Prince of Darkness - An Introspective of Horror
It is Evil. It has awakened.
It is Evil. It has awakened.
Sadly, it is liable to put you to sleep, though.
It is debatable exactly when cult filmmaker John Carpenter went off the rails and started doling-out utter rubbish in place of the masterpieces of iconic suspense that had made his name. Some would say Village of the Damned, some Escape from LA. But, for me the writing was on the wall with this atmospheric, though completely hollow and stunningly pretentious metaphysical dabbling in the understandably fallow field of the quantum occult.
After a slew of classics that few other directors can really hope to emulate, Carpenter branched out with Starman, creating an effective and touching intergalactic love story, and had a lot of fun with Big Trouble in Little China … and his adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine wasn’t too shabby either … but then things started to slip away from him. Even if you have a soft spot for They Live, you really can’t deny that it is a one-trick pony. One idea that then runs completely out of steam with a conclusion of such stark budgetary abruptness that it cannot help aggravating. And let’s not even get started on the tripe of Village of Damned, Escape From LA, Vampires or Ghosts of Mars, efforts so bad that they would shame the Sci-Fi Channel. I do like In The Mouth of Madness and The Ward, however, despite the blatantly obvious twist of the latter.
Prince of Darkness has its fans, certainly. I know someone with Alice Cooper’s possessed tramp tattooed on his arm, but I can vividly recall my stunned disappointment with it the first time I saw the film. In fact, there was a palpable air of communal grumbling from almost the entire theatre. And yet it is one of those movies that I watch each time with committed and renewed determination to find just what its appeal is. But fail, dismally, on every single occasion. I love John Carpenter … but I shouldn’t have to make such an effort to enjoy or be entertained by one of his movies. Prince just bores, frankly. It botches its own sense of spooky redolence and mystery by failing to deliver any satisfactory pay-offs, and it fails to tell a coherent, cogent or even interesting story. The premise is good and solid.
Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance, whose homage-monikered character actually remains unnamed in the film, rather like Agent “Strawberry” Fields in Quantum of Solace) recruits Quantum Mechanics Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) and a group of his grad students to the disused and abandoned church of Saint Goddard in downtown LA to study a strange cylinder of swirling green liquid that resides in its basement. Translating some ancient text, they realize that not only have they found the trapped essence of Satan, which was hidden there by a splinter sect of the Roman Catholic Church, The Brotherhood of Sleep, but that Satan is, in fact, the son of a far more powerful entity – the Anti-God. As these revelations sink in, a mob of possessed homeless people gather outside, like an army, and the evil essence escapes and takes influence over various members of the team with the direct intention of bringing his evil father forth into the world of Man.
As the first of a multi-movie deal with Alive Pictures, Carpenter was allotted $3 million and given the luxury of complete creative control. He wrote the screenplay based upon his newfound interest in theoretical physics and atomic theory, postulating that he could combine ultimate evil with the intriguing and trendy notion of anti-matter. His main influence, however, was the writing and TV/Film adaptations of Nigel Kneale, the great British writer of intelligent SF and Horror and the creator of the celebrated character of Prof. Bernard Quatermass, the original “rocket man”. Kneale had actually written the story for Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a film that regular readers will know I am a great admirer (and defender) of, and after another planned collaboration fail to pan-out, Carpenter now felt skilful enough to take on the master-conjecturist at his own game, formulating a plot that would, he felt, fit right in with the likes of Quatermass and the Pit, The Quatermass Conclusion (the clever, but gloomy two-part TV drama with Sir John Mills playing the sacrificial world savior) and The Stone Tape. He had lofty ambitions indeed … but this was John Carpenter, the man who unleashed Michael Myers on Halloween Night, dropped the President of a fascist future USA into the infernal dungeon of New York Maximum Security Penitentiary, had a face-off (literally) between humanity and an alien shapeshifter at the bottom of the world and even had the balls to spoof Kubrick’s mighty 2001: A Space Odyssey with his own student film Dark Star. Surely for somebody this outrageous and imaginative this would be a walk in the park.Sadly, Prince of Darkness revealed far too many of the filmmaker’s shortcomings … the worst being seemingly a lack of confidence in his own material.Interestingly, Carpenter would reaffirm the notion of secretive church factions in Vampires in a slightly more literal and even more ludicrous manner. But it is fair to say that his distrust of authority is still a vein too rich to leave untapped. With more thought – he really didn’t know where exactly he was headed with this one, and thought it would be fun to find out virtually as we did – this could have been his most audacious production to date, challenging religious doctrine, rewriting the Gospel and developing an intriguingly off-the-wall alternate history, and future concept for Mankind’s belief system. Being charitable, one must acknowledge, then, that he was probably biting off much more than he could chew.
