If you were to ask a casual horror fan to name the first image that pops into their head when they hear the term ‘cosmic horror’, there’s a better than not chance their answer will be tentacles.
We can thank two men for this. The first, and most obvious, is H.P. Lovecraft, the 20th century writer whose weird tales—particularly those belonging to his famous Cthulu mythos, with their pantheon of unfathomable and indescribable (save a tentacle here and there) god-monsters—is most synonymous with the subgenre.
The second man is John Carpenter.
One of the most important and beloved American genre directors of all time, Carpenter is credited with, if not necessarily inventing, then at least perfecting and popularizing the slasher film. Yet while the impact of his 1978 breakout Halloween cannot be denied, cosmic horror casts a far wider and darker shadow over his oeuvre. In turn, the images he’s put on screen have reflected that shadow back onto the genre, not unlike the ominous eclipses found throughout his and Lovecraft’s work.
At the heart of Carpenter’s filmography lay his Apocalypse Trilogy, a set of thematically linked movies that revolve around the Lovecraftian idea of ancient and incomprehensible intergalactic and/or interdimensional forces bringing forth a global wave of madness, disease and destruction. This trilogy begins with 1982’s The Thing (which turns 40 this month), continues through 1987’s Prince of Darkness (which turns 35 this October), and concludes with 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness.
Before we delve into those films, some definition is in order. Although cosmic horror often includes outer space elements, it is not interchangeable with space horror. The ‘cosmic’ in cosmic horror has more to do with the cosmology of existence itself, as opposed to alien beings and far off planets. It holds that the true nature of reality is inherently unknowable, while also being inherently malevolent (at least by humanity’s standards). A greater, or at least equal amount of emphasis is placed upon mood—namely eldricht dread—than on metaphor (meaning you can’t boil Cthulu down to an analog for environmental catastrophe like you can Godzilla) or any sort of visceral catharsis (i.e., jump scares).
Lovecraft was no more the progenitor of literary cosmic horror than Carpenter is cinematic cosmic horror. He was influenced by earlier writers such as E.T.A. Hoffman, Algernon Blackwood, and Arthur Machen, who themselves filled out their stories with terrors taken from folklore, fairy tales, mythology, and philosophy. This is important to understand because once you do, it becomes clear that Carpenter was dabbling in cosmic horror well before he made The Thing.
The notion of Cartesian doubt, a skeptical methodology which argues that since our sensory experience cannot be independently verified there’s no way to distinguish reality from, say, a dream or a daemonic illusion, undergirds many examples of cosmic horror, including Prince of Darkness and especially In the Mouth of Madness. It first pops up in Carpenter’s work via his feature debut from 1974, the student film-turned-cult classic Dark Star (which he co-wrote with Dan O’Bannon, who would go on to write the original draft of cosmic horror masterpiece Alien).
Likewise, the concept of implacable, primordial and unknowable evil at the center of Halloween has its roots in cosmic horror, as does its sense of—to borrow from Freud—the uncanny conjured by Michael Meyers’s blank human mask and eyeless stare, which brings to mind the dread title figure from Hoffman’s influential short story The Sandman. Both The Fog (1982) and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)—which Carpenter neither wrote nor directed, but help shape by hiring one of the great scribes of cosmic horror, Nigel Kneale (more on him later), to pen the original script—are steeped in folk horror, cosmic horror’s pastoral twin (although really, Halloween III exists at the nexus point between the two).
Carpenter has always been keen to pay tribute to his heroes, so it’s fitting that his first foray into full-on cosmic horror would be The Thing, a remake of The Thing from Another World, the 1951 adaptation of John W. Campbell’s story “Who Goes There?”, about a group of research scientists in Antarctica terrorized by an unstoppable shapeshifting alien parasite with the ability to assimilate its victims.
While the original film—which Carpenter pays homage to in Halloween by showing a clip of it playing on TV—has Christian Nyby credited as director, it’s widely believed that the film’s producer and screenwriter Howard Hawks actually directed it. Hawks has proven to be the biggest and most lasting influence on Carpenter as a director, with the latter’s early favorite Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) being a modernized version of the former’s iconic western Rio Bravo (1959).
After Carpenter was brought on to direct The Thing, he briefly got the aforementioned Nigel Kneale, a Manx screenwriter and television dramatist, to work on the script. Although he wrote across a number of genres, Kneale is best known for his Quatermass series, particularly the 1968 feature length version, Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth), which, like The Thing, revolves around scientists uncovering a long-buried alien vessel and unleashing the sinister forces within upon the world. More than just your standard post-war invaders from space story, Kneale’s work dealt with the terrifying philosophical and even spiritual implications of such forces.
