It is Evil. It has awakened.
Prince of Darkness has its fans, certainly. I love John Carpenter … but 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) 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. Kneale had actually written the story for Halloween III: Season of the Witch and after another planned collaboration fail to pan-out, Carpenter now felt skillful 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 and The Stone Tape. He had lofty ambitions indeed 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.
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. Nigel Kneale could make even the hokiest of stories clever, inspired and thought-provoking. 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. 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.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.
There are so many bad elements in this film that it is impractical to list them all! 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
On the plus side, Carpenter builds a terrific score of ominous and brooding power with the reliable aid of collaborator Alan Howarth and 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.
Ultimately, 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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