The blame for this mess doesn’t just lie at Carpenter’s feet … although he must take the lion’s share, having written it, under the rather daft pseudonym of Martin Quatermass, and directed it. The thing is, Nigel Kneale could make even the hokiest of stories clever, inspired and thought-provoking. He had the ability to inject social and cultural awareness into his tales, blending fantasy with established fact and the understanding to concoct something intellectually stimulating as well as escapist. Carpenter takes the writer’s most celebrated character as his nom-deplume but really has no clear understanding of how to combine horror with concept. Kneale excelled with his occult/SF revision in Quatermass And The Pit, and it would be unfair to expect Carpenter to match such a clever scenario. But considering how sophisticated The Thing was (although Bill, son of Burt, Lancaster actually wrote that) and how downright audacious Escape From New York, we had every right to expect him to deliver something with a bit more substance than this. The sight of weird cosmic events seems to bother nobody other than the central cast, who merely look up at the sky with only slightly more than a passing interest.
The revelation that the essence of Satan has been incarcerated in a vat in the bowels of a long-defunct LA church is, to put it mildly, a scandalously contrived device that Carpenter assumes we are just going to accept. There is no attempt to marry-up any of the ideas that are bandied about - and there really aren’t that many considering the high-concept of the situation - with the action we see on-screen. Random events are belched out because they seem eerie or satanic – the bag-people, the possessed, the insects, the ridiculous messages from the future and from the Prince of Darkness, seemingly, himself. Would he really insist on filling a computer screen with the phrase I LIVE! over and over again? Just why would a reanimated corpse bother to issue a rather polite threat that, at the end of the day, means absolutely zilch, before withering away in a welter of bugs? Those who become possessed are incredibly unfrightening and spend the majority of their time under the spell of Darkness simply motionless and staring.When the supposedly edge-of-the-seat finale takes place, the action is so pathetic and drained of tension, and the pay-off, itself, so cackhandedly delivered that you wish the cast had followed bug-boy’s advice and “prayed for death” with a little bit more passion.
In short, the film, which often looks terrific, with beautiful art direction, lighting and photography, is thematically bland and emotionally stagnant. We spend all the time waiting for something to happen, but whenever something does, it inevitably disappoints. Carpenter places us in siege-mode, and invests the film with plenty of his Hawksian dynamics, which he usually comes up trumps with, but fumbles here with an awkward ensemble that doesn’t interact with either the appropriate antagonism or the correct level of chemistry. Like the sub-atomic particles they prattle on about, they just randomly bounce off one another.
Jameson Parker plays the film’s nominal hero, Brian Marsh. But, wisely, Carpenter keeps the affair buoyant with an over-abundance of cast members. Which is just as well, because Parker cannot act. His porn-star ‘tache outperforms him in every department. Inexplicably, he had a personality in the TV detective show Simon & Simon (in which his onscreen brother sported a big woolly lip-rug that he seems to have borrowed for this) but he is either bamboozled by the script, or just has no comprehension of how to convey any emotion whatsoever in anything that doesn’t have an ad-break every few minutes. Even during his do-or-die mission to try and get help, which is handled by Carpenter whilst semi-snoozing by the looks of it, he utterly fails to get across any sense of urgency or danger. Even The Shape could manifest a greater variety of facial expressions through his William Shatner mask whilst carving-up Haddonfield babysitters!
