Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Julie Carmen, Charlton Heston, Sam Neill, Jürgen Prochnow, David Warner
Runtime: 95 minutes
Yes, another Carpenter film, and I’m not done with him yet. This is usually not regarded as one of his better movies, a bit over-the-top, but I think it’s great, because it takes horror to a whole new level of mindfuck that few other horror films can do in that reality itself falls apart, and the threat takes on an almost wholly incomprehensible and unpredictable dimension, which has led fans to think of this as a “Lovecraftian” horror film (that and the obvious play on H. P. Lovecraft’s novella “At the Mountains of Madness”). I guess the question is whether you buy that or not, or just find it ineffective and silly. I have a suspicion that some of those who claim this makes them laugh more than shiver are laughing more as a defense mechanism, than because they truly get it and are unaffected by it.
It is also “meta-horror” in a way that I don’t think many horror films had been up to that point (unless you are counting spoofs), and wouldn’t be until we get Scream a year later. Insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill), hired by head of Arcane Publishing (probably a reference to Arkham House, which popularized Lovecraft’s fiction after his death) Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) to track down their best-selling horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), who has disappeared before he was able to submit his latest book. Cane’s name and success is a probably allusion to Stephen King, although foreign-sounding, ominous-looking Cane does not seem much like either the shy Anglophone Lovecraft or everyman King. Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), goes along to find the missing author.
Cane’s stories, like Lovecraft’s, are about the intrusion of advanced alien and/or extra-dimensional beings into our reality, often finding their way into small New England towns, and infecting the human citizens. Trent, a practical and unimaginative man, looks down upon Cane’s fiction, and thinks the disappearance a publicity stunt. As he and Styles find their way to the town where Cane has holed up (not on any map but matching a place in one of Cane’s novels perfectly) in a creepy old church, they find their grasp of reality steadily slipping. Though he tries to remain a skeptic until the end, Trent becomes increasingly disturbed by the horrific sights which he witnesses. At first, he thinks they are done by actors and special effects, but he soon comes to believe that Cane is indeed ushering in the return of the “Old Ones” to their rightful power over our reality. The more people who believe in their existence, the more powerful they become; and his latest novel (he had to come to the center of that evil power to write this book) will be the last key in opening the door to them.
The meta-horror for me comes not just from the allusive nature of the film. It also, I think, questions the success of horror—when it gets too popular, is that a sign that something is either wrong with the work itself (maybe too catered to public trends and feeding in to mindless entertainment), or is something wrong with society for liking this stuff? Does it cause violence or at least lead to mental instability of some sort? Or is Carpenter just giving a pie in the face to all those critics who pontificate about the prurience of horror? I want to say the latter, but then again, Carpenter definitely sees the danger of the manipulations of mass media, as can be seen in They Live!. So I’m not sure his self-critique of horror can be so easily dismissed.
We see some good effects—deformed humans, creatures taking over, but the best “effects” are the ones that warp reality. For example, one of the most effective sequences is where Trent decides to drive out of town and leave it all behind him, having perhaps finally accepted the horror of the situation. But each time he gets to the edge of town, he is engulfed by light and ends up right back where he started.
The ending, too, really makes the build-up worthwhile. Some find it too over-the-top, but Sam Neill’s hysterical laughter in the last seconds, as he watches scenes of the film he just “acted in,” are quite chilling. If you like Lovecraft-related horror, or enjoy movies that screw with your mind, I think you’ll appreciate one of Carpenter’s most undervalued entries.