Saturday, 1 March 2014

John Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy Review (Part Two) - Prince of Darkness

Missing from this picture: one windowless white van

Prince of Darkness
Directed by: Who else?
Written by: John Carpenter (as Martin Quatermass)
Distributed: Universal Pictures
Released: 13th May 1987

Genre: Religious Horror, Cosmic Horror
Rating: 18

If the Apocalypse Trilogy were a family then Prince of Darkness would be the geeky maladjusted middle child, who spends its waking hours meticulously planning how to go about massacring the rest of the family. It's not as iconic (and downright awesome) as The Thing, nor is it a cult classic like In the Mouth of Madness; it just...exists - like the career of Miley Cyrus. It's the Aquaman of the trilogy: it's constantly looked down upon and doesn't get the respect it deserves, but if there's ever an armed robbery in a chippy then it'd be the first one to call - or something like that.

As I commented in the previous review, John Carpenter's movies simply ooze atmosphere. He's the master of his craft and can utilize the lighting, music, mood and tight spacing to great effect; you only have to look at his seminal 1978 flick Halloween to see this. Much of that film took place in a dark, narrow house, and the overall ambiance feels oppressive, as a result. The Thing utilized this approach - the base only felt smaller as the creature's influence grew and the paranoia set spread. However the fact the film took place on a gigantic frozen continent beleaguered by a monstrosity from the even vaster abyss of space helped the story to seem much larger.

So did Prince of Darkness see a back to basics approach for Carpenter, or was it another ambitious attempt? Let's find out... 

And will it be as scary as this photo of Prince?

In the first instance, the story of Prince of Darkness seems very much like a retread of The Thing. A group of science students, a professor and a priest investigate a mysterious seemingly alien container, which was found abandoned in the basement of a church. The container stores a strange life-like liquid, which seems to defy the natural laws of physics. Strange occurrences begin to break out - people start acting strangely, insects appear in swarms and the physics of reality seem to encounter a 404 error. This predictably leads to a slow and efficient cull of the team. It's Carpenter sticking to what he does best. 

What becomes immediately obvious about PoD is how dense the storyline is; it feels less like a suspenseful horror movie, and more like a sloging Fred Dibnah documentary about canals. There's so much pseudo-science and religious nonsense being spouted that it all becomes a little difficult to swallow: one character will expound on the nature of sub-atomic particles and anti-matter, whilst another will talk about the divinations of God. In the words of a medic at the international groin shot tournament: "what a load of bloody bollocks." None of it makes particular sense and it's like attending a physics lecture given by Herbert Mullin. This is a shame because, on paper, the idea of combining the terrifying immensity of the inner workings of the cosmos with the occult sounds great.

This verbose approach to the story telling bogs down the opening act, as we're introduced to several florid concepts and mounds upon mounds of exposition. A third of the film is spent focusing on the discovery of the strange canister, as the characters argue over what it could possibly be. I'd go as far as to say the first half an hour is duller than a one night stand with a prokaryote (haw-haw), if it wasn't for the fact that is saved somewhat by a fantastically morose atmosphere which subtly evokes the theme of forbidden knowledge. Things only really start to pick up once the group learn the truth about their find, and they soon become beleaguered with supernatural threats. Once the pace picks up PoD does demonstrate Carpenter's unique brand of uncompromising dread filled horror, and becomes genuinely gripping. Think of it like a friend showing you his generically boring holiday snaps, only for an embarrassing one to slip out toward the end and make the whole torturous experience worth it.

"Have you ever seen a 30,000 page script before?"

So it should come as no surprise that the horror elements are all fantastically pulled off. Whilst the horror in The Thing came from the disturbing mutations, PoD benefits from its cabalistic approach by having a more surreal vibe: zombie-like figures stalk the area, strange insects plague the church and unusual symbols continually appear on computer monitors. It's perturbing and eldritch without ever being the overblown hide under the duvet horror. A lot of interesting questions are raised, and the answers to these verge on the precipice of insanity and existential nihilism. Even when Professor Birack (Victor Wong) and the priest (Donald Pleasence) reveal that the container houses the Anti-God, it still feels oppressively unknowable - a force beyond the realm of human comprehension.
Interestingly, Carpenter does not go for the whole "too recondite to understand" approach. Quite the opposite really: Birack and Priest speak of it as though they're in charge of Anti-God awareness month, and the rest approach the situation with a liberal open mind somewhere between the levels of genuinely engaging with Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Gay Mountain advert. It's strange that no one really questions the existence of a container of a sentient, swirling liquid beyond the typical: "my overpriced university textbook does not explain this." With the story converging on Cosmicism it'd have been nice to see the gears break away in the minds of some.

