The relationship betwixt
myself and director John Carpenter is a troubled one; you see, at one
point, I worshipped this man (to be read with proper BBC Shakespeare
stentorianism) like a God . There was no movie he had directed
which did not entertain me. Here was a fellow who could write, direct,
and - oh, the envy! - score his movies, which ranged over my
favorite genres, Horror, science fiction, and action, several of which
were hybrid mixtures of those genres.
Alas, all good things
must come to an end. My slippery slope with Carpenter started with They
Live (which, although I didn't like it, still had more thought in
it than five other movies) and hit its nadir with In the Mouth of
Madness. I remain lukewarm toward Escape From L.A. But this
movie... ah, this was the last John Carpenter movie I loved wholeheartedly,
so let me bask in its glow for a few minutes.
The story (as I heard
it, and much of this is surmisal) holds that Carpenter was cheesed after
The Studio messed with Big Trouble in Little China. especially
the execrable ending where the Wild Man is hitching a ride behind an
unsuspecting Jack Burton. I have ranted elsewhere (Jack
Frost) about the hackneyed endings-which-are-not-endings, so
I can't blame him. As far as I am concerned,
the movie ends with Jack walking into the fog, right after decidedly
not kissing Gracie Law.* So whizzed
was he that a deal was inked allowing him to direct several low-budget
pictures with complete creative control. The first of these was Prince
Things are starting to get weird;
the light from a supernova that exploded 7 million years ago is just
now reaching Earth, leading to strange signs in the sky; insects swarm
for no reason and in odd places; and an elderly priest presents himself
to the Cardinal for an appointment. Alas, the priest dies before the
appointed hour, leaving behind a large, old key, and a diary, referring
to a secret sect known as The Brotherhood of Sleep, and the cryptic
passage: "The sleeper is beginning to awaken."
In a not-so-abandoned
church in a decaying part of town, the priest had kept vigil over a
thing in the basement: a six-foot cylinder of some mysterious, swirling
liquid. The investigating priest (Donald Pleasence) calls upon an old
acquaintance, quantum physics professor Birack(Victor Wong), who might
have more of a chance understanding what is going on. Birack assembles
a team of graduate students from various disciplines, who set up shop
for a weekend of hardcore research.
The corrosion on the
cylinder's lid is carbon-dated to seven million years (now where
have we heard that number before?). X-rays reveal an intricate locking
mechanism that can only be opened from the inside. An ancient
book kept by the Brotherhood reveals that, for all intents and purposes,
what is in the cylinder is the son of what we know as Satan, placed
on Earth as part of a millennial escape plan for Old Scratch.
This news hits some of
the students hard, and leaves others scoffing. Meantime, everyone who
tries to catch a few winks begins having the same dream. And,
unknown to the scientists inside, a murderous army of human flotsam
is assembling outside the church, making sure nobody leaves.
Now fully awake, the Satanic Superfluid
doesn't even bother with the latching mechanism: it simply forces itself
through the cracks of the lid. It tends to hang around on the ceiling,
squirting itself into the face of anyone looking up, and possessing
them from the inside out. After that,
the Superfluid can transfer itself by something as seemingly innocuous
as a kiss. It is these enslaved folk who begin preparing The Way, as
the uninfected few barricade themselves in a room and set out trying
to figure out, not how to stop them, but how to simply survive the night.
Prince of Darkness
was pretty reviled upon its initial release, and that hasn't changed
much; a quick check of reviews range from "a muddled disappointment"
to "It's a dumb movie." Dumb? Dumb? Are these people
Awright, let's hit the
bad points first, and there are some. The second half of the movie is
sort of lacking, after that
terriffic build-up in the first half - the second half is like a different
movie, in fact. It's more Night of the Living Dead than a Quatermass
film (and more on that later). Yes, this does muddy the tone of the
film. But exerting an ounce of thought will reveal that Carpenter did
what he did on a low budget, and by golly, I bet he stayed within it.
It's not the first time Big Ideas have been undercut by Little Money.
Without the grandiose set-up of the beginning, or the cachet of Carpenter's
name, it probably would have been hailed, at the least, as a more-than-adequate
horror film. And looking at the state of what passes as horror films
these days, they would have been right.
There are too
many characters, and most must do with the briefest of character notes,
yet I never had
any problem identifying who was who. Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount,
as our young lovers, seem somewhat miscast, and damn, but they
hop in the sack fast (or are my college days really that far behind
me?). Past these two, Carpenter brought in some of his favorite actors
from past projects, like Pleasence, Wong, and Dennis Dun, to good effect.
Carpenter caught some
flak over the legion of the mentally-ill homeless being conscripted
as minions of Satan. I don't have a flip response for this criticism,
just this: for chrissakes, lighten up! It's a MOVIE!!!!! By way
of historical context, we might note Prince of Darkness was made
at the height of the odious practice by some mental institutions of
simply dumping patients on the street to fend for themselves. We might
hope this doesn't happen anymore... I. for one, am not holding my breath.
To the good: Prince
of Darkness was the last movie that scared me. Not merely
disturbed me; that's easy to do. But really, genuinely frightened
me. To test this theory, I took two friends who were, for all intents
and purposes, virgins, i.e., people who, unlike me, are not so jaded
by a steady diet of atrocities that media can still affect them. By
the final twenty minutes, both of them were practically in my lap, trembling.
It gave me a pleasant, warm feeling.
For those who find it
hard to get past the intellectual content of the setup, the movie has
enough creepy stuff
to keep you around. The graduate student who we know is dead,
standing outside the church, howling in a distorted voice to his friends
to pray for death; the slowly unfolding dream, revealed bit by bit as
a warning from the future, is a "live" TV camera shot
of the church with someone or something coming out; the hopeless
struggles of the possessed against the biddings of the Son o' Satan;
and the gruesome deterioration of the cutest, perkiest grad as the chosen
carrier of the superfluid.
Props, of course, to our two old
pros: Donald Pleasence, as the priest who must face up to the fact that
his beloved church has been peddling a pleasant lie for centuries, and
Victor Wong, as the quantum physicist who must face up to the fact that
what he's been teaching his student is true. Oh, did I mention
that the sorta-leader of the loonies is Alice Cooper? Yep, Mr. Furnier
makes a nicely scary miscreant (which reminds me, I gotta dig up a copy
of Monster Dog one of these days....)
Carpenter's script is
credited to "Martin Quatermass", a none-too-subtle reference
to the super-scientist protagonist of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass series.
Probably the best-known of these stateside is Quatermass and the
Pit, known here as Five Million Years to Earth, with which
Prince of Darkness has some things in common. I love Kneale's
work - he always wrote very intelligent science fiction, often bordering
on the horrific - there are far, far worse role models. I have said
it before, and I will say it again: given a choice between a mediocre
movie that shows some thought and a slickly-made movie that feels it
sufficient to throw blood around and crack bad jokes, I will always
gravitate to the brainy stuff. We can complain all we want about all
the crap out there, and how stupid this movie is and how dumb that one
was, but the truth is: if we don't support the intelligent stuff when
it comes our way, it won't come anymore. Because it won't get made.
Come on. The movie's
old enough that you can walk into a major video chain and rent it for
the change in your pocket. Give it a try. It may pleasantly surprise