Monday, May 6, 2013

John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness

Prince_of_darkness

Carpenter’s disillusionment and frustration with the major studios after their constant over-the-shoulder producing and general overall interference on the set of Big Trouble in Little China is quite known by now. Because of this, Carpenter swore off the studio system he so badly began his career wanting to be a part of and instead went back to basics. In 1987, Carpenter returned to his independent and horror roots with Prince of Darkness, an extremely underrated horror picture that is often seen as a throwaway entry in the American auteur’s oeuvre. But Prince of Darkness, as “silly” as Carpenter claims it to be, isn’t a throwaway picture in the least — the film is one of Carpenter’s most atmospheric and satisfying efforts — and in the opinion of this humble blogger fits perfectly in slot number three of Carpenter’s best horror films right underneath Halloween and The Thing.


One of the things I admire most about Prince of Darkness is its European feel. The film feels a lot like something by Argento or Fulci with its reliance on a Lovecraftian tone and story; it also draws inspiration from the sci-fi/horror adventures of scientist Bernard Quatermass (in fact, Carpenter’s screenplay credit is listed under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass). The story concerns an ancient evil (read: the devil) that is discovered in the bowels of an abandoned Los Angeles church. A priest (Donald Pleasence, ever the glorious ham,  in one of his best performances) invites a professor (Victor Wong) and his students (Jameson Parker, Susan Blanchard, Lisa Blount, and Dennis Dun) to investigate a mysterious cylinder containing a biological evil (green goo, really). The story is kept simple and the characters are all introduced during the opening 10 minute credit sequence (doing a nice job of fading in and out of each scene with these characters while Carpenter’s wonderful score, reminiscent of Assault on Precinct 13 which also shared in the same structure of this film, sets the tone) that checks off all of the necessary boxes so that we can just hurry up and get to all of the European horror-esque wackiness. Once the characters are introduced, you have a pretty typical homage to Lovecraft mixed with Carpenter’s love of the Hawksian siege film. The evil within the cylinder (manifested as a gelatinous green goo) begins infecting the homeless of Los Angeles, and soon they descend upon the church and our characters within become infected, too.

The story beats are pretty familiar in Prince of Darkness both in terms of genre and Carpenter’s own filmography), but the film never feels predictable — there’s always some kind of outré setpiece to keep the viewer on their toes. In fact, the students’ professor (Wong) sets the tone for the entire film in those opening minutes when he lectures to his class, “Say goodbye to classical reality.” With a line like that, the viewer knows its in for a helluva film. And indeed it is. In fact, the film builds an incredible amount of tension during its nearly 90 minute build-up (yes, it really does feel like the entire film is nothing more than one tremendous moment building upon another tremendous moment).

And it is in that tension during the build-up where one can find the obvious comparisons to Carpenter’s more popular The Fog. However, I have to say this: I found Prince of Darkness to be just as impeccably edited and paced as The Fog but with a much, much better payoff. The comparisons don’t stop with the editing — both films are also: well acted by its stars playing trapped characters facing an ancient, released evil (although the edge there goes to The Fog); both films have atmosphere to spare (though the edge must go to Prince of Darkness because he was able to achieve this look without the aide of the great Dean Cundey — and it should be noted that cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe would replace Cundey as Carpenter’s go-to DP, becoming Carpenter’s cinematographer for his next seven films — a funny way to put it, I know, but I found myself impressed by that fact); both films certainly have a fantastically foreboding score; and both films have tremendous build-ups. But despite these similarities, I think the ending Carpenter went with for Prince of Darkness is far more satisfying than what he came up with for the The Fog.

I have read some people claim that Prince of Darkness took them a few viewings in order to really admire what Carpenter was up to; however, I found myself immediately falling in love with the film. I don’t know if it’s my penchant for Euro horror that made the film more palatable to me, or if it’s just the fact that watching Prince of Darkness immediately after films like Christine and Starman made me appreciate it more. Whatever the reason, I get that why people may take so long to warm to the film because it is most definitely unlike any Carpenter film to that point in the sense that its probably his most overt batshit crazy horror flick — a film that has that “just for the hell of it” attitude of post-giallo Argento (Inferno, especially) and early ‘80s Fulci (this film felt a lot like his “Gates of Hell” trilogy, especially in the sense that Prince of Darkness, too, is a part of its own unofficial trilogy known as “the Apocalypse trilogy”). Oh, and there are lots of insects and maggots in the film, so, yeah, it definitely feels Italian.