There is a nice touch that he brings to the character, though, in the form of the incessantly messed-up card-vanishing trick that Brian keeps doing. We have seen him slow this down and make it clear how it is done, and then screw it up so many times that when, all of a sudden, and at a pivotal juncture in the jargonizing, it suddenly works … the effect is actually pretty emphatic and delivers a rare frisson of the genuinely mysterious. Parker was carrying a leg injury from the TV show that left him in constant pain … perhaps this is where the expressionless poker-face comes from – forcing himself not to show his discomfort on camera. But I still cannot buy his swift romance with fellow student Catherine (Lisa Blount) and his curiously peripheral value throughout most of the story-building. Even with a large ensemble cast in which everyone is supposed to have their moment, we need somebody to identify with and to pin our hopes on. Brian should be this guy … but he is the grey man far too often.In short, the film, which often looks terrific, with beautiful art direction, lighting and photography, is thematically bland and emotionally stagnantSeen previously in Big Trouble in Little China, Victor Wong is hopelessly miscast. He might elicit a laugh with his pragmatic description of physical matter, but he just doesn’t convince as a quantum physicist in the least. This was a film that would really have benefitted from taking time out to actually discuss the conflict between the esoteric and the mathematically tangible. It is a slower film than many of Carpenter’s, and far talkier. But the dialogue is mostly execrable and actually tells us little of the big confrontation between good and evil. Wong goes nowhere with his theories, and Carpenter seems to think that his creation of an Anti-God is radical enough to gloss over many inconsistencies … has he completely forgotten about Lucifer being the Anti-Christ in the first place? The Roman Catholic Church has already covered all this with their angels and demons, so there is essentially nothing new in this interpretation. Turning these entities into matter and anti-matter is rendered null and void when the great Evil just does all the usual Satanic shenanigans – bugs, possession etc.
The characters played by Wong and Pleasance are clearly supposed to have some history together and some primary discussive abilities to back up their conjectures, but we don’t learn enough of the Big Ideas they propound. Carpenter had clearly latched onto the new vogue for quantum physics but not done anywhere near the amount of research into it that he claims, hoping that his audience would be equally clueless and take everything at face-value. Well, most of us probably haven’t got Degrees or Masters in any area of Science so that is hardly a leap too far, but the story at least has to make sense in film narrative terms. But Carpenter just deals us half the deck, never stretching for the intellectually wowing like Kneale would have done, and settling, instead, for a lazy pizza-faced witch and some sporadic mad-eyed bitch attacks. His critics have often claimed that he is all about the set-up and never quite clinches the pay-off. Although I do concur with this to a point – even in some of his best movies, you know he hasn’t totally worked out the ending and is simply winging-it – I most certainly cannot argue with it here.
And although he has already revealed himself to be a genius with ambiguous endings – Halloween, Escape, The Thing, Mouth of Madness - Prince of Darkness is the sort of film that shouldn’t feel so left hanging. He tries to provide a full-blown resolution, but then adds hokey scares and a last-second what if? to the equation. He’s having fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that in a genre flick, but having posed so many questions and theories, the ultimate conclusion to Prince feels ragged and formulaic.
This film is all about scenario-crafting. This is perfectly exemplified with his opening titles, which run ten-and-a-half minutes into the film. He is giving the impression that he taking his time to fully appreciate the plot, the characters and the dilemma … and indeed the film is his slowest-burning and his most evenly measured in pace and momentum. But this is pretty deceitful of him because he neglects to provide depth to any of this, the whole enterprise resoundingly empty and devoid of wit, charm or personality.Just telling us to give a damn doesn’t mean that we will. His characters have nothing for us to empathise with. Nothing at all. And when watching them fighting with possessed zombies and struggling against the Devil is no more exciting than watching them standing around doing nothing of worth and speaking inane gibberish to one another, you’ve got a severe problem.
