Thursday, October 15, 2009
Not At All What We Had In Mind
For John Carpenter fans, 1987’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS probably falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. It doesn’t have the cult status of something like THEY LIVE and it probably shouldn’t be ranked among his very best which would obviously include HALLOWEEN and THE THING. Since the New Beverly ran it on a double bill with THE THING several weeks ago, there was really no question as to which film shown that night was the masterpiece. But in truth I liked PRINCE OF DARKNESS back when it was first released and revisiting it now I felt that it has held up extremely well, coming off at times as genuinely dark and chilling. This new print struck by Universal (the one which was going to be shown at the theater in mid-‘08 was destroyed in the fire on the lot at the time) turned out to be truly beautiful, fitting for a film that is more deserving of praise than it has received in the past. Released the year after the unfortunate and undeserved box-office failure of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS was a slight regrouping for the director at the time, an attempt to make a low-budget film without too much riding on it. With an overriding sense of seriousness in how it approaches its subject matter it feels like one of the most genuine attempts at encroaching dread that he ever went for.
Soon after discovering a mysterious cylinder in an old, nearly abandoned church in downtown Los Angeles, a Priest (Donald Pleasance) consults with former colleague Dr. Howard Birack (Victor Wong) a famed physics professor. To further study the mass inside the cylinder, Dr. Birack recruits several students, including David Marsh (Jameson Parker) and new potential girlfriend Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount) to spend the weekend in the church but as they soon begin to discover the potential power of the liquid, the students find themselves trapped, under siege from the homeless people surrounding the church and find themselves in danger from what is both inside and outside. A recurring dream the students have when asleep (“This is not a dream…”) which features a mysterious figure at the front of the church appears to be a warning sent back from somebody in the year “one-nine-nine-nine” and they soon are forced to deal with the realization that what they are faced with is the genuine possibility of what one of them calls “old scratch knocking at the door”.
With a script credited to one Martin Quatermass (actually a pseudonym for Carpenter, paying very deliberate tribute to the Nigel Kneale character Bernard Quatermass), the overwhelming feeling of true unease in PRINCE OF DARKNESS begins immediately and doesn’t let up, complete with a continually roving camera and an incessant tub-thump to the music by Carpenter. There isn’t necessarily a real theme to the score but it also seemingly won’t stop at any point during the running time, burrowing its way into our brain, just what the movie wants to do. Setting it slightly apart from other horror films, the narrative is populated with intelligent characters, graduate students no less, who stumble into this situation even as all the signs around them say something is wrong—the numerous homeless people who are gathering (led by Alice Cooper, actually), not to mention the growing amount of worms covering a window that give the impression the building is rotting all around them. Using rational thought, they don’t notice the true danger of such things until it’s too late and all of these elements combined gradually give the film the feel of a nightmare that you just can’t wake up from. Everything in PRINCE OF DARKNESS probably shouldn’t work as well as it does—some of it would come off as downright silly in other hands—but it somehow does because of the expert pacing and mood that Carpenter maintains. Within the context of this basic scenario that the director has, after all, done before he manages to bring some unexpected elements into the mix such as how all isn’t resolved the instant the sun comes up at the end of the long night. Daytime doesn’t send the evil away and the onslaught continues, with no one coming to rescue them. And when the very nature of ‘old scratch’ comes into play in moments such as when someone is standing outside the window proclaiming, “I have a message for you and you’re not going to like it…” the scene is presented with such deadly seriousness in a yes-we-really-mean-this kind of way it’s hard not to admire the film for that audaciousness.
With Carpenter’s staging displaying a consistently well-utilized sense of space throughout the building (damn, I just love the way the Scope frame is used here), it proceeds with a careful, steady mood of dread that looking at it now feels influenced by Fulci—there’s a similarity in how the pacing seems to proceed with the gradual clicking of a metronome. That feeling of dread is what stays with you about the film more than anything, but there is humor at various points and at times a likable interplay between the characters and even some goofiness on occasion—although the Tom & Jerry cartoon featuring the devil that is briefly seen feels more like a beat out of Dante than Carpenter, although it does play like an indication that maybe we shouldn’t be taking all this too seriously, even if there is a great deal of discussion of physics.
There’s a fair amount of Hawksian camaraderie between the actors and maybe even more humor than I remembered but combined with the extensive discussion of the battle between science and religion leading to how they relate to the plot (which certainly makes this film somewhat unique) it’s also a restating of the trapped-in-a single-location RIO BRAVO/NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD device that Carpenter used as far back as ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and maybe an attempt to see just how far he could take this concept. The opening credits to the film have always been slightly infamous in how they just won’t stop (I can still remember the groans heard on opening night every time they continued) and that lack of release, the attempt at a lack of release could be looked at as a prime component of the film itself, right up until the very end. It’s as if it’s saying the part of dread is not giving you any sense of relief—you can’t ever know if the dread is really passed or not. It’s not his best film, but Carpenter’s filmography would feel incomplete without it.
It’s tempting to say that the characters are all written and played in a colorless way but there is humanity in there, with some humor as well (“Have you seen Susan? Radiologist, glasses?”). This dry nature of the actors is somewhat appropriate and making any of them a ‘star’ role seems deliberately avoided—Jameson Parker is more or less the lead and is kept very low-key but his basic earnestness does make him likable. Top-billed Pleasence is mostly kept separate from the younger cast and plays his role as a more introverted Dr. Loomis, as if knowing that no ranting and raving will prevent the worst from happening. Dennis Dun and Victor Wong were both also in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA—Dun is as close to comic relief as the film allows (he’s funny in a believable way, not as strict comic relief which is an important difference) and Wong proves that he can spit out all kinds of exposition, still making it somehow fascinating. Lisa Blount, in many ways the real soul of the film as the love interest and she has a very sensuousness presence as if something horrible but unspoken in her past is affecting everything she does. Character actor Peter Jason, in his first of several films for Carpenter (he’s also worked for Walter Hill numerous times), brings a sharp sense of timing and interest to his stock role and at times there’s the feeling that his director just let him do whatever he wanted when the cameras rolled, making for some nice little moments. Not all of the actors in small roles make good impressions but even in some of the stilted line readings is a sort of naturalism that makes the ongoing threat seem even more potent. Nothing about it is very slick, but it never tries to be. It’s an attempt to siphon his filmmaking style to its pure essentials—all he needs is a building, a Panavision lens, his keyboard, maybe a few actors he likes—and from that he has the undeniable talent to produce something truly effective.
“Everybody’s acting like we should really be taking this seriously,” says one skeptic when serious revelations are being discussed. It’s as if the character is speaking for us, just as we wonder how serious we’re supposed to be taking some of these grave, world-changing revelations. Dialogue throughout the film seems to be leading us down the path to help us make up our mind. “Only the corrupt are listened to now and they tell us what we want to hear,” is stated at one point, something which seems more true than it did at the time of the film’s release, which seems appropriate considering we have long since passed the future date that is alluded to within. And since we have passed that date, what does that say about how we should be viewing PRINCE OF DARKNESS? Is it a dream or is it something else? Are our dreams ever our own or are they placed there against our wishes? The film doesn’t tell us, merely offering the blunt acknowledgement that sometimes we reach for a reflection, searching in vain for that answer. And maybe that’s all we can ever do.