I’ve alluded to the outré setpieces that are rooted in Lovecraft and have a reminiscent tone of the something the Italians were doing during their heyday, and they really are something to behold, especially when one stops to consider where the American horror film was in 1987 (hint: shitty slasher sequel after shitty slasher sequel). These setpieces are the primary reason to see the film. Some of my favorites include the aforementioned insect scenes (“Pray for death”), the way the students — one by one — begin to get infected by the green goo from the cylinder (always projected from the mouth of one and into the eyes of another) and just kind of wander around the church doing extremely creepy things like slowly walk up the stairs while singing “Amazing Grace” (again, this feels very Italian, and part of me wonders if Michele Soavi was a fan of this film since his The Church feels an awful lot like Prince of Darkness), Lisa (Ann Yen) — another one of the students — simply sitting at a computer typing without pause (again, reminiscent of the scene from The Church where one of the characters, possessed, simply types the same letter over and over on a typewriter).

I also loved how all of the students were afflicted with the same “dream” that seemed to be transmitted from another dimension, spelling their doom. Carpenter films this dream in shoddy video (hey, shaky-cam that isn’t annoying!) with distorted audio informing the viewer that “this is not a dream.” The setting of this dream is the church the students are trapped in, and the dream begins outside the church in a kind-of stalker-cam shot before it approaches the gate and then cuts away just as the footage shakily approaches a shrouded figured in the doorway of the church. At this point every students that shares in this dream wakes up at this exact point.

These dreams are fantastic, nonsensical moments from Carpenter — a man that almost always roots his horror in some kind of reality — and really standout as one of the most interesting artistic choices the American auteur has made in his career (the others that really standout would be found in, yes, Ghosts of Mars…but we’ll get there soon enough). One theory for the change in tone is that Carpenter saw where the genre was going with Wes Craven’s successful A Nightmare on Elm Street (one scene that particularly feels like Craven’s film is where the green goo from the cylinder amasses on the ceiling of the church and the shoots itself into the eyes, nose, and mouth of one of the students). And even though Carpenter doesn’t frame his scenes within the realm of dreams, he is definitely interested in framing these scenes in an otherworldly way that is strikingly dissimilar to his previous horror efforts.

There is a destabilizing kind of ethereal foreboding that underlines every scene in Prince of Darkness. I loved how the music really never stops playing in the background — I was reminded what Jim Emerson wrote about the film when he wonderfully referred to it as “a synthesized symphony of the devil” —compounding that sense of foreboding. This is just another example that really drives the point home that Carpenter was interested in making a different kind of horror picture. Unlike The Thing, there is no time for emotional introspection. Prince of Darkness doesn’t slow down for the kind of moments that The Thing did; it’s relentless in the same way that The Fog is (also the aforementioned Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween), but it’s got that special Euro vibe attached to it that makes it more enjoyable than The Fog.

In addition to the fun Carpenter had creating all of these crazy setpieces without studio interference, Carpenter has some fun riffing on the pessimistic tone he established so brilliantly in The Thing by having one of his characters, Brian (Parker), utter a variant of a line from The Thing, “Trust is a hard thing to come by these days,” with the new line being, “Faith is a hard thing to come by these days.” The Thing is both cerebral and visceral — it’s about distrust and disillusionment and about gross-as-hell special effects — while Prince of Darkness deals primarily with the visceral. It’s not about the matters of the brain; this is a film concerning the matters of the gut — what you believe or don’t believe (all of these things are swirling around stuff like theoretical physics, atomic theory, and metaphysics), and Carpenter isn’t taking himself too seriously here with such a lofty premise. So, when it comes down to it, it really seems that he’s having fun with this silly premise (perhaps a nice deep sigh of relief after a few major studio films), getting away from the existential horror and just enjoying the kind of freedom in creating such a bizarre premise and surreal atmosphere that only supernatural horror allows.