Denis Dun, another holdover from Big Trouble is nothing but an irritation as Walter, the mouthy student who wants to be a millionaire by the time he’s forty. He is supposed to be there for comic relief, but he is just not believable as a wise-cracking hipster who had exciting other plans for the weekend. I liked him in the previous wild oriental fantasy caper, even when he suddenly revealed hitherto unknown martial arts skills, but here he simply gets on your nerves. Partly, he is supposed to. His chat-up lines and attempts at humour are, I assume, meant to be groan-inducing, but this is still no excuse for the lame attempts at placating possessed fellow boffins and students. Even if it is refreshing to have a main character that is scared out of his wits and not in the least bit courageous, too much time is wasted with him and his banalities.
We can’t really foist any blame on to Donald Pleasance, either. He was really getting on at this stage and however naff his dialogue and his character turn out, it is still a great pleasure to see him sporting the robes of a priest and hefting an axe. Pleasance was in the throes of numerous Halloween sequels and had even worked for Dario Argento on Phenomena, really putting his mark on the genre during its most popular zeitgeist, but he felt beholden to Carpenter for giving him the plum role of Dr. Sam Loomis in the first place, over Christopher Lee, who really would have changed the entire tone of Halloween if he’d taken the part. We implicitly don’t trust Donald Pleasance, because he is such an eccentric loose-cannon. In everything, even The Great Escape. This was, of course, his specialty. As heroic as his characters might be, he would bring a degree of unpredictability to them that would keep you on edge. They might be fighting evil like Dr. Loomis, but you would still be just as nervous in his company as you would with Michael Myers! His obsessed priest here is no exception … it is just that Pleasance isn’t given anything tangible or witty or wacky enough to work with. Some despairing moments with his Bible as he begs for help from Christ in their hour of need notwithstanding, he really should have been allowed to let rip properly and maybe argue with the Devil, or something.It is still a great pleasure to see him sporting the robes of a priest and hefting an axeLisa Blount has a strange hairdo, but there is something cute and sexy about her. That said, she makes for one of the least memorable leading ladies in the genre. Once again, this is down to Carpenter’s insistence on an ensemble cast. Where Carpenter marshaled a large cast superbly in The Thing (although critics at the time of the film’s release would erroneously harp on that they couldn’t keep track of anyone other than Kurt Russell’s super-bearded chopper pilot hero MacReady), he can’t keep this lot on a tight enough leash. There’s too many people roped-in and we simply don’t care what happens to any of them. “Where’s Susan?” “Who’s Susan?” “You know … radiologist … glasses …” This repeated exchange becomes symptomatic of the very problem, and it actually feels as though Carpenter knows this and is deliberately highlighting it because he doesn’t really care who she is either. Again, in The Thing, the twelve-man team all had distinct and believable personalities. Here, they all flit in and out of the frame, their individuality somehow diffused by the yawning chasms of uneventfulness.
The ever-reliable Peter Jason would go on to become a regular in Carpenter’s movies from this point onwards. He tends to occupy the sort of roles that would normally go to Charles Cyphers or Buck Flower – he becomes a sort of hybrid of the two other Carpenter-regulars. Jason, who acted even in his childhood, actually had the experience of making a film with Big John’s hero, Howard Hawks, in the Wayne Western Rio Lobo. Although underused, Jason, at least, makes a go of it and provides his doctor of whatever with some nicely humorous and humanistic traits.
One of the more obvious selling points was in having Alice Cooper cameo as a hellish hobo, and he, at least, lends the scenario a real sense of physical menace. Whereas a big cylinder of weird green liquid and a pizza-faced girl are hardly able to elicit even the merest of shudders, Cooper and his mob of down-and-outs who surround the place – at one point standing in a line in the shadow of trees just like the gang in Assault on Precinct 13 - provide a sense of jeopardy that is sorely missing from everywhere else in the film. It is hard to imagine that nobody else on the streets would bother to report this strange gathering of disheveled wastrels who are outside there for at least two full days, but there is a tangible degree of fear whenever they shamble nearer.
