Friday, March 30, 2012

Prince of Darkness (1987)

One of the fondest memories of my childhood took place when I was eleven years old and in a packed house, Houston movie theatre. There was a matinee showing of Big Trouble in Little China (1986) during its opening weekend, and I was accompanied by my aunt Susan and her son, my cousin Steve who was a year younger than me. Big Trouble was a perfect film to see as a little boy and with a packed theatre of moviegoers: a large spectacle film, full of action and humor and there was plentiful cheering and laughter coming from the audience. The experience was more exhilarating than a roller coaster ride, and I daresay the experience, for me, has ever been duplicated. Unfortunately, cinemas must have been vacant elsewhere in the country. "Nobody got it," says director John Carpenter. "Like I said earlier, timing was never my thing in terms of when my movies come out. This movie was completely and totally misunderstood. The critics and public thought it was just bad, and there is nothing I can do about that." (1)
Well, Carpenter has a true fan with Big Trouble in Little China with me, but the financial failure of the film led him back into low-budget filmmaking. (2) Carpenter entered into a contract with Alive Films, and the contract stipulated a budget of three million dollars per film with Carpenter having complete artistic freedom. (3) The first of the two-picture collaboration was Prince of Darkness (1987). (4) Prince turned out to be a fortuitous production for several reasons: 1) it allowed him to shoot the entire picture in Los Angeles, close to his home, so he could always be near to his young son; 2) it was a film that he always wanted to do; and finally 3) Prince of Darkness gave him a break from the rigmarole of Hollywood games and politics. (5) With a filmography full of underrated gems and hidden treasures, no one Carpenter picture is perhaps as overlooked as Prince of Darkness.
I have always considered John Carpenter a perfect classical filmmaker: wide and medium shots and close-ups are the norm with the occasional smooth and fluid tracking shot (e.g. the opening shot of his masterful Halloween (1978)). The first act sees its exposition delivered and all characters introduced, and do not be surprised to see those same characters in the final act, holed up, with their backs against the wall, making a last stand. John Carpenter is traditional film maker extraordinaire, but Prince of Darkness sees quite a bit of artistic innovation. The opening ten minutes of the film, for example, in a bold move, are the credits of Prince of Darkness which are inter-cut with short sequences. These short sequences serve as the film's exposition but they are more like little short films. These sequences only hint to the substance of the film's plot. They are primarily, simply disorienting. For example, Victor Wong (with whom Carpenter worked previously on Big Trouble) plays Professor Howard Birack who teaches theoretical physics. In his first sequence, Birack walks towards his classroom and pauses in front of the building. He cups his hands over his face and stares at the blinding sun through his fingers. Carpenter's camera racks focus from Birack in the background of the frame into the foreground where a mound of furious ants circle, as engaged in war. The scene represents change and it's delivered in a very subtle and doubly-creepy fashion. (To further add, I love Birack's classroom speeches during this first ten minutes: "Say goodbye to classical reality!") Later in Prince, when all of the characters have gathered in the central setting location of the church, Carpenter introduces a dream sequence, which every character experiences when he or she goes to sleep in the film. The dream sequence is composed of a small, shaky tracking shot in front of the church which stops upon the entrance. At the entrance of the church, a dark figure stands with smoke bellowing from behind. The audio is squeaky hisses and barely decipherable dialogue. To this day, this dream sequence freaks me the eff out. Carpenter says that he "shot these sequences with a video camera and re-photographed it on a TV to give them a video feel. It was effective and I enjoyed shooting them." (6) I would go further to say not only were these sequences effective but quite ingenious.
At its heart, Prince of Darkness is a film about rational and logical people attempting to give meaning to, and to structure, chaos. Its spiritual father is H.P. Lovecraft, and in my opinion, its direct influence is the work of Nigel Kneale. The script is penned by "Martin Quatermass" (Carpenter's pseudonym) (7) as an homage to Kneale's best-known work, the Quatermass series that were filmed as television serials and as feature films many times over the course of Kneale's life. The plot and setting of Prince of Darkness are most evocative of one of Kneale's best works, The Stone Tape (1972). Prince of Darkness is about physicist, Professor Birack, who is contacted by a priest (Donald Pleasence) who has discovered a forgotten religious sect, "The Brotherhood of Sleep." At an abandoned church downtown, a guardian priest watched over an artifact: an ancient canister which houses an unknown substance. The substance appears to have a consciousness and is able to perform actions which defy most scientific laws. The priest senses the canister houses an ancient evil and he needs the help of Birack to figure out what it is. Birack assembles a team of students, including Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) and Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), and other scholars to meet at the church for a research session. Whatever is in the canister will reveal itself to everyone at that time. Damn.
When I first saw Prince of Darkness, I was disappointed. I was an adolescent and saw the film as a "New Release" VHS rental. I felt disappointed, because I wanted to see the Prince of Darkness. (In fairness to adolescent me, the trailer kind of feeds this expectation rather than hindering it.) Preferably, the Prince would stalk the halls of the church, taking its unsuspecting victims one by one. In other words, I wanted a more visceral experience like Carpenter earlier delivered with his masterful The Thing (1982). I wanted to see everything and I had to know everything. This wasn't Carpenter's technique at all. "If I applied anything from him [Lovecraft] for Prince of Darkness," says Carpenter, "it was his style, the way be built up his stories very slowly to reach that gasp. And it was something I hadn't tried before." (8) The "gasp" to which Carpenter refers is his summation of Lovecraft's style: a fictional experience where the reader is led through a series of horrific events to the threshold of the consuming evil, the haunting ghost, or the lurking monster. Lovecraft would end his stories at that threshold and allow his reader's imagination to take over. Make no mistake, however, that Lovecraft fueled that imagination greatly with his prose. Fear is what Lovecraft wanted to generate, and it was also Carpenter's goal with Prince of Darkness.

