Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Carpenter's Tools: Prince of Darkness

As I work through John Carpenter's corpus, I find myself so taken with his sparse yet impeccable style that I tend to gawk over the details. Often, I focus so intently on his visuals that I forget to be scared by his horrors: Halloween is too aesthetically perfect to work as a piece of pure horror (though it does maintain a constant level of unease that works as a fine substitute to shocks), and the effects work on The Thing attracts me, like Dawn of the Dead before it, to marvel at the results over the impact of the gore. Prince of Darkness throws a monkey wrench into the gears: using anamorphic lenses, Carpenter distorts the image slightly. He intends the effect to reflect the nature of the film's supernatural element -- why he started now is anyone's guess, considering the presence of primal forces in all his other films -- but it speaks more to the sloppiness of the feature and its failure to make its ill-defined evil emotionally felt.

After the troubled production and bungled marketing of Big Trouble in Little China disenchanted Carpenter, he returned to independent filmmaking. In an attempt to prove that he could make quality work without the help of Hollywood, he swung for the fences with Prince of Darkness. The story of a group of academics and a holy man locked up in an abandoned church to investigate a cylinder of mysterious liquid that apparently contains the Antichrist, Darkness certainly doesn't pull any punches. And if Carpenter made the film to prove he could make the films he wanted without big (for him, anyway) budgets, he succeeded: while the effects are certainly dated -- more so even than some of the work in his earlier films -- nothing in the film suggests that the director lost his flair with a cut budget. It also proves, however, how a bad script is a bad script, no matter the cost.

There's always been a certain woodenness in Carpenter's films, yes, but he typically balanced out the static performances of his cheap supporting cast with a dynamic lead and/or a reliably loopy second-tier character who usually served as the film's primary source of exposition. Yet no character or actor particularly works in Prince of Darkness: the only emotional brunt of the film rests on a couple that has no implicit chemistry nor even enough explicit scenes of mutual attraction to fuel the emotions at the end. The rest of the characters are nothing more than props for the blocking, moving from scene to scene and delivering lines with such lackadaisical indifference that, in a film with zombies and the possessed, sorting out the normal humans is a chore.

Not even Carpenter's recycled actors -- Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun -- all of whom made such an impression elsewhere, jolt any energy into the cast. Somewhat interestingly, Pleasence and Wong reprise their roles from Halloween (the priest is even named after that film's Dr. Loomis) and Big Trouble in Little China, albeit with the roles reversed: Pleasence plays the spiritual guide, the one who knows something about the supernatural forces at work, while Wong appears as the scientist and analyst driven slightly mad by his brush with something that cannot be explained. Their subtle reprisals of their old parts, even if swapped, reflects the film's larger absorption of Carpenter's previous works: the appearance of a mob of possessed homeless people (led, hysterically, by Alice Cooper) recalls the zombie-like gang of Assault on Precinct 13, the gore obviously brings The Thing to mind, and the general tension -- when any exists -- mines the same territory of omnipresent, implacable terror of Halloween.

Carpenter doesn't simply plunder his own filmography, however: when the mysterious liquid infects unfortunate victims, it finds its way into other hosts via the streaming vomit of the possessed, a clear take on The Exorcist. One female student finds herself the chief host of the Antichrist, and her bloodsoaked body, combined with the telekinetic abilities naturally exhibited in the spawn of the "Anti-God," plays like a straight-faced version of Carrie.

You'd think, given the clear influence of some of the greatest horror films ever made (including a handful of his own films), that Carpenter might have generated more thrills and chills, or at least more unsettling vibes. Sadly, most of Prince of Darkness is so dull it doesn't even work as unintentional comedy; only in the final 15 minutes does it finally tap into some of the macabre magic of Halloween, mixing a reliably atmospheric Carpenter score with impressive low-budget effects and the suitably uneasy feeling of mounting evil. One effect in particular, of a watery space behind a mirror that the Antichrist uses in an attempt to summon its father, is as memorable as anything in The Thing. Yet Carpenter undermines the effect of the climax with a dénouement that makes a stab at conveying a sense of pain and loss before the director clearly realized he hadn't done anything with the characters to make those emotions felt and switches abruptly into one of those wearisome "The End...?" finales that, as far as endings involving the supernatural and mirrors go, couldn't stand in the same room as the later Twin Peaks cliffhanger.

One can fairly easily find the message in one of Carpenter's films, be it broad satire or a more dramatic thrust, but I confess I can't figure out the point of Prince of Darkness. The scientific angle from which Carpenter attacks the idea of the Antichrist is so thinly defined it leaves open the frightening possibility that Carpenter is equating the embodiment of evil with science, something that hardly jells with Carpenter's political and moral positions and smacks more of lazy writing than insidious messaging. I wouldn't call Prince of Darkness a failure -- like Carpenter's previous foray into mediocrity, Christine, it has its moments -- but if Big Trouble in Little China took the wind out of Carpenter's sails, this hinted at the coming downfall


  1. Hey Jake, (embarrassingly) I haven't seen this movie, but equating science with evil may be Carpenter (the Hawksian that he is) commenting back upon Hawks' original The Thing From Another World, in which scientists, and intellectuals in general, are equated with a polite wishy-washiness that unnecessarily endangers lives.