It is vaguely reminiscent of the tramp followers that Vincent Price’s vengeful thespian recruits to his cause in the classic Theatre of Death … even down to a nasty knifing that another irksome character, named after yet another British cult SF author, John Wyndham, is treated to, although Carpenter, himself, alluded to the brutal slaying of the sadistic Marquis at the start of Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf as being his primary influence. Cooper is also responsible for the film’s most inventive death scene, in which the speared frame of a one-wheeled bicycle is used to impale some poor fool attempting to leave the church. This was actually lifted from the rock musician’s own stage show. He was also supposed to have supplied an end song for the film, which he did, entitled “Prince of Darkness” but this can only be heard in the finished version as it plays over the headphones of Etchinson (Thom Bray, a character named after Carpenter film tie-in-novelist, Dennis Etchinson), who is the poor chap on the receiving end of the hobo’s bike-spear.
Dennis Dun completely ignores that fact that Ann Howard’s Susan – you know, radiologist … glasses – just appears to stand deadly still at the end of a corridor looking spectacularly and obviously “odd”, and continues to talk to her without reacting to this glaring “oddness”.Then, when Dirk Blocker’s ogre-like Mullins enters his room and asks where Susan is, he simply states that she is outside and the brute then goes to look and is forced to return with the remark that no, she isn’t. WOW! How unbelievably mysterious! So what? Anybody else would just go off in that direction to look for her. So then Walter goes, yes she is, come and look, totally expecting that this woman would still be standing there, rooted to the spot like that was the most common thing in the world to just stand there, rock still, at the end of a gloomy hallway, looking demonically possessed. Carpenter wastes precious minutes on this pseudo attempt at creepiness. He also wastes what should be a tantalizingly composed frame with too many shots of these possessed folks just standing like statues in the false belief that this is fraying our nerves. Countless “sinister” points are lost courtesy of this dumb tactic. This was the guy responsible for the spectre-like shapes of the gang in Assault, the genuine ghouls in The Fog and, damn it, Michael bloody Myers!This was the guy responsible for the spectre-like shapes of the gang in Assault, the genuine ghouls in The Fog and, damn it, Michael bloody Myers!But this is nothing compared to the monumental tension-sapping sequence in which he allows his main characters, those who have not yet become possessed, to be trapped in various rooms as the Devil’s minions prowl about, only to then stop and waste an entire day just standing there contemplating the arrival of their dark Lord whilst these captives look on. This is the man who maintained suspense and excitement in Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York and The Thing with consummate skill and ingenuity. Then we get the Zulu-inspired moment when the survivors in one room have to smash through a wall in order to rescue the trapped Walter who is coming under attack. Well, we’ve already had a few demonstrations of the telekinetic powers of the Devil’s influence, and Susan Blanchard’s mega-possessed Kelly even uses them to crack the very door he is hiding behind … but then sends two minions to waste time clawing their way through it when she could very easily just blow the thing to smithereens. This drained vacuum of too little, too late then inveigles its way into the climax, which is considerably less than edge of the seat.
Another major problem is that we do not have any actual major villain to contend with. Yes, the whole thing revolves around the awakening of the Prince of Darkness from his prison-vat, but you only have to look at Ridley Scott’s visually awesome Legend to see how this could have been a truly unique opportunity to show us something properly demonic. Hell, Carpenter and Rob Bottin (who, incidentally, transformed Tim Curry into the most impressive screen demon ever conceived for Scott’s lavish fantasy) created the unimaginable for The Thing, so to get palmed-off (if you’ll pardon the expression) with just a big demonic hand emanating from a mirror is a real cop-out. We just do not have anybody on the inside to fear. Cheese ‘n’ tomato faced harridans who simply stand there and wheeze “FAAAAA-THERRRRRRRRR!” to a big watery mirror are just not scary.
