Prince of Darkness (1987)

*. I’ve heard that John Carpenter considers Prince of Darkness to be the middle part of something called the Apocalypse Trilogy, which began with The Thing and ended with In the Mouth of Madness. I see little connection between the three films aside from his usual preoccupations as a filmmaker. I guess each movie deals with a threat to the planet or civilization as we know it, but that’s kind of broad.
*. On the DVD commentary he makes a more interesting statement, saying his movies tend to fall into two types: journey or siege. He calls Prince of Darkness a siege picture, which it is. We see various people and groups of people barricaded in different rooms in the old church. But while there’s something in this here I’m not sure it works out that well for the rest of his filmography. Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog are obviously sieges. Escape from New York and Starman are obviously journeys. Aside from that, things get murky. I mean, I guess Halloween is a kind of siege, but They Live? Village of the Damned?
*. Instead of looking to labels like this, I’d identify Prince of Darkness as a Ghostbusters thriller. What I mean by this is the kind of film where a team of specialists with a science background are called in to investigate a supernatural or paranormal phenomenon. Kim Newman traces the genre back to the 1972 BBC production The Stone Tape, which is as good a place as any to start. The Haunting is definitely a precursor, though it has less high-tech equipment. PoltergeistThe Entity, and Ghostbusters are other notable examples. Prince of Darkness is very much the same kind of thing, with the team of grad students in various disciplines unloading crates of equipment to study spooky goings-on in an abandoned church in L.A.
*. The Stone Tape was written by Nigel Kneale. Kneale also created Professor Quatermass, who was the main character in a number of Ghostbuster movies. Carpenter wrote the screenplay for Prince of Darkness but adopted the pseudonym of Martin Quatermass in the credits. So you see how this all comes around.
*. I might add here that Kneale was not impressed by this homage. He later wrote: “For the record I have had nothing to do with the film and I have not seen it. It sounds pretty bad. With an homage like this, one might say, who needs insults? I can only imagine that it is a whimsical riposte for my having my name removed from a film I wrote a few years ago [a reference to Halloween III for which Kneale wrote an early draft] and which Mr. Carpenter carpentered into sawdust”. That’s pretty cold.
*. In most Ghostbuster stories science comes up short. I guess the point is to show us that there are some riddles science can’t solve, more things between heaven and earth than are dreamt of in its cold philosophy. As the computer message from the pit tells us here, “You will not be saved by the god Plutonium.” At least, I think that’s a dig at nerds.
*. In Prince of Darkness the inefficacy of science seems even more pronounced than usual, in part because it’s built up so much. There’s a lot of talk about the vagaries and uncertainties of quantum physics, and a ton of lab equipment brought to the church, but for all the talk and computer screens filled with scrolling code none of it means a thing. It has no relation at all to the green goop in the basement and never comes in to play. On the commentary Carpenter dismisses the science talk as basically mumbo-jumbo, which it is. Why bring all these brainiacs in when nothing in their areas of expertise is of any use? Even the expert on ancient languages isn’t able to add anything of value. The idea that the future (1999!) is communicating to our dreaming minds via tachyons is kind of funny though.
*. “I had the dream too. This image that didn’t seem to belong to my subconscious.” Hm. But how would you know an image didn’t belong to your subconscious? What qualities would it have that would make it seem that way?
*. It’s a very set-bound production, which makes me wonder why Carpenter keeps sticking to shooting in widescreen. He always talks about how much he loves widescreen, but surely some projects and some material is better suited for such a format than others. It doesn’t seem to work very well here.
*. Another one of Carpenter’s predilections is for the small group of people who have to team up to face a conflict together (this is basically something he borrowed from Howard Hawks). The only problem with it here is that our attention gets divided among a bunch of different threads, without any of them seeming to be of much importance.

*. Given the track record of rock stars appearing on screen, Alice Cooper wisely limits his role here to that of a speechless presence. His one big scene, the “grotesque gag” (Carpenter) of the bicycle murder, was taken directly from one of his stage shows.
*. The gore is limited and the special effects mainly consist of flipping the camera so that water drips upward and showing hands passing through pools of mercury. That’s not much. I did like the idea of the possessed vomiting streams of unholy water into their victims’ mouths. I wonder if that’s something they consciously adopted in 28 Days Later for the spread of the virus.
*. As in almost any film involving the devil or demonic possession, at least going back to The Exorcist, we’re left a bit unimpressed at the devil’s powers and ambition. Roger Ebert: “Let’s face it. When a movie promises us the Prince of Darkness, we expect more than a green thing in a tube that sprays fluids into people’s mouths, turning them into zombies who stand around for most of the movie looking like they can’t remember which bus to take. When we’re threatened with Armageddon, we expect more than people hitting each other over the head with two-by-fours.”
*. Why does the black guy go all goofy when he’s possessed, instead of turning into a zombie? Do I want to know?
*. Is it even worth asking what’s going on with Kelly? At first when I saw her swollen belly I assumed she was pregnant with Satan’s demon love child. But I guess that was just fluid that hadn’t been absorbed yet. Then her face breaks out in bloody sores and she seeks to draw her “father” over from the Other Side. But how is she different from any of the other zombies?
*. I don’t think Carpenter is that interested in questions like these. Or in what happens to Catherine at the end. Is she one of the devils now? Or on the side of the angels?
*. John Carpenter is a hard case for me. He’s directed a number of very good, seminal films, and at least one classic (The Thing). He’s also shown a real knack for re-imagining tired genres in interesting ways. But he’s also done a lot of work that just seems perfunctory. I think Prince of Darkness falls into the latter camp. The idea, which is pedestrian to begin with, is left unexplained and undeveloped. There are no great scares or suspense sequences. It’s basically a low-rent apocalypse, with homeless people instead of zombies but without any interest in the kind of social commentary that fascinated Romero. What we’re left with is minor Carpenter, which is a big step down from his best.

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