The characters themselves are the usual collective of bad choices typical found on the Sunday morning walk of shame. They are budding scientists of various fields and, therefore, a supposedly intellectual bunch. However though they may theorise about receiving messages from a tachyonic antitelephone, they still all fall to the basic rules of the slasher movie. Considering the Anti-God's primary tactic is to plague his victims with locusts and Shokushu Goukan monsters, the fact they succumb so easily is, frankly, a little dubitable. Even when it ramps up the ante and sends its pale faced undead minions - who shamble forth with all the careless disregard of an unemployed shopper in Tesco - dying could easily be avoided if they simply stuck together.

So as the characters have no real personality beyond 'intelligent to the point of annoyance,' and 'insufferably sarcastic,' it's a little hard to sympathise with them when they're getting mowed down faster than the population of Europe after the Spanish flu decided to go on tour. The closest we get to a relatable protagonist is Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker), but even he doesn't get enough development to seem compelling. Sure, he has a token romance with Catherine (Lisa Blount), but the day love subplots are counted as sufficient character development is the day Clinton Cards become playwrights. The problem here, I think, is that Carpenter focused too much of the opening act on building the mystery of the container and establishing his concepts, that the characters fall by the wayside - which, let's face it, is an apt metaphor for how most intellectuals develop as people.

Maybe, however, that's the point. Just like The Thing before it, PoD is at heart essentially a slasher movie. And when we watch a slasher we do so knowing (nay, hoping) that the majority of the cast are going to suffer a more grisly death than Aeschylus on the day he visited the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In this regard Prince of Darkness does not disappoint, with many of the characters meeting a devilishly visceral end. The violence is not as brutal as in previous Carpenter flicks (such as Assault on Precinct 13) but here he instead taps into a primordial fear; utilising more repellent elements like bugs and strange bodily inflictions. Frank Wyndham's (Robert Grasmere) death is a good example of this: after being stabbed to death (by Alice Cooper no less), his body is demonically possessed and reanimated - only to fall apart into a writhing bug infested heap.

"I never agreed to this..."

Thematically Prince of Darkness owes heavily to the British sci-fi serial, particularly Quatermass and The Stone Tape. All three stories tackle the subject of ancient evils in a scientific way, creating an interesting juxtaposition of the scientific and supernatural worlds. It became a defining trait of legendary screenwriter Nigel Kneale to blend these elements together, and apply them to the archetypal thriller format. Prince of Darkness does this approach well: presenting us with a compelling mystery which crosses the realms of both science and the occult, whilst staying firmly in the world of the thriller. It's just unfortunate that Carpenter chooses not to make a grandiose statement, unlike Quatermass and the Pit which is essentially a giant metaphor for the racial hatred strangling Britain at the time.

The problem is, and this feels rather blasphemous, Carpenter just isn't as good as Kneale. Whilst Kneale was able to pull off alien invasion stories with references to witchcraft, race riots and eugenics, Carpenter struggles to fill in the gaps in a meaningful way. We're left with significant plot holes (such as why don't they just call for help when the 'zombies' attack), and flowery bits of exposition that fail to resolve adequately the various strands. Most erogenous of all are the creepy dream-like visions the characters collectively experience when the sleep. Initially, they appear to serve as some macabre prophecy, but as the movie progresses we learn that the visions are a warning from the future. Though, I'm not quite sure why the denizens of a hellish future would think sending a fifteen second trailer for the apocalypse would achieve anything other than blue balls syndrome is beyond me.

I mean if they've mastered the technology to send messages directly back into the consciousnesses of their antecessors, then you'd think that surely they'd know not to send the most needlessly cryptic message possible. We are shown visions of a figure leaving the church, but never told who it is, or why exactly that's something to be concerned about - unless the cameraman's a Seventh-day Adventist and it's a Sunday. It could be that the figure is the Anti-Christ himself and the end of the world has started. We'll never know, however, seeing as how it's an exercise in miscommunication like something out of a bad romcom: "But honey, I was expressing my desire for a glass of lemonade," "oh right, I thought you said you wanted to screw our maid!" Cue reassuring reunion.

