Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1987)

12. Prince of Darkness

“Prince of Darkness” is, perhaps, the oddest film in Carpenter’s filmography. The central villain in the film is a giant canister of swirling, green fluid. The green fluid is self-aware and intelligent. Also, it’s literally Satan. A Satan that controls insects, earthworms, and hordes of schizophrenic homeless people. A devil that turns people into blank-faced zombies that spray slime at people out of their mouths. There’s dream sequences, an Anti-God living on the other side of the mirror, threatening messages typed out frantically on computer screens, a man made of beetles, and some other weird stuff. Even in a career that featured beach ball aliens and evil automobiles, this one sticks out for sheer oddness alone.

The story, revolving around a group of advance physics students investigating strange events at an old church, features a tantalizing concept at its core. The script explicitly links the metaphysical with the blatantly religious, justifying a belief in both. There are subatomic levels so far out there and obscure, that our minds aren’t capable of comprehending them. There are worlds beyond our physical perception. The Devil is real but he’s somehow simultaneously an abstract concept and a literal, physical being. Religion is a lie but not for the reasons you think. Jesus really was the Son of God but his real reason for coming down here was to warn us about the Satan Slime, who fell from the stars, a concept that can be read both as religious metaphor and science fiction. Also, Satan Slime is just the second worse guy around. His Dad from out of town is way worse. “Prince of Darkness” shows pure horror and pure sci-fi coming together.

It’s a mishmash of divergent influences. A group of logical, scientific researchers investigate an ancient, insidious, alien evil, finding things that challenge their beliefs. This is straight out of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass films. Carpenter upfront acknowledges the influence by crediting his screenplay under the pseudonym of ‘Martin Quatermass.’ Said ancient, alien evil, which definitively comes from the stars, links to an alternate dimension, occupied by a great, overseeing wicked god, as spoken of in an arcane book of forbidden knowledge. Another example of Carpenter’s great debt to H.P. Lovecraft. There are moments of the film, with arms exploding out of walls and masses of deadly writhing bodies that remind me of a George Romero zombie flick. Other minutes, with demonically possessed people running around trying to spread their disease, seems out of “Evil Dead,” while the image of a devil-possessed, scarred up, bedridden woman seemingly intentionally recalls “The Exorcist.” Carpenter even manages to slip in a scissor stabbing murder, involving an elaborate tracking shot of the blades, that wouldn’t be out of place in an Argento giallo. Despite drawing from so many different sources, there’s something distinctively Carpenter about “Prince of Darkness.”

Maybe it’s just the cast, which features several of the director’s veteran performers. Donald Pleasence headlines as a priest, tossed headlong into an uncertain world. Pleasence plays the part roughly along the same wavelength as Dr. Loomis, a wizened knower of evil that seems rather ominous himself at times. The big difference is that unlike Dr. Loomis, the unnamed priest goes on an arc of recovering his faith. Just like the film, he makes room for both angels and demons. Victor Wong has a good role, very different from “Big Trouble’s” Egg, as a physicist equally seeing his beliefs challenged by his strange experiences. If anything, Wong fills the Dr. Loomis role a little better then Pleasence does. Fellow “Big Trouble in Little China” alum Dennis Dun plays one of the students, whose constant horndog pick-up lines, bad jokes, and panicked screams make him the film’s comic relief most of the time. Peter Jason as a smart alec doctor running the research trip provides the rest of the relief. Jason’s part seems like it could have been played by Charles Cypher. Similarly, the mustachioed leading man, played by the undistinguished Jameson Parker, probably would have been played by Tom Atkins a few years earlier. I’d be remiss not to mention Alice Cooper’s extended cameo as the leader of the killer bums. (Cooper also contributes a pretty awesome song to the soundtrack, by the way.)

The reason “Prince of Darkness” has such a cult following, aside from its general off-beat tone, is because it builds up several effective horror set pieces. The opening credits, which last ten minutes, cuts between the story’s set-up, characters discovering disquieting things, with the white on black titles, Carpenter’s pounding synth score droning along creepily.

Despite some heavy-handed exposition, the movie builds some decent feelings of dread as things build towards the end of the first act. The image of the green slime pooling upside down on the ceiling is oddly off-putting. There’s creepy or gross images like a crucified dove or worms clinging to a window. The image of an evil woman crawling over someone’s bed, waiting to deliver a deadly kiss, reminded me of the Old Hag. My favorite bit involves a corpse brought to life by mass of beetles, quivering out a message before collapsing in on itself. A scene of a character caught between two oncoming crowds of madmen delivers a genuine thrill. A man stabs himself to death after finishing a hymn.

Soon, the film becomes a reverse siege picture of sorts, people besieged by things from inside their fort. Arms pushing through doors and walls recall zombie flicks and Carpenter’s own “The Fog.” The movie manages to build some decent tension and the last act is genuinely creepy, as the film throws more strange images at you. Right before the disquieting end, we get a really strong jump scare, of which the movie has a few. Most famously is the reoccurring dream images, which we see more of with every nap, getting more ominous with each repetition.

Given the film’s go-for-broke wacked-out-ness, not all of it works. The ensemble cast is large enough that some characters don’t receive much characterization, some of them obviously being more or less monster fodder. The computer typed message of doom pushes into melodramatic goofiness. The pasty-faced zombies spitting on people is just as likely to amuse as put off. There’s a stretch in the middle that drags, when the characters are standing around, waiting for the apocalypse to come. The love story proves the film’s biggest problem. Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount quickly go from classmates to lover, falling in bed with each other within a single night. Her eventual fate sets up the climax’s entire emotional crux. While creepy taken on its own, the love story is never convincing. Parker and Blount don’t have much chemistry, Blount is kind of flat in general, and both characters are written slightly thin.

“Prince of Darkness” is just strange enough, just spooky enough, to overcome whatever flaws it has. As the middle chapter of Carpetner’s Apocalypse Trilogy, it feels undeniably apocalyptic, dredging up a real sense of dread before the end. It strikes me as an oddly personal project for the filmmaker, with him throwing together a lot of the things that fascinate him, even if it doesn’t make much sense. There are a few of his trademark tracking shots and the score is pretty decent. It’s probably one of the filmmaker’s less seen movies. Somewhat uneven but fascinating never the less, I’d recommend it. [Grade: B]


Sean Catlett said...

I liked this one a whoooole lot more the second time I watched it. The first go-round I thought it failed entirely as a horror film (in that it was bereft of tension and I didn't think the various set pieces were all that scary) and wrote it off there. When The Ward came out, I gave it another shot and was surprised at how fascinated I was by it. Maybe it succeeds more on a level of how we, the audience, absorb information regarding the presence of evil. There, the meticulous pacing and scientific exploration makes sense. I'm sure kernunrex would have me gutted for saying this: he loved this film.

Sean Catlett said...

Ooops, that should be a semicolon in that last sentence. BUT YOU GET IT.