And indeed Carpenter does think of Prince of Darkness as a cheesy (or “silly” as he said often) film. In a recent interview, he stated that it was a horror movie that was a kind of reaction to the “yuppie” horror films he hated at the time—films like Fatal Attraction where the audience goes into a “safer” horror film because they know that Michael Douglas is in it, and because they know that Michael Douglas is in it, they also know that he probably won’t die or won’t do anything truly awful. So, they can justify going to one of “those horror films” because they know the film will not really take them to a place they don’t like; there won’t be anything in films like that that challenges their film-going experience. Now, during the interview this was on the section on Prince of Darkness, but it sounded more like a description of The Thing because I can’t see how anyone would go into Prince of Darkness with an understanding that it’s anything more than a visceral lark. There’s nothing truly malicious about the film.

So, yes, Prince of Darkness is silly (after all, it does have a performance from Donald Pleasence, so it’s bound to be a little cheesy). Silly movie. Silly performances. Over the top. Cheesy. Yes, it’s all of those things.  But goddamn is this movie fun and aesthetically beautiful (and just so damn different than anything Carpenter had done to that point) and about the closest thing in the ‘80s that American horror cinema got to the surreal, grotesque Euro horror of the time. Prince of Darkness marked a two-film span of great back-t0-basics creativity from Carpenter (his next film, They Live, is one of his funniest and most overt political satire) — a  time in his career where he made what many consider “lesser” genre films, but show a filmmaker that still had his creative juices flowing. Prince of Darkness is certainly a film that was so different than any other American horror film at the time that it’s a shame he didn’t keep going to the smaller, independent route. The work he did in 1987 and 1988 shows a filmmaker on an intriguing trajectory before the Siren song of the studios lured him back in 1992 with Memoirs of an Invisible Man. But, man, those years are two of the most interesting years in Carpenter’s start-stop-start-stop career.

12 comments

  1. This is one of the reviews I've been most interested in ever since you started (Ghosts of Mars is the other). I saw the film ages and ages ago, and I didn't much care for it - the cheesiness is all I saw.

    So basically, I was hoping you'd sell me on re-watching it, and you've done just that: too many Italian comparisons for me to overlook, if nothing else. As I trust you, so shall I give it another chance.

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    1. Tim, I think you would have a lot of fun with this one now. Based on what many people whose opinions I respect greatly have said about the filming taking multiple viewings to get into, I don't think your reaction is all that uncommon. I think I had the advantage in that I was coming to it just now, and that I was able to really see it outside of Carpenter's more "grounded" horror films, especially knowing what I know now, at 31, about Euro horror. Had I seen this, say, in high school immediately after seeing The Thing, The 16 year-old in me would have found it too cheesy to even think twice about. So, yes, please give it another go.

      It also made me want to re-watch The Church, which I'm doing right now, and that's always a good thing. There ya have it.

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  2. Really nice stuff, yet again. I need to revisit this soon, as I haven't seen the film in more than fifteen years. Your mention of this being like the more crazy Euro stuff (which I've become much more familir with in the lest ten years) has got my old memories of this film swirling around now making connections I couldn't at the time. Cheers.

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    1. Thanks, Lee. I hope you give it another shot. It's such a hidden gem buried there in-between some of Carpenter's worst films ( Christine , Starman, and Memoirs of an Invisible Man). And it's sadly forgotten because it's also sits in-between two of his most popular films from that era of his career (Big Trouble in Little China and They Live).

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  3. This was my least favorite of Carpenter's classic period before it became my favorite of all. I'm not versed in Italian horror but the ostensible thinness of the story that held me back on the first go gives way to such atmospherics that Carpenter stretches even further beyond his usual control of tone and tension. It's silly, sure, but its pseudoscience/religious hokum ends up unsettling me more than even the other two apocalypse movies surrounding it. Maybe it's because Carpenter's grasp of motion and gravity is so strong that when a picture of his so gleefully ignores physics, it really unnerves.