However like the world's most fastidious man cleaning his bellybutton, if you took away all the fluff you'd still be left with a well-crafted thriller. As it takes place entirely in (and around) the church it has a very claustrophobic vibe; something that is intensified by clever use of wide angle lenses and anamorphic format - coupled together to creation disorientation. This helps to create an unshakable feeling of things not being right, even before things start to go the way of the Proctor house. Little by little the entire environment grows in hostility until even the computers turn against the characters - displaying the most hateful electronic messages birthed from Hell's version of /b/.

The last half an hour or so of the film (i.e. when the plot really gets going) are similar in tone to the work of Lucio Fulci. I'm not sure whether if Fulci's 1981 classic The Beyond was an inspiration for Carpenter, but there are definite similarities in the films' closing acts - especially the characters being under siege by the not-quite zombies. In a touch of fringe brilliance, Carpenter makes his undead foes visually mortified by the evil deeds their bodies are being forced to carry out. Showing the pain and duress the characters undergo when they're corrupted by Satan and made to slaughter their friends, helps to build up the Anti-God as a viable and malevolent threat. It's a subtle touch - that's not mentioned by the characters - but one that's useful considering that the Anti-God is essentially a glorified bottle of bubble bath.

Helen wasn't sure about Radox's new 'Hellish Misery' range.

On a technical level, Prince of Darkness is very impressive; there are several money-shots interspersed throughout which are simply a treat for old-school SFX aficionados (the green liquid leaking out of the canister, upwards, is particularly noteworthy). Like The Thing before it, the crudeness of some of PoD's effects adds to the overall cringey vibe. Though it's not as dependent on visual effects as the other two films, the make-up effects are all well done in PoD; especially in regards to the possessed Kelly (Susan Blanchard), who is the overall highlight of the film. After being forced to take the liquid into her body, she essentially becomes a flakily skinned incubator for Satan's penis-tears. By the film's end, Kelly is a bit of a BOBFOC, resembling the girl from The Exorcist on meth.

Prince of Darkness is very much a back-to-basics approach for Carpenter who takes many cues from his earlier film Halloween. The set-up is simple and the action takes place in a single location, and Carpenter utilises this to build up a slow burning atmosphere which, rather like the Mississippi river in 1927, overflows into an intense third act. Naturally, PoD wasn't very well received (like the other two films in the trilogy) though the reasons why in this instance are more understandable. The critics lamented the poor characters and incomprehensible story.  My main problem with the film is the fact Carpenter continuously brings up philosophical questions and bizarre scientific phenomena, but never provides satisfactory answers.Whereas The Thing, answered tough questions about humanity and our place in the universe without ever even asking them.

The other major problem is that the main antagonist is little more than a concept - he has little physical presence or direct involvement in the story. Having a villain that is metaphysical makes the story seem more like a warped moral tale: "so you see Timmy, your mother died because you touch yourself at night." Being the middle story of the Apocalypse Trilogy means that it's sandwiched between the more visceral sinew splatted Thing and a mind melting army of Old Ones. Carpenter stated that he wanted to combine the idea of evil with the concepts of matter and anti-matter, and I can applaud him for trying something different, but ultimately, the film is devoid of any real meaning.

Seen here: the aftermath of the great jam incident of '87

So, should you see it?

Err. As much as I hate to say this, I do not think there's anything compelling enough to recommend Prince of Darkness unless you happen to be a massive John Carpenter fan. I personally enjoyed it, and thematically it fit in nicely with the rest of the Apocalypse Trilogy. In terms of directorial approach, Carpenter is back to his minimalist roots. 

Unfortunately, it's let down by an incoherent mess of a plot, and the fact that it's rather boring. Not a lot happens for the majority of the runtime, and there's too much focus on discussing hypothetical hogwash that has virtually no impact on proceedings. It's by no means a bad movie, just not a particularly interesting one; it's basically the David Schwimmer of John Carpenter movies. 

Competition: find something interesting in this image.

Enjoyed this review? Then follow Iron on Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter to stay up to date, you stalker.