Thursday, October 27, 2011

Director's Spotlight #1.5: John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and why some of their films work and some don’t. This month, the director in question is Master of Horror John Carpenter, and the focus on his 70s and 80s horror films. Next, his 1987 flop Prince of Darkness.

Grade: 16 (D)

What happened? John Carpenter’s run from the mid-70s to the late 80s was pretty remarkable, with even goofy fare like Christine having its moments, and he ended the decade on a strong note with 1988’s They Live. But in 1987 Carpenter stumbled, big time, with Prince of Darkness, the second film in his so-called “Apocalypse Trilogy (which also includes The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness). The film is recognizably part of his work, but it has so few of his best films’ virtues and so many of his later films’ weaknesses.

The plot, as it is, concerns an unnamed priest (Donald Pleasence) and skeptic professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) discover a cylinder filled with a swirling, glowing green goo in the basement of a church. They discover this after the death of another priest, who was part of a sect in the Catholic church that had tried to keep this discovery secret for years. Or something. The film is not terribly lucid on these details. The two invite a group of college students, including the mustachioed Brian (Jameson Parker) and his obligatory love interest, Catherine (Lisa Blount of An Officer and a Gentleman). These characters will play a crucial role in the film despite having no personality or interesting character traits that distinguish them from at least 8 or 9 other students. The students arrive, and soon they all begin to have the same “dream”: a transmission from the future of a shadowy figure emerging from the church.

Birack and the priest eventually reveal that the cylinder contains the essence of the Antichrist (or something). It is further reasoned that if there is a God, then there is an Anti-God, made up of the anti-matter of whatever makes up that God. The matter in the cylinder (somehow) controls the local homeless population (perhaps it offered them change?), makes ants, worms, and other bugs appear throughout the town (for some reason), and eventually takes control of many of the scientists. It does so by shooting in jets that resemble streams of urine into the mouths of one of the students (no, really), who then vomits out a stream of it into someone else’s mouth (no, really, this happens), and so on and so forth. Eventually only a few students remain, and one of them will have to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the world. Or something.

Confused? Well these are only a few of the plot details of the film. The film gets off to a bad start with the opening shot of an elderly priest dying peacefully in bed. There’s no indication of who this person is or what he does or what the significance of his death is; within ten minutes or so his section is more or less dismissed without a very clear answer to any of these questions. It doesn’t get much better: Donald Pleasence’s priest is brought in, but there’s no clear reason as to why he was sent rather than anyone else (and why does his character not have a name?). He meets Wong, but their greetings are drowned out by the score for no real reason. And Wong’s dry lecture to the oldest group of college students on the face of the earth (they all look like they’re at least in their mid-30s, while mustachioed lead Parker was 40) only further establishes the dry, academic tone. By the time the film shuffles towards the 40 minute mark, there’s no idea of what’s at stake, who anyone is, why they’re doing anything, or why anything is supposed to be frightening, and no moody John Carpenter score is going to change that.

Speaking of the score: it never shuts up. It’s as if Carpenter knew he had a real dog of a movie but tried to hide it with ominous music during all the dull character interactions and lectures on anti-matter. This is irritating at first and infuriating in the later stretches. That the score is not particularly good only highlights how misbegotten the project is. It sounds like dark New Age music, and it isn’t frightening in the least. It’s a pretentious score to a pretentious film.

Actually, it’s a bit astounding how not-frightening the film is. It fails to establish a tone throughout, no doubt because it takes so long to let the audience know what’s going on, and even then it’s not very clear. Exactly three of the characters are distinguishable: Wong’s grumpy professor, Pleasence’s Sam Loomis-like priest, and an annoying comic-relief character played by Dennis Dun. The rest of the characters are distinguishable by race (black man and Asian woman), hair (bald bearded guy, mullet-man), and make-up (a character who, for some reason, becomes host to the Anti-Christ). It’s impossible to care about these characters or be scared of what might happen to them when Carpenter makes almost no attempt to introduce them or develop them; these aren’t even one-dimensional characters. They barely exist. When the most notable supporting role is an apparently mute evil bum played by a distracting Alice Cooper, it’s clear that Carpenter’s usual gift for creating colorful characters has failed him.

So what did Carpenter focus on? Most of first half’s running-time is devoted to (poorly) explaining away the rules of the universe in dry conversations and Pleasence more-or-less reprising his role of Sam Loomis from Halloween; but since it’s never clear who he is or what he’s doing, he’s mostly relegated to delivering alternatively expository or portentuous dialogue. In the second half, the possessed people chase the not possessed people…unless they don’t, in which case the either stand around or force out an unbelievable maniacal giggle. Everything that happens is extremely silly and/or boring, and Carpenter’s attempt to evoke Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou with the appearance of ants and bugs everywhere fall flat. Carpenter does attempt to explore the “men on a mission” and “man vs. force of evil” themes that embody most of his best work, but the film’s focus on jargon and abstract ideas distract the director, who’s usually smart enough to cut right to the heart of the story for a more emotionally gripping experience.

The only scene in the entire film that works is the so-called “dream transmission”. It isn’t terribly frightening (how could it be, with all of the contextual events falling flat?), but its raw quality of someone capturing the devil “on camera” is the single most interesting thing about the film. Carpenter’s film is, in many ways, an admirable, ambitious failure. His attempt to turn his interest in atomic theory and theoretical physics into a horror film about the nature of good and evil is, at very least, interesting in theory. Pity, then, that whatever was in Carpenter’s head didn’t make it to the screen.


  1. Since I've got this and haven't watched it yet, I've only read your first two sentences. I agree in general, but add that a film can also be broken by the front office (perhaps including the producers) after the director has done his/her thing. There are some famous cases of this ... well ... Erich von Stroheim, Jean Vigo, Orson Welles ...

  2. Now that I've seen the movie and read your review, I agree with you. Very silly in those spots where it's not being boring. And who lit all those candles in the crypt?