    I also love that Pleasance closes out a trilogy of performances in which he plays the craven underbelly of a respected institution: the medical science Loomis represents, the political authority of the president and, here, the religion of a priest. It's a nice capper to his work with Carpenter.

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    1. Thanks for checking this out and for commenting, Jake! I'll start with your final point about Pleasance: I had never thought about the way his three performances for Carpenter seem to be of a piece. Nice catch, and I thank you for making me aware of this.

      Secondly, this movie really is something, isn't it? I really hope that people come back to this and give it its due. Carpenter was (rightfully) defined by Halloween and The Thing, but I think there's so much in Prince of Darkness that is equally as impressive (especially when you think about how the film, like you mention, was so different than his other horror films at that time). The way he "gleefully ignores physics" is something Fulci did to perfection in The Beyond (basically removing whatever our mind tries to fill in when a scene cuts), and I think what Carpenter achieved here is probably the closest American horror cinema is ever going to get to having that Euro-horror feel. And what you're getting at with Carpenter's "grasp of motion and gravity" is what made those crazy Italian horror movies of the '70s so memorable, too, since Fulci and Argento came from a pretty grounded (in terms of motion and gravity) subgenre with the giallo and then moved into more outre, supernatural fare that basically threw out all preconceptions about narrative.

      Glad to hear you're a fan of this one. It's always nice to be made aware of other people's love and appreciation for this criminally underrated Carpenter.

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  4. jervaise brooke hamsterJune 11, 2013 at 10:28 PM

    Would you agree that when Pauline Hickey was 17 in 1985 she was THE most gorgeous bird of all-time ! ?.

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  5. Good news, fans of the movie! http://www.amazon.com/Prince-Darkness-Collectors-Blu-ray-Pleasence/dp/B00D7AM5XU/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1371522481&sr=1-1&keywords=prince+of+darkness

    I had mixed feelings when I saw this movie - and I'm a Carpenter junkie, too - but I guess since I'm more familiar with the surreal, Suspiria-esque horror films now than 4 years ago, I'd appreciate this a bit better.

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    1. Thanks for this great news, WBTN! I will be pre-ordering this for sure.

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  6. What I love most about this film, I think, is its slow burn. Carpenter takes his time, introduces the characters, lets you see the dynamic between the group and gradually introduces the horror through a sense of unease on the soundtrack and with unsettling images like an anthill covered with swarming insects, a bag lady with bugs covering her, and several establishing shots of creepy, zombie-like homeless people just standing outside the church.

    For me, what makes PRINCE OF DARKNESS a refreshing change from most of Carpenter’s other films is that it features his most commonplace protagonists – college students – hardly the stuff that heroes are made of. And yet, when the time comes, they step up to the challenge because they are forced to in an exciting climax that ends in typical Carpenter fashion with society being saved, but at the expense of a few unlucky souls. Or is it? I like that vibe of uncertainty that ends the film.

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  7. I have no clue if you keep track of comments to posts this old, but I wanted to mention that I have re-watched Prince of Darkness based entirely on your enthusiasm for it, and though I haven't come around to ranking it as high in Carpenter's oeuvre as you did, it's pretty damn great. Definitely helps to have a background in Italian horror. If anything, I wish Carpenter had been even a bit sillier and loopier, it feels a little too much like his standard "under siege" plot structure.

    Still, great stuff, and I owe you my thanks for tilting me back toward it.

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    1. Thanks for checking back in, Tim. Good to know I'm not steering people too off course, hehe. I do agree with you that I wish Carpenter would have gone full City of the Living Dead wacky with this one. But as it is (an American horror film from a pretty formalist director), it's pretty damn out there. Yeah, it relies on the "under siege" plot a bit too much, but I just love the way Carpenter builds and builds and builds tension with the slow burn.

      Thanks for the comment. I'm in the midst of a blogging funk right, but this kind of comment is the boost to the ego I may need to maybe start putting something on the blog again, hehe. Anyway, thanks for checking back in!

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