AN EMPIRE OF ONE

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John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy at the Aero Theatre

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Here’s a video (recorded with an Android phone) of John Carpenter giving a short intro to a screening of his Apocalypse Trilogy (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness) at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica on September 24, 2011.

The recording begins a few seconds after he started talking. Here’s what’s missing: Carpenter began by saying that anyone who lasted through all three movies would get $500 from a man he pointed to standing to the side, thus laying the groundwork for several bad jokes several hours later. He then spoke of the Fifties as not being the quiet decade of conformism that it’s usually thought as being. As soon as he finished the intro, he left  the theater with a bodyguard, passing through the closest exit. No questions from the audience were entertained.

Here are some observations about the films:

The Thing

For me this film is all about Blair’s line, “I don’t know who to trust.” How do you know whether to trust other people when some people can be very good at hiding their true natures and intentions for a long time after you first meet them. Your best friend may turn out to be your worst enemy. So how can you tell? Unfortunately, there is no blood test as there is in the film to determine if a friend is truly a friend, so in real life we are often in even dire straits than the characters in the film.

Recently there has been renewed interest in a question that probably began the day the film was released in 1982: in the last scene, is Childs an alien? There are a couple of videos which purport to prove that there are clues in the film that point to not only that Childs is an alien, but that MacReady kills him shortly after the film ends. It’s interesting that The Thing was originally released the same day as Blade Runner, a film which spawned a similar flurry of arguments around a similar question: Is Deckard a replicant? However, unlike Ridley Scott who apparently finally settled the question in the affirmative, Carpenter has not made any attempt to answer the question about whether Childs is or is not The Thing. Instead, he has said that the ending is supposed to be ambiguous. But there’s a good reason for that: the film’s true horror is precisely what happens in that scene: you can never know with certainty who to trust. There appears to be an aversion to ambiguity, so we have endless arguments that attempt to bring certainty to a film that does not have certainty. I suspect that the clues that suggest to some that Childs is an alien are the result of the last scene in the movie not being a part of the original story, hence not fully thought out to make it completely consistent with the rest of the movie. But thematically, it’s 100% consistent. Childs may or may not be The Thing. The point is that we do not know.  And you don’t have to be living in the world of The Thing to face that quandary. That’s the true horror.

It was both amusing and sad as hell to hear two guys who were sitting behind us in the theater arguing over the name of the author of “Who Goes There?,” which they had read in the film’s credits. Neither of them knew who John W. Campbell, Jr. was.

Prince of Darkness

This is another film in which the setup has a group of people isolated from the outside world under siege from forces both outside and inside their sanctuary. Carpenter’s first feature, Assault on Precinct 13, was obviously derived from Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo, but films such as The Thing, with its obvious Howard Hawks connection, and Prince of Darkness, have similar setups. However, each one of the films in the trilogy can be traced to a variety of sources. Lovecraft appears to have a hand in each of them. Although this is most obviously the case for In the Mouth of Madness, whenever monsters from another world, especially monsters with tentacles, show up the credit is often Lovecraft’s. I also detect the influence of Dario Argento and giallo in general whenever there’s a group of people who meet grisly deaths one after the other, which is certainly the case for Prince of Darkness.  Then there’s the Quatermass films, perhaps Quatermass and the Pit (this is the BBC version) most of all. The recurring dreams in Prince of Darkness “borrow” imagery from that film, but the general plot probably derives from it as well.

In the Mouth of Madness

I like to think that there are really just two things you need for a film. First, you need a series of images or scenes. At first, they do not necessarily have anything in common. Perhaps we have an old lady axe murderer or a group of demonic-looking kids running after a dog. Then you need a plot to tie these images together. In Carpenter’s film, it appears that the images mostly derive from Lovecraft or Stephen King. The plot, however, is a ripoff of The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll. Carroll said this on his blog several years ago:

What was the story behind IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, which bears a remarkable – but uncredited – resemblance to Land of Laughs?

When I was in LA, Michael DeLuca had just become head of New Line, and he was about to become a very important guy because his first job was getting Jim Carrey to do THE MASK.

DeLuca requested a meeting when he knew I was there. After we shook hands, he started laughing, which I thought was sort of odd.

Then he said New Line had a new John Carpenter film called IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, which DeLuca had written. He said it was a complete steal of the idea of Land of Laughs. I asked if it was any good, and he said, “No, it’s terrible!” And laughed again. And it is.

Read more about The Land of Laughs here.

All of this borrowing and ripping off is of course typical of Hollywood. With all the ripping off going on in Hollywood, and its traces be covered up as skillfully as possible, one cannot help but think of The Thing as being a film about Hollywood where it’s truly impossible to know who to trust. Perhaps each of these movies is actually more about Carpenter, who grew up in the Mid-West, and his reaction to the world of Hollywood  more than anything else. Apocalypse indeed.

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Written by David Kilmer

September 26, 2011 at 5:53 pm

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