Skip to main content

Maybe this universal mind resides in the mirror image instead of in our universe as we wanted to believe.

Prince of Darkness
(1987)

(SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s wounded retreat from the traumas of big studio moviemaking saw its first fruit in this cult curio. Not as legendary as his subsequent They Live! but also very influential in its own scrappy way, as well as being very influenced in its own right (most particularly, and self-confessedly on Carpenter’s part, by Nigel Kneale). Prince of Darkness is also less satisfying than They Live! although its ancient astronauts take still produces several highly memorable moments. Mostly, the movie’s shortcomings are down to the execution, but that’s not because it’s cheap per se. Rather, Carpenter failed to surround himself with the level of talented key players that made his low budget outings in the previous decade so enduring.

Chief offender is DP Gary B Kibbe, who would become a fixture for the remainder of the director’s career, two features aside. However much you can still point to signature, trademark Carpenter motifs – the building score, the intercut action threads (it takes a whole ten minutes to get to the director’s title), the roving Steadicam – the key element of those classic Dean Cundey lensed pictures has gone: atmosphere. Kibbe’s lighting is flat and lifeless, and this is reinforced by a largely weak cast unable make much of frequently abysmal dialogue. The result is that, as intermittently effective as it is, Prince of Darkness also often seems plain amateurish.

On the plus side, there’s old pro Donald Pleasance (his last collaboration with the director) and Victor Wong (who had recently scored as Egg Shen in Big Trouble in Little China). But you also have Jameson Parker boasting a 70s porn tache as wooden lead Brian, attempting to woo Lisa Bount’s Catherine. There’s Dennis Dun (also returning from Big Trouble) playing a wise-ass jerk, and failures-to-register such as Susan Blanchard, Anne Howard and Ann Yen. Jesse Lawrence Ferguson provides some suitably disconcerting possessed laughter, though. And Peter Jason is good, giving an impression of what this might have been had it been populated with the same calibre of talent as, say The Thing.

Not helping the performances any is that nothing about these PhD students is remotely believable. Dun’s Walter even asks at one point “Why do I want a PhD in this?” They appear to require basic physics theory explained, be it tachyons or Schrodinger’s Cat. It’s as if Carpenter has no idea what a PhD is. The hallmark of the best of these haunted-house investigator templates is that the characters give the impression of being skilled (The Stone Tape). And if they aren’t skilled, they’re at least interesting (The Haunting, The Legend of Hell House). Instead, it often feels as if Carpenter purposely and perversely wants Prince of Darkness to seem as much like a cheapo, churned-out slasher flick as possible.

Indeed, I remember Alan Jones in Starburst eviscerating the picture with a 1/10. I also recall reading that Kneale was none-too impressed by Carpenter’s homage (the director previously called on Kneale to pen Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which was then rewritten by director Tommy Lee Wallace, with the gore and violence upped; Kneale took his name off it). Prince of Darkness is written by “Martin Quatermass” (Carpenter) and the students attend Kneale University. The ancient astronauts concept itself is a riff on the puck alien/demons in Quatermass and the Pit (although, this is also a device in Childhood’s End, from the same decade).

Carpenter concocts a heady blend of science, religion, extra-terrestrials, quantum mechanics and anti-matter, in which the anti-god – “bringing darkness instead of light” – buried a cylinder containing his son Satan in the Middle East millions of years ago. Jesus was an extra-terrestrial, and the Church kept the cylinder secret until science was sufficiently advanced that Satan could be combatted. These are really the briefest of footnotes, as Carpenter isn’t interested in fleshing things out. Probably for the best.

But the concept is really less Kneale than it is Pyramids of Mars, the 1975 Doctor Who story; an imprisoned extra-terrestrial god of evil is given to possessing his minions in a base under siege setting. Just with Alice Cooper impaling scientists on a bicycle rather than robot mummies crushing poachers. And, inevitably, a liberal dose of Lovecraft. For all that I’m never very impressed by the performances or some of the general thematic content – the homeless possessed thing is weak-sauce commentary, as is the AIDS-transmission metaphor – Prince of Darkness still boasts some truly iconic elements that ensure it can’t just be dismissed out of hand.

The messages on the computer screen, from “I Live” to the sarcastic warning That “You will not be saved by the god Plutonium. In fact, YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED!” are both amusing and unnerving (almost Sam Raimi-esque; how much better would Prince of Darkness have been with Bruce Campbell sporting that porn tache?) The mirror concept is marvellously envisaged on a budget, first as Kelly tries to make contact with dad through a compact (she can prise only two fingers through) and then a full length one. The satanic visual recalls Ridley Scott’s considerably more expensive (except in script) Legend, and the “What’s on the other side?” idea would later feature in Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil.

Best of all, though, is the transmission from 1999 that punctuates the picture, visualised as a crappy home video recording but comprising the dream image portent of what may happen “for the purpose of causality violation” (a dream anyone in the vicinity of the church experiences, hence the moniker the Brotherhood of Sleep). Catherine, thrown into the beyond, is, we discover, alive in 1999, but possessed. So the attempts in 1987 didn’t work (the figure in the church has changed, so it may be there’s a different possessed). DJ Shadow memorably sampled the message on Changeling/Transmission 1 on his debut Entroducing…..

Such elements may be small potatoes, but they represent the kind of material that makes for a resonant movie. You can take or leave the invasive bugs, the decapitations, the pregnant slime woman and the De Palma jump-scare ending. And the fact that there are occasions in Prince of Darkness when you wonder if you might not be watching a Zucker Brothers version of the same movie isn’t the greatest endorsement. This is a very average movie blessed with a really strong core concept, and one that leaves you with the strong feeling that any hope is hopeless, making it a small comfort in current times. As the middle instalment of Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, it’s decidedly the weakest of them, but Prince of Darkness is still head and shoulders above most of his work during the next decade.



Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.