Carpenter, who most readers will know I have worshipped for the majority of his career, makes a big thing out the “quantummechanics” of the plot, but this bilge goes absolutely nowhere. Fast. “He was our prisoner … not yours!” blurts Pleasance’s rosary-bead clutcher in what is clearly supposed to be an appreciation of religion versus science. But Carpenter has no idea where to go with this field of exploration. This was the point at which he could really have unleashed some wild and peculiar concepts as to the nature of good and evil in the realms of both the theological and the academic. But simply stating that for every positive there is a negative and, in this case, evil reactionary element, is too glib, too damn easy and offers nothing to get the grey matter buzzing.
This sort of thing was even done better in The Omen which, by necessity, stayed primarily with the religious dictum and ideology. But, whether you believe or not (and I, personally, do not), Richard Donner’s film made you care about those who do, and understand completely the nature of the conflict, totally drawing you into it. Freidkin’s The Exorcist, too. There is a magnificently jolting revelation about Christ being an extraterrestrial who was sent to warn us about this force, the Devil, that is delivered so matter-of-factly that most people probably won’t even have noticed it. Again, it is a great idea that is scotched by hamfisted writing and a narrative composure that struggles to reach even the mark labeled “Tepid”.
The idea of the shared dream from the future has no meaning whatsoever. Honestly, what does it represent? What does it tell us? The jerky video footage imagery that various recipients perceive has an air of mystery but, ultimately, it means nothing. There is spiel about tachyon transmissions and warnings from the future, but this is merely Carpenter throwing in yet more (then) newly published theories to bolster a screenplay that is rapidly making less sense than an episode of the interminably boring Sapphire & Steel.On the plus side, Carpenter builds a terrific score of ominous and brooding powerThere are so many bad elements in this film that it is impractical to list them all, although I’ve covered quite a few! But in fundamental terms, it singularly fails make sense on a narrative level, is filled with daft and risible characters spouting from a script that is often embarrassingly put together, has a structure that falls totally flat just after the half-way mark, and can boast of having practically a complete dearth of thrills, chills or genuine suspense. That’s pretty damning, and it is true that Prince of Darkness certainly has a lot more going for it than much of what Carpenter would put out afterwards but this still demarcates the quality downturn that the once-maestro would undeniably undergo.
On the plus side, Carpenter builds a terrific score of ominous and brooding power with the reliable aid of collaborator Alan Howarth. I have reviewed the limited edition double CD of this already, so for now I will just say that its synthesized depth is truly demonic and its typical Carpenterian repetition brilliantly hypnotic. Even if the film frustrates, the score is sure to get under your skin.
And the camerawork is sublime, which you would expect from a Carpenter film even though regular lensman, Dean Cundey, is not the guy prowling with us around the old church. Gary Kibbe had a fine sojourn with Carpenter, filming this, They Live, Village of the Damned, Escape from LA, In The Mouth of Madness and Ghosts of Mars, and although I would say that this could actually be the most visually striking, in terms of fluid movement and viewer immersion, of his work with Carpenter, and the film is never less than sumptuous to look at, it still comes up short when compared to the Carpenter/Cundey collaborations that came before. With that hazy Californian shimmer that actually does translate well to a tale that, by rights, is decidedly gothic in nature. His use of the anamorphic lens tends to distort a little more of the frame than we are used to with Cundey, but his depth and compositions are still arresting. There is a nice visual asymmetry to the swirling green liquid which is travelling around horizontally and the green data text that is moving up the computer screen off to the side of the cylinder. The matte paintings of the celestial conjunction and, better yet, the full moon cresting the church’s rooftop crucifix are a tad obvious … but they do look good, just the same.And the camerawork is sublime, which you would expect from a Carpenter filmUltimately, Prince of Darkness disappoints. It has the feeling of Carpenter rushing in to fill the gap that Kneale left when their proposed project fell apart … but he is just not up to the task. With better writing and a more strategic sense of the uncanny, this could have been one of the filmmaker’s most inventive and imaginative productions. But with the writer/director over-reaching and, oddly, not caring enough about his project, it just falls apart like the Doubting Thomas character of Wyndham under his zombie bug-disassembly in the car-lot.
I’d love to love this … but it remains a diabolical chore to sit through.
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