  2. I have to respectfully disagree. I would argue that PRINCE OF DARKNESS is one of Carpenter's most underrated films.

    At the time he was making the film JC was getting into theoretical physics and atomic theory and decided to create some kind of ultimate evil and combine it with the notion of matter and anti-matter. He has also said that he was interested in making a horror film where the threat was primarily in the mind, which, I think, is the key to understanding where this film is coming from.

    For me, JC expertly eases us into the horror 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 where most of the film is set. The first 30 minutes is a slow burn as JC gradually builds the dread. He also enhances this feeling of unease with a simple yet effective electronic score that establishes a menacing tone that builds along with the emerging evil in the film.

    JC was also getting more political and in many ways, PRINCE OF DARKNESS predicts the corruption of power that is explored in his later film VAMPIRES. Absolute power corrupts and those in such lofty positions hide the truth from society to keep the rest of us ignorant. JC takes a couple of amusing jabs at organized religion with Pleasence's priest shown riding up to various locations in an expensive limousine. For someone who is supposed to be all about devoting his life to God, he lives pretty well.

    When I first saw PRINCE OF DARKNESS many years ago, I had a problem with its lack of the traditional two-fisted Carpenter anti-hero. All of the characters seemed to stand around and pontificate about what was happening instead of doing something like Snake Plissken in ESCAPE FROM NY. For me, no one character stood out from the rest and they were all equally bland and uninteresting – except for Pleasence’s priest and Wong’s professor, but their characters are given no chance to develop.

    Over the years, I have watched PRINCE OF DARKNESS many times and realized that I was wrong, that there was much more going on in the film than I initially realized. It was made independently and with a lack of movie stars, but it works because you don’t know who is going to live or die – all bets are off and that creates a certain amount of tension. Like in THE THING, the group of students get picked off one-by-one with a core group of survivors fighting against insurmountable odds. What I feel makes PRINCE OF DARKNESS a refreshing change from most of JC's other films is that it features his most commonplace protagonists – college students – hardly the stuff that heroes are made of and yet when they have to, these people 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.

  3. Doniphon - I'm not saying the equation of science with evil automatically turns me off, because can be and often is quite cold and focused on experiment results at the potential expense of ethics. But the characters presented here are mostly students, a bit haughty perhaps but no more so than any pretentious collegiate; they never do anything themselves that reveals calculating, inhumane minds.

    JD: I liked that jab at Father Loomis, but I think that Carpenter made his point about the corruption and disconnect that comes with power with the ending of Escape from New York, which was not only a cleverer dig but a funnier one too. I think he builds suspense through most of the film, but it never takes root until near the end. Compared to Halloween, which established a creepy vibe almost instantly and maintained it, this sort of haphazardly stabs at suspense like a nurse searching for a vein before Carpenter finally taps into it in the last 20-25 minutes. Not knowing who will live and die is meaningless if we don't give a damn about any of them. I mean, you can build character and audience connection and still throw the audience for a loop: check out Joss Whedon.

  4. I tried to rent Prince of Darkness last October, but it was on a waiting list. Once I see it, I'll be sure to respond more to this post.

  5. Jake:

    Yeah, Joss Whedon is good at doing that for sure but I felt that JC built up enough key characters for you care about what happened to them. Most of the characters came off as naturally sympathetic -- well, at least Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount -- ostensibly the two leads but he also does a good job of showing just how much is at stake and the kind of odds that our heroes are up against. And that alone had me caring about who lived and who didn't.

  6. Having commented on your Fog review you replied and pointed out how Prince of Darkness is now your favorite of John Carpenter's. So I was really looking forward to your review and why it was so... Instead you hated it! Feel free to reply and tell me what changed your mind and why it is one of your fav's now?

    I personally think it is a great film (not his best but still pretty damn good) and have never forgot certain images and scenes from when I first watched it back in the early 90's)... Having not seen it in way too many years I didn't fully remember the plot and having just watched it again, it was pretty damn good. Great story, great scenes, amazing music, great build up, great ending... The only thing that seriously brings down the film (but still not enough to ruin it) is the acting.

    On a side note, Christine isn't that bad of a film either (sure it might be his worst film up until Prince of darkness--not counting his TV movies, but it still is a whole lot of fun.) It's also pretty faithful to the book, looks damn good, has great music, and is one of the better King films. It says a lot about Carpenter when Christine is his worst film. Have you reevaluated your opinion on that one too?