The Bad Movie Report

Prince of Darkness

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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 of Darkness.

Satan In A Can!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 aWong and Pleasence as The Odd Couple. 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.

Open wide!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,You go, girl! --- er, Satan! 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 paying attention?

Awright, let's hit the bad points first, and there are some. The second half of the movie is sort of That has GOT to hurt...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 Dennis Dun makes the mistake of Looking Up.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 And now, live from Hell....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.

Vincent FurnierProps, 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 you.


I like it. So sue me.

- August 9, 1998