The eighties were a golden era for John Carpenter, he began it with The Fog and ended it with They Live, in between he delivered gem after gem of genre films, but his output also showed he was also interested in more than just delivering movie thrills, you could say it started with Prince of Darkness, a smart take on the Satan returns storyline.
The film begins simply enough, with a Professor being called in to investigate the emergence of a giant tube with a mysterious green mass inside it, he brings also his students to help him, it’s also guarded by a priest who believes it’s the incarnation of Satan. The green mass starts exerting it’s will on the homeless nearby as they form an army to protect and serve this malevolent force. Once the students are exposed to the green mass, it becomes a race to prevent the green mass from unleashing an even greater evil, the anti-god.
At the time he made this Carpenter was heavily into theoretical physics and he wanted to apply it to the horror genre, so we get a scientific take on the concept of Satan. The idea of Satan has always been that of pure malevolence, an eternal evil for humanity to struggle against, he’s our most base impulses writ large. The conceit here is that Satan has no form but his influence is still felt through a recurring dream of a figure emerging from a church, the dream feels like a VHS recording, it’s a transmission, with each recurrence of the dream, more detail emerges until it’s revealed it’s a message from a possible future of apocalyptic destruction if the anti-god is released. The film’s final image remains haunting because, although good technically triumphed over evil, it’s still there lingering in the mind, casting doubt over what’s real and what isn’t.
The idea of a transmission being beamed into the subconscious took another form with They Live, a film best described as a satirical action-thriller. The film’s protagonist, John Nada, has drifted from nowhere in particular looking for work and finds a job on a construction site and a small, homeless community of men and women. He stumbles across a box of sunglasses after a raid on a church being investigated for terrorist activities and finds out the world isn’t what he thought it was as he discovers that aliens have infiltrated earth and cloaked themselves in a veil of consumerism to enslave humanity.
The idea of alien invasions is nothing new, our paranoia has always manifested itself in various forms. Where this film differs is the method of invasion, there’s no attack, no war, the method is a simple of form of infiltration and the aliens have already won, to a certain extent, following on from Prince of Darkness, the then current state of consumerism is the perfect smokescreen for aliens to take over, giant billboards and signs hide a message of consume and obey, which is basically our daily routine, it also comes from the media, the messages of consume and obey are delivered from a television station, which the resistance fighters try to disrupt with their own equipment. Nada’s discovery this alternate reality completely shakes his faith of what’s real and what isn’t, even he attempts to convince a colleague that it’s really happening, it leads to an epic fight between the two because he refuses to believe it’s real.
John Carpenter would return to this concept of reality and unreality one last time with In The Mouth of Madness, a pure Lovecraftian Horror film which sees the protagonist John Trent see reality completely unfold before his very eyes and cause a mental collapse.
John Trent, a freelance Insurance Investigator, is a sceptic, he doesn’t believe in anything which can’t be solved via science so when he’s asked to locate an author who has gone missing on a promotional tour, his bullshit detector immediately goes off, the missing author just happens to be Sutter Cane, whose books have caused violent outbreaks in his readers, with Cane’s editor, Julia Styles, he tracks down Cane to a place called Hobbs End and then the nightmare really begins.
There’s something clearly off in the reality Trent inhabits, the feeling that something isn’t right, even as Trent has lunch with a colleague, a man wielding an axe attacks them asking if he’s read Sutter Cane, the man turns out to be Cane’s agent. We find the same thing in Hobbs End, as we get closer and closer to Cane, we see that reality is shifting and changing at whim, Trent is unable to leave, he simply get’s transported back to the centre of town when he tries to escape. Cane finally emerges to inform them that he is author of this reality and whatever he writes creates that reality but he also serves a higher evil in the form of old gods. When Trent finally escapes back into his reality, he finds the director of publishing only to be told Styles never went with him to find Cane and the manuscript he thought he’d destroyed was delivered months earlier, has been published and sold. Trent’s reality finally collapses in on itself after he enters a cinema to witness the events that he went through with Styles being projected onscreen.
All three films present the viewer with a form of reality that gradually falls apart to reveal something else entirely, you could argue Madness is the grimmest of all but that’s in line with the Lovecraft mythos, no-one get’s out alive, especially not from the reality of your own mind or what you perceive as your own mind and reality is always a slippery slope when the moorings loosen.