Today, the films in John Carpenter’s self-proclaimed Apocalypse Trilogy –The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness – are beloved entries in the pantheon of American horror movies. The Thing especially has become a masterpiece that has surpassed the reputation of the film it was remaking, to the point that it can still be referenced in modern projects like Halloween Ends much to the enthusiasm of moviegoers everywhere. Considering their acclaimed nature, it can be baffling to remember that these movies were once downright despised by general moviegoers and critics alike.
Clearly, that’s no longer the norm, with academics and gorehounds alike united in championing the sight of Kurt Russell fighting a shape-shifting alien with a flamethrower. But why were these Carpenter movies initially so despised?
Why Did Audiences Hate the Apocalypse Trilogy Originally?
“I was pretty stunned by it,” John Carpenter said about the critical response to The Thing. “I made a really grueling, dark movie, but I [thought] audiences in 1982 wanted to see that.” They did not. Moviegoers from all walks of life rejected The Thing when it dropped into theaters, including critics. Roger Ebert declared The Thing to just be a lot of flashy visual effects in search of a substantive movie to inhabit. Variety praised the movie’s monster but found The Thing to be otherwise unengaging.
The Thing’s generally mixed notices were somehow considerably better than its box office total as the movie grossed just $13.8 million on a $15 million budget. Released at the end of June 1982 as a potential big VFX-heavy movie that could contend with the summer’s blockbusters, The Thing got run over by other June 1982 titles like Poltergeist and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
Prince of Darkness at least fared better financially with a $14.1 million worldwide haul, no doubt aided by the decision to release this horror movie near Halloween. However, Darkness still didn’t win over critics. Primarily critiqued here was a perceived absence of characters the audience could get invested in, a shortcoming that was also widely seen in The Thing. By the time In the Mouth of Madness arrived in 1995, it was clear what kind of critical response the film would receive. Once again, mixed marks greeted an entry in the Apocalypse Trilogy. This time, the density of the feature was often criticized, with critics taking umbrage with the feature being needlessly intricate.
What Went Wrong?
There’s nothing wrong with disliking any or all of the movies in the Apocalypse Trilogy. The Thing not being one’s cup of tea doesn’t make you an enemy of challenging horror cinema. That’s just as true for modern moviegoers as it was for critics in the 1980s and 1990s who generally didn’t gravitate towards these movies. There was no conspiracy to specifically target these motion pictures or John Carpenter. However, it’s still worth digging into the larger sociopolitical conditions that may have informed why general audiences didn’t run out in larger numbers to see these films in theaters. Plus, there are intriguing misinterpretations of all three films in their general critical reception which often demonize aspects of these movies that are now beloved.
As for why The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness weren’t box office sensations, they were just out of touch with the pop culture zeitgeist. The Thing was a bleak depiction of humans crumbling in the face of enormous hardship, which carried its grim tone all the way to an ambiguous ending that refused to give audiences easy answers. In 1982, a year when feel-good movies Porky’s, Annie, and Rocky III topped the box office, it’s no surprise moviegoers weren’t chomping at the bit for this chilly horror movie. 13 years later, In the Mouth of Madness tried to disturb audiences in a year where the biggest horror movie was Species. Carpenter kept churning out classics, but the tastes of the public just weren’t there for darker, more cerebral fare.
As for why audiences and critics didn’t get on the wavelength of the movies in the Apocalypse Trilogy, beyond just personal taste, there seems to be a disconnect between what people wanted from these movies and their artistic intent. The constant criticism that these films lack “relatable characters” is especially interesting. The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness do feature characters with entertaining personalities, but the rapport between fictitious people is not necessarily the point of these movies. The constant distrust between humans is the point (to varying degrees) of all three features.
Jonh Trent (Sam Neill), the protagonist of In the Mouth of Madness, is not defined by his warm rapport with other people, but by his growing and terrifying awareness that reality is not what it seems. The lead character of The Thing, R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), is also not a people person and instead is defined by his assorted responses to the threat of a murderous alien hiding in plain sight. Paranoia, distrust of seemingly normal reality, and the prospect that the people you know aren’t who they seem; these are the core aspects of the Apocalypse Trilogy movies. While the initial response to these titles often chided them for not adhering to traditional character arcs or resorting to pearl-clutching over heavy use of gory death scenes but failed to recognize the artistic ambitions of these bold features.
Why Audiences Love the Apocalypse Trilogy Now
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” as they say, and what were deemed shortcomings in the past for the Apocalypse Trilogy features are now beloved facets of these movies. For instance, the assorted installments in the Apocalypse Trilogy do keep audiences at arm’s length from the characters, but that’s not a defect. These people don’t trust each other or the individuals around them. These fractured dynamics and self-serving impulses are often what allows evil to flourish within these individual stories. Plus, villainous figures in these works like Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) in In the Mouth of Madness are so much creepier when they’re kept at a distance from moviegoers. What was seen as a drawback, a deficiency in screenwriting, is actually a key component to the Apocalypse Trilogy’s grim undercurrent.
These films depict a world where distant relationships and rampant secrecy make it easy for external cosmic or supernatural forces to wreak havoc. In the years since these movies were released, moviegoers have rallied around these features and appreciated them for what they attempted to do. The dark atmosphere that turned off viewers in 1982 or 1995 has now become beloved by general moviegoers of all stripes. With the world even more prone to isolationist attitudes and inexplicable occurrences than ever before, the Apocalypse Trilogy movies are good not just for chills, but for also serving as a mirror of sorts to humanity’s worst impulses.