Prince Of Darkness (1987)
The hideous horror of balancing an eldritch exhausting day job and this squirming corner of the internet continues – look, I’ve been busy, OK? It’s not just that full reviews have been scant on the ground, finding the time to even get to the cinema has also been scant, but I’m hoping to correct that before the weekend. In any case we still have an earlier expedition to explain, returning once again to the creepy canon of John Carpenter with the underappreciated oozing Prince Of Darkness. Like many of my first viewings of his corpse choked chillers initial memories are of the effect on the audience, not surprising given Carpenter’s expert manipulation of space, cause and effect, and the mischievous masking of double bluffs to relieve the audience before driving the blade home. I will never forgot my first viewing of The Thing – who does? – at around the age of 13 when I staggered home from a post-school-friends-house screening to confront my growling dog, remaining somewhat wary around her for the next 48 hours 9 years. As reported during the last slice of Carpenter coverage I also recall Big Trouble In Little China at the cinema during its initial run, swooning over a contact high of martial arts mayhem and action movie antics. I remember with fond lip-smacking affection the raspberry slushy I consumed when watching Starman for the first time, a family Saturday night VHS viewing, the soundtrack of which haunts me to do this day. I remember seeing the The Ward just a few years ago as the only punter present in the 400 seater Empire Leicester Square, a lonely, mania inducing experience which immediately reminded me of this. Finally when it comes to Prince Of Darkness I remember a mullet of my oldest friends clustered around the film in pitch darkness just after the movie had hit VHS, his mother ‘chaperoning’ our BBFC violating viewing which in this context means clutching two pillows in front of her face and screaming at every creaking door and bout of vagrant violence. So when the Prince Charles cinema announced a screening of all three of Carpenters so-called Apocalypse films – The Thing, Prince Of Darkness and In The Mouth Of Madness – as the climax of this season I cackled with hideous delight. As you may recall I have seen both The Thing and Madness at the cinema already but the chance to revisit Prince and complete the hideous incantation was simply not to be missed, especially since I haven’t worshipped the film at in any format for many neglected years. Hmm, ‘Thing’, ‘Madness’ and ‘Prince’ – sounds like a appropriate summary of this year’s popular culture headlines…..
As the bearer of an extremely mild OCD personality I’ll always admire how this series of films are prologued with an aligned title sequence design, the same font set against the same stark background, just like Stanley’s beloved sans serif. Even as a kid unwise to the worlds of typography and graphic design it unconsciously developed a sense of a coherent and connected body of work emanating from the same warped mind, all interlacing and retracing back on each other like tachyons ricocheting across time and space. Deeply influenced by the Quatermass stories of Nigel Kneale – and in retrospect the Nolan brothers might have absorbed Prince Of Darkness as part of their Interstellar programming – this is a film interested in the pivot between scientific rationality and the insubstantial rhapsodies of faith, the tangible material versus the ethereal immaterial. Although it suffers from one of Carpenter blandest leading men in the form of Jameson Parker the premise overshadows the charcoal etched characters, our main man playing a theoretical physics student finalizing his Ivy League dissertation. His lecturer Professor Birack (Victor Wong, fresh off wise sage duties in Big Trouble In Little China) gives a little speech to his class about quantum mechanics and the collapse of classical reality at the subatomic level, setting in motion the limits of our understanding as it collides with notions of good and evil, dream and consciousness. Interspersed with the rational streams of the story we also witness the quiet passing of a Catholic elder, with subordinate Priest (Donald Pleasance) inheriting the knowledge of a terrible, epoch shattering secret – and all this before Dan Brown’s conspiracy clutter took the tin-foil beanie brigade into popular culture. An ancient cylinder with physic defying properties has been secretly sequestered beneath an abandoned Los Angeles church, and at the Priests request Professor Birack and his team are brought in to examine and investigate the relic over the course of one fateful evening. Something malign and unsympathetic is slowly corrupting the local environment and vagrant population, an ancient evil awakening from its infinite slumber…..
