The second film in John Carpenter’s “apocalypse trilogy” (The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness are the other two), this was the first movie in his deal with Alive Pictures, which guaranteed him complete creative control if he made each film at a budget of $3 million dollars.
This is probably the only horror movie that you’ll see that is all about theoretical physics and atomic theory, as well as secret religious orders and the Antichrist. There’s also plenty of Nigel Kneale (Quatermass and the Pit) influence here, which Carpenter tips his hat to by using the alias Martin Quatermass for the screenplay. From messages from the future to ancient evil finally being unleashed on the modern world, it could be a Kneale film, but the British writer was displeased with being associated with the film (he had previously worked with Carpenter to script Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, although his name was removed when he objected to producer Dino De Laurentiis adding more gore to the film).
A priest (literally, that’s his name, but he’s played by long-time Carpenter associate Donald Pleasence, although I’ve also heard him referred to as Father Loomis) discovers that a member of the Brotherhood of Sleep has died just before an important meeting with the Pope. It turns out that an abandoned church in inner city Los Angeles contains a container of green liquid that is the secret to the inverse side of God, literally an Anti-God. Whatever is inside that container is alive and able to transmit long streams of complex data that needs to be analyzed by Prof. Howard Birack (Victor Wong, Big Trouble in Little China) and his students.
One by one, those students are taken over by the Anti-God or killed by the homeless people and insects that surround the building, led by Alice Cooper. Also, every single person who hasn’t been killed or taken over starts to have the same dream, one where a shadowy figure emerges from the church. Each time they have this dream, a warning sent from the year one-nine-nine-nine, they see more detail. This part of the film, shot on video, played on a television and then reshot with Carpenter’s voice intoning the warning message, are some of the strangest and most surreal sequences ever included in a mainstream film.
Soon, one of the researchers has been transformed into a vessel for Satan and the evil forces are attempting to pull the Anti-God out of a mirror. Much like Ghosts of Mars and Assault on Precinct 13, this is another Carpenter riff on Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, with a group of survivors stuck inside a building, trying to survive an evening worth of attacks.
I can’t say enough about how much I love this movie. It has great little character bits, moments of true horror and even some great compressed storytelling. I love that instead of a long explanation of how a physics professor and a Catholic priest would be close friends, one student just off-handedly mentions that they both were part of a BBC exploration of God’s existence. That’s all we really need to know and it lets us answer that and move on to more important matters.
You just need to watch this movie. Luckily, Shout! Factory has released a great version of it. I mean, how can you not love a film that theorizes that Jesus was an alien and the Catholic Church has known that all along and kept the secret that another alien, an evil one, was on its way…or has a scene where someone just keeps typing “I live!” over and over again, then this message: 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.”