For The Thing, Carpenter blended together elements from the original story and film with a Kneale-like air of existential dread and visuals inspired by the tales of Lovecraft. This, combined with some of the greatest special effects ever committed to film, resulted in what many consider one of, if not the greatest horror movie ever made, cosmic or otherwise (but especially cosmic).
Despite The Thing’s poor reception during its initial release, Carpenter returned to these themes only five years later with Prince of Darkness. Inspired by his former romantic and creative partner Debra Hill’s ominous dream (in which she saw a dark figure emerging from a church), as well as books he’d read about theoretical physics, Carpenter, writing under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass, took the same basic premise of The Thing—a group of scientists (in this case, research students) uncover and unleash an alien evil with the power to consume and subsume humanity—but transplanted it to contemporary Los Angeles and doubled down on the Kneal-esque and Lovecraftian elements.
In both Prince of Darkness and Quatermass and the Pit, it’s revealed that humanity’s belief in the supernatural and the divine—particularly our conception of ghosts, possession, Satan and hell—are actually genetic memories and/or psychic connections implanted by the alien beings that colonized our planet during earlier stages of our evolution (see also: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Chariots of the Gods and, uh, Ancient Aliens). These beings exert their influence through a collective madness, which Carpenter embodies, ala Lovecraft, with a zombie-like horde of street people (for as un-PC as this element of the movie is today, it’s nowhere near as… problematic… as the versions found in most of Lovecraft’s fiction).
(Along with Quatermass and the Pit and various of Lovecraft’s stories, Prince of Darkness also draws from the little seen, yet highly regarded cosmic horror/insects attack classic Phase IV, the sole directorial effort of famed title designer Saul Bass.)
Prince of Darkness is Carpenter’s most measuredly paced horror film, and, at the time it was made, his bleakest (even compared to The Thing). Its thesis is adequately summed up by the computer message typed out by a character whose body has been taken over by the titular ‘Anti-God’: “You will not be saved by the Holy Ghost. You will not be saved by the god Plutonium. In fact, YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED.”
Given all of that, it’s no surprise that, like The Thing, Prince of Darkness failed to draw audiences or win over most critics. However, unlike The Thing, it has yet to fully receive its due, remaining one of the lesser seen Carpenters to this day, even though it is probably his most outright frightening film.
Carpenter’s conclusion to his thematic trilogy fared little better, although over the years, In the Mouth of Madness has seen an uptick in appreciation, particularly amongst horror aficionados. Working off a script by Michael De Luca, In the Mouth of Madness is a feature-length love letter to H.P. Lovecraft, it’s very title being a play on one of his most iconic works (At the Mountains of Madness).
Sam Neil—who between his performances in this, Possession, and Event Horizon, is the onscreen king of cosmic horror—plays an insurance investigator hired by a major publishing company to track down their most popular star, horror writer Sutter Cane (a composite of Stephen King, whose novel Christine Carpenter successfully adapted following the disastrous release of The Thing, and Lovecraft) after he disappears.
Traveling to the creepy town of Hobb’s End—an amalgamation of the sleepy, haunted New England locales Lovecraft liked to set his stories in, even as its name is a direct reference to the setting of Quatermass and the Pit—he discovers a series of horrible truths: Cane is merely a vessel for an ancient race of interdimensional monsters known as “The Old Ones”, the widespread popularity of his books feed their power even as they drive the public insane, and he himself is a character created by Cane. The movie ends not with the threat of apocalypse looming, ala The Thing and Prince of Darkness, but in full swing. Neil’s character watches everything that’s happened play out on the big screen inside an empty theater, shrieking in both laughter and despair.
More than all of the direct nods, references and homages to Lovecraft throughout ItMoM, it is this metatextual element that makes it the most faithful onscreen representation of his vision we’ve yet received (and that includes numerous direct adaptations of his work). The story-within-a-story structure is not merely a clever literary device in Lovecraft, but an embodiment of what he considered the illusory nature of reality itself. In cosmic horror, knowledge of the universe is not a gift, but a disease, one that ultimately manifests in madness.
This is what makes Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy the purest example of cosmic horror to ever haunt the screen. It’s not about the tentacles you can see. It’s about the ones you can’t.