scene in The Thing is present in the source material. It exists, however, in a very different form, and though Carpenter inherited this brilliant moment from Campbell, he also significantly elevated it.

In the story, Doc Copper attempts a traditional blood test to determine who has been replaced by The Thing. It turns out to be a flawed plan and so they then come up with another idea: Press a hot wire into blood samples from each man. Since The Thing can split into numerous parts and still function, it should be present in the blood and react to the pain of the hot wire.

It works great, and as the imitations of crew members are revealed, they are destroyed by the humans without incident.

If you’ve seen the film, you remember that scene going quite differently.

For starters, Doc Copper never got to do his intended blood test, and he’s killed before he can figure out a backup. MacReady comes up with the same hot-wire test, but here the situation is much different.

In the story, his counterpart has the luxury of sitting and thinking and puzzling it out. In the film, he realizes The Thing can split apart by watching the head of one of his overtaken colleagues separate from the body and shuffle off on newly sprouted spider legs.

Also, y’know, MacReady has just been accused of being The Thing and was locked out of the compound to die, only being readmitted because he threatened to kill everybody if they didn’t back off.

Very different context, but at first the execution seems similar. Surely somebody is The Thing, they’re going to find out who, and they’re going to take care of it. MacReady ties all of his suspects to the couch and gets testing, the tension rising each time the hot wire fizzles in a shallow pool of blood.

Then somebody’s blood reacts and…whoops.

Yeah, as smart as MacReady’s idea was, neither he nor anyone else involved really thought this through, and now other crew members are tied to the raging monster. MacReady’s flamethrower malfunctions and there are more fatalities. Sure, they managed to find The Thing, but lost more innocents in doing so.

During the test MacReady also shoots one of his colleagues who approaches him too quickly, killing him. Yes, the man did intend to subdue the crazed MacReady, but MacReady thought he might be The Thing. The posthumous blood test proves that he wasn’t. “Which makes you a murderer, don’t it?” Childs asks him. It’s a hell of a dig, but a fair one, considering MacReady had previously declared himself more even-tempered.

It’s a fantastic, perfect horror scene that manages to warn us against excessive paranoia even as it proves there is an actual monster among them, waiting to attack. It’s a bloodbath that still results in overreaction, and that’s a hell of a thing to pull off convincingly.

I do have to admit that it took me a long time to accept The Thing as being capable of convincingly faking somebody’s entire personality. I didn’t quite buy that some space monster from hundreds of thousands of years in the past could duplicate a human so perfectly, right down to his mannerisms, his memory, his understanding of human etiquette.

Surely that’s far more difficult than, say, just stealing somebody’s form, or voice. We should be able to see through an imitation of somebody we’ve worked and lived with for years…right?

But, ultimately, I think the answer is that we aren’t as complex as we think we are.

We can trick ducks and crows and fish and deer among other animals by making them believe some artificial approximation of a creature is real. We can do that not exactly because we’re more intelligent than they are, but because we’re differently intelligent. We can figure out what an animal looks for in determining something’s identity, and create something that checks those boxes.

It won’t fool an animal — such as man — who looks for different things, but that doesn’t matter. We only need to hit that small list of features that our target pays attention to.

And so maybe what The Thing is doing is hitting man’s small list of important features. To us that list doesn’t seem small. Heck, to us it isn’t small. It’s who we are. We process each other the way we process anything else in the world. It’s the entirety of our perception, both conscious and unconscious.

But to an alien that’s intelligent in a different way, who can see us from more angles and understand us in ways we cannot understand anything at all, it just needs to make sure it’s checking the right boxes.

Mimicking someone’s speech patterns exactly and responding in flawlessly convincing ways in conversation might seem impossible from our perspective, but to an alien who can view us from a distance, that may not be any more difficult than it is for us to stuff an old shirt full of hay and put it on a stick in a cornfield.

I’m reaching beyond the boundaries of the film here, I understand, but as long as we can agree that The Thing functions in ways we can’t truly comprehend — not much of a stretch there — I think we’re covered by that alone.

That’s about the closest thing I ever had to a criticism of The Thing, and it’s as easy to ignore as it is to attribute to alien logic beyond our understanding and move along.

I put off watching The Thing for a long time because all I had heard from so many people was how great it was. Some of them told me it was the best horror film overall, and none of them disagreed that it was at least among the very best. And so I waited until I was in the right mood to sit down and appreciate one of the best things the genre had to offer, knowing without a doubt that it couldn’t possibly live up to its own reputation.

But it did. The Thing was even better than I’d been led to believe. It’s the rare movie that I think can’t actually have justice done by mere words. I’m five-thousandish words into this review and I’m still not convinced I’ve made a case for just how perfect a piece of horror cinema it is.

And Carpenter does that not by giving us a scary monster, or by exploring interesting ideas, or by creating a group of fascinating characters; he does it by doing all of those things, at once, seemingly so simple and easy when I’m sure the production was far from those things.

When you watch The Thing, you don’t see the effort that went into it. You don’t see the scenes that were too expensive to shoot and the bits that didn’t work that were excised in the edit. You don’t see anything, really, beyond the plight of a small group of researchers doing what they can to survive against an impossible foe, and then at least trying to take it down with them.

If we’re not counting Hitchcock — and I’d argue we shouldn’t — Carpenter is by a large margin my favorite horror director. I’ve wondered many times what elevates his work in my estimation above others who tend to be held in higher regard.

I could say it’s because he’s versatile, regularly demonstrating a keen understanding of not only horror but action, comedy, and drama. I could say it’s because he’s multitalented, as he’s not only a gifted director but also a gifted writer, composer, and musician. I could say a lot of things.

But I think my answer is that watching his movies feels like peeking through windows at little worlds. Worlds like ours, usually, but worlds that have their own sets of rules that separate them from the one we know.

The characters within these worlds often don’t know those rules. They don’t know they existed, until one day they have to both learn and master them. Quickly.

Nearly all of Carpenter’s films are about his characters learning what kind of world, exactly, they’ve always lived in, and that’s such a compelling narrative device, and one that he often pulls off flawlessly.

The Thing is a window into such a world. It’s a story about characters trying and failing to figure out what kind of story they’re in. If they learn the rules, they might be able to navigate toward a happy ending, but they don’t have the luxury of time. They don’t have the resources. They don’t have the leadership or the knowledge or the skills necessary to get out of this alive.

Fortunately for the rest of humanity, MacReady has no qualms about pushing back with his own rules.

He isn’t going to win, but he’ll be damned if he’s the only one who loses.

It’s an excellent and important film, and it proved that John Carpenter could take a potentially apocalyptic idea and make it feel both large and small, both personal and cosmic, both claustrophobic and entirely without boundary.

Now, of course, we need to find out if he could do it again. Tune in next week for Prince of Darkness.