As something of a Carpenter acolyte who hadn’t seen the film for a while this was a revelation, and whilst it doesn’t muster the heights of his highest achievements it ominously lurks among the second tier triumphs of The Fog or They Live. Firstly the concept of Prince Of Darkness was fairly original for the horror genre back in the late 1980’s, so even if portions of the execution are lacking it always has its quantum speed quotidian of nameless horrors gnawing at the very fabric of our reality, a shivering landscape in a period when genuine Lovecraft adaptions were veering from the schlocky to comedic. Carpenter keeps his camera moving, shooting with wide-angle lenses, which combined with his trademark anamorphic format formulates a level of disruptive distortion around the frame, with sequences carefully cut to his foreboding funeral dirge soundtrack. The overall effect is slightly destabilizing and delirious as the horror accrues and the claustrophobia intensifies, draping the film with a strangling shroud of doom. The entire premise of quantum theory dovetailing into human ethical constructs such as ‘good’ and ‘evil’, of reality collapsing into infinite vortexes that our puny insect minds cannot register or comprehend is just great stuff to feed the intellect, and this was well before concepts such as string theory or dark matter escaped his academic confines and infected the national conversation. Traditionally horror sharpen its shocks and scares against more social or cultural urges, violence against women, promiscuity, communist scares to name just three, but I’m actively struggling to think of another picture which really aims for the constellations and the yawning gulf between time and space. All these long running debates over the remaining possible remakes of Carpenters films with Big Trouble and Escape still on the agenda seems to overlooked this picture, I’d postulate that this story is ripe for reinterpretation, maybe Jeremy Saulnier or Jeff Nichols could do such a project proud – the church is still standing, so I might add a visit to my Blade Runner pilgrimage in 2019….
I will insist on shrieking my usual mantra but the film comes alive in full widescreen, as originally framed and photographed, as there are definitive choices here that have been masked by years of VHS cropping. Carpenter was always adept at manipulating different frames of foreground, mid-ground and background to impart story information and threats to the audience while keeping the characters ignorant of their danger, and these have been lost by the Philistines on the pan-and-scan duty. Although this revival has rekindled my affection for the movie I’m certainly can’t claim that it’s a perfect film, and like a lot of Carpenter’s crafts there are strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. Chief among the former is the distant performance and presence of our erstwhile hero, having some wise cracking cynic wouldn’t have assimilated into the tone of the film but he really is something of a non-entity, with a subsequent career fade to theatre. I like a bug-eyed, scenery chewing Donald Pleasance as much as the next man but he verges on self-parody here, intoning enough breathless anticipation ‘ I’m also not sure of the Alice Cooper stunt casting, although I guess it may have attracted some music fans to the movie he doesn’t really do much other than look gormless and hover. Structurally it moves at a fairly brisk pace by assembling the characters and setting the context of the imminent apocalypse nesting within the Church, but it still feels a little pedestrian and localized until the final act kicks events up a gear, with a great climax that fulfils the movies modest $3 million budget. The negatives are overwhelmed by the positives for me, as I just admire the ideas in the film despite their imperfect realization, and as a Carpenter worshipper some of his stock trades and techniques are enough to keep me visually and aurally stimulated with another brooding and bruising score.
Like other puny offerings you could read the film as a mirror of social class which predates his next film They Live, the street people are the gutter dwellers easily seduced by the malign and ancient alien presence foisted upon them by the Church, the bourgeois the questioning well-educated scientists enslaved by the illusions of science and rational logic. Am I clutching at straws in this analysis? Maybe as I can’t really evolve that strand, but it strikes me as a thread in the wider tapestry of Carpenters works which threads the genre needle to weave his anti-authoritarian instincts. Yes, that dream sequence remains as spine shudderingly eerie as it always was, a half buried transmission coiling in the purlieus of a waking nightmare. As you’d expect the siege film dynamics are expertly orchestrated, erecting a sense of space and tone which most artisans rarely effect, but they pay off in the final act when we have understood and absorbed a definitive sense of interlocking space and character positions, particularly when isolated figures are being frantically rescued by their companions as the evil draws its plans to fruition. The makeup effects are a little dated but thats to be expected, but some of the imagery remains slippery and pungent on the frame, and I’m amused how this temple of elemental evil is situated in some modest LA suburb, less than a keening howl from the Hollywood citadels themselves. The whole final sequence is just great genre cinema, a pulsing sense of genuine dread and apprehension of exactly what is advancing on our reality across the 5th dimension, I like to thing it might be the daemon from Ridley Scott’s Legend as they certainly share the same sulphurous skin tones. Normally I aim to take down one film by one of my favourite directors per year on here, a loose ambition that isn’t always achieved. To have claimed the scalp of no less than three Carpenter films by May has me beaming like possessed emissary. As I see it we only have one remaining major film of his to cover, Escape From New York, and I must find a screening of They Live soon, and I will consider any convenient opportunity to see some of the others like Christine, Starman or maybe even a deep cult cut such as Bad Moon Rising. I implore you however, for all that is holy in the cosmos don’t ever expect a Ghosts of Mars or Village Of The Damned reviews – I’d sell my soul to avoid them;