John Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987) [8/10]


P/O/D deserves much more than the B.O.D.

A typically over-ambitious ‘philosophical horror-movie’ with elements of science-fiction and comedy, Prince of Darkness marks the end of John Carpenter’s spell as a truly essential director. While They Live (1988), In the Mouth of Madness (1995), Ghosts of Mars (2001) and even Vampires (1999) have their admirers, Prince of Darkness is the last time a Carpenter movie managed to be both viscerally exciting, thematically intriguing and (relatively speaking) dramatically coherent.

The script is credited to ‘Martin Quatermass’ – Carpenter’s choice of pseudonym indicating his debt to Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale (at one point he even has a character wearing a sweater emblazoned with ‘Kneale University’, just in case we’ve missed the gag.) The story combines elements of Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit (1967) and his legendary TV play The Stone Tape (1972), as a group of researchers visit a semi-derelict Los Angeles church (“St. Godard’s”!) to investigate a mysterious canister found in the basement.

Immediately picking up bad vibes (somebody does actually say, “this place gives me the creeps”) they discover that the canister’s churning green goo is in fact the essence of what we’ve come to call the Antichrist: actually, a powerful alien being who last walked the Earth in the Cambrian era. This evil entity starts taking over the bodies of the researchers, and also controlling the LA street-people who congregate menacingly outside. The aim is to liberate its father – a being we know as Satan – who is currently trapped in another dimension. Or something.

Close attention must be paid to Carpenter’s script, which begins with a dizzying array of complex theories discussed by highbrow figures including priest Donald Pleasence, theoretical physicist Victor Wong and the latter’s students – a fairly geeky collection of boffins apart from implausibly photogenic (and sappy) lovebirds Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount. “Say goodbye to classical reality! Because our logic collapses on the sub-atomic level – into ghosts, and shadows!” exclaims Wong, which is Carpenter’s way of ensuring that we’re ready to swallow all manner of bizarre plot-happenings once the action adjourns to the creepy downtown LA church.

Even then, it takes a little while for the action to kick in, and pace is uneven until things suddenly pick up for a trademark Carpenter last reel in which he frantically intercuts between various groups of people in deadly peril. By now all the intellectual chat about Schrodinger’s Cat seems a very long way off, as the ‘possessed’ rise from the dead and we’re suddenly plunged into gory zombie/vampire territory.

As usual, it doesn’t all quite come off. Carpenter can’t resist diltuing the tone with some rather heavy-handed comic relief, and it’s slightly jarring to hear the Anti-Christ (speaking through a human conduit) coming out with the absurd line “I’ve got a message for you, and you’re not gonna like it.” Even worse is Carpenter’s unforgivable treatment of the ‘street-people’, led by a cadaverous Alice Cooper. “He controls simple organisms easily,” someone remarks of the Antichrist – and Carpenter blithely seems to place the scruffy, shuffling homeless on the same ‘pawns of Satan’ level as biddable creatures like worms, ants and cockroaches!

The street-people fulfil the same function as the wordless gang-member hordes in Assault on Precinct 13, as once again our ‘heroes’ come under siege from an undifferentiated, faceless mass. In Carpenter’s next movie They Live the homeless are heroic class warriors against ‘corporate’ (actually alien) oppression – perhaps indicating the director felt guilty about his earlier sins. But even in Prince of Darkness, he pointedly includes a shot of the grim, foursquare business block across from the church that feels positively Cronenbergesque in its foreboding modernity, symbol of a rigorously partitioned, anti-human City of Angels.

The street-people issue aside, Carpenter is on something approaching top form here – his distinctive, thuddingly doomy electronic score plays its part, while the cast cope well with the script’s sudden shifts from airy theorising to kick-ass action. If anything, Carpenter’s (blisteringly anti-clerical) screenplay has too many ideas, with the result that none of them are fully worked through – his best conceit features the researchers receiving messages from the future in their dreams in the form of electronic signals sent backwards in time from 1999 on a beam of ‘tachyons’.

This “remote-camera view of the future” sounds surprisingly plausible, and the grainy images we see (a not-quite-human figure emerging from the church) are easily the most spookily disturbing in the whole of Carpenter’s work. The breathless climax, meanwhile – in which Satan’s monstrous paw is briefly glimpsed on the other side of a mirror – ties everything together in a way that just about makes sense, while simultaneously managing to reference not only Cocteau’s Orphee but also Carroll’s Alice.

Neil Young
15th March, 2003
(seen on video, 19th January)

PRINCE OF DARKNESS (aka John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness): 8/10 : US 1987 : John CARPENTER : 101 mins