Carpenter adeptly attempted to generate a lurking fear with his viewer and was mostly successful. If you have never seen Prince of Darkness, then during your first viewing watch closely the character of Kelly, portrayed by Susan Blanchard. In the ensemble cast, she is not a very rich character with a well-drawn background nor does her character initially buttress the plot or drive the narrative. In a very subtle fashion during the second act, Kelly becomes a very important character to the plot, but Carpenter keeps her character in the background. In a very adept turn towards the end of the second act, Carpenter makes a big revelation about Kelly that kicks off the action of the final act. Kelly's character is a perfect example of Lovecraftian fear. The homeless people who populate the area outside of the church serve as guardians for the Prince of Darkness. They serve mostly as a very effective visual motif for Carpenter (rocker Alice Cooper is amongst their number). Carpenter's compositions of the legion of homeless folk are completely creepy. The best murder sequence of the film involves character Wyndham (Robert Grasmere) standing alone under the night sky in a large alley behind the church. Wyndham has been through a bout of sulking and whining and stands defiantly behind the church in protest. A beautiful wide composition emphasizes that Wyndham is all alone. Another wide shot follows to see the legion of homeless people shadowed in the distance. Wyndham turns his head to follow another wide composition to see an ominous character come out of the church. Cut to a quick close-up on a murder weapon then to its charging assailant. It's a brilliant murder sequence: disorienting, haunting, and violent.

The biggest flaw of Prince of Darkness is attempting to integrate a quick romantic subplot between Brian and Catherine to provide an emotional core for the film. Brian shows that he has a crush on Catherine during the first act but is too shy to talk to her. When he does get the courage to speak to her, Carpenter intensifies their relationship quickly. Both characters, however, fade into the ensemble during the second act, so one wonders why Carpenter went through the trouble. The last ten minutes of the film provide a somewhat hollow consummation of their relationship and answer the first-act questions. This relationship feels forced, so perhaps Carpenter should have kept Brian shy and Catherine distant: unrequited love may have been more appropriate or more tragic. C'est la vie.
Today, I watch all of Carpenter's movies over and over with much love. I would rank Prince of Darkness as one of my favorites from him. As I get older, I'm more impressed with the quality of Carpenter's work and the immense talent that he possesses.

1. John Carpenter The Prince of Darkness. Boulenger, Gilles. Silman-James Press. Los Angeles. 2003: p. 198.

2. Ibid. p. 201.

3. Ibid. p. 201.

4. Ibid. p. 201.

5. Ibid. p. 206.

6. Ibid. p. 204.

7. Ibid. p. 280.

8. Ibid. p. 204.


Alex B. said...

Man, I haven't watched Prince of Darkness in years! It was pretty cool from what I remember. I'd say I prefer it to In the mouth of madness.

John Connor said...

Another true fan here!!!

Hans A. said...

Thank you, Gents! I'm glad that both of you enjoy the film. I've watched it several times over in the last few weeks. Great stuff.

I appreciate the comments as always. They mean a lot. Thank you.

J.D. said...

I love this film also. It's funny, when I first saw it - when it first came out on home video - I didn't like it at all because I was expecting another Kurt Russell-esque anti-hero to be featured prominently and instead we get more of an ensemble. But over the years, I watched it more and more and my appreciation of it deepened. There are some really fascinating ideas that Carpenter explores in this film and I also the gradually buildnig of dread over the first third of the film that is achieved in part with Carpenter's fantastic, minimalist electronic score.

Awesome review! Makes me want to watch the film again.

Anonymous said...

Man I searched and searched the net for years trying to find the name of this movie. I remember watching as a very young boy, so I only remeber vague visuals (the sweaty laughing black dude, the green goo, the hand coming out of the mirror, and the eerie footage of the being coming out of the church)...I found nothing. So Im sitting here the other night, browsing netflix movies and I see this movie with 3.5 stars, so I figured I'd play it. As soon as i saw the scene that show the old church I said "Yes!!!!!" I knew I had finally found it. I actually enjoyed it more as a adult. Sometimes movies you like a child are pretty dumb when you watch as an adult. But something is intriguing about this film. I love the way Carpenter shoots his movies. I looked on wiki as saw that this bombed pretty hard. That is crazy. I cant believe Big Trouble bombed also, thats like my all time favorite movie.

Anyway, glad to see there are other fans of this movie out there! Thanks!

Giallo Guy 82 said...

Definitely an underrated Carpenter film, and a morbidly stylish one at that.

horselover phat said...

My piece on Carpenter, his work and mystery's a bit of a mindblower!

horselover phat said...

My previous comment and link aside...I've not yet seen Prince of Darkness or In The Mouth Of Madness.

I've been watching Carpenter for years though...Hallowe'en & The Thing being my outright favs.

I concur with your opinion on Carpenter...imo he is one of the most important directors that has been. I don't tend to hand out praise very often, but it had to be said. Not just his visual work...his sonics and soundtrack work is some of the most accomplished in cinema.

I posted this...just so you can see that I'm not totally insane! :-)