Saturday, October 19, 2013

Horror Fest VIII (Day Two): Prince of Darkness

 It’s been almost a decade since I last watched Prince of Darkness. In fact, the last time I did was followed by the first time I saw Visiting Hours, which turned out not to be such a good idea for Visiting Hours. I suppose I should watch the latter again now, because Prince of Darkness is pretty good but nowhere near as great as I remembered it being.

  For those of you who follow John Carpenter to any degree (or just read the end of the last recap), you are probably already aware that Prince of Darkness is the second part of what he calls the “Apocalypse Trilogy.” If you’re just a casual fan of his movies, you’ve probably heard of the other two films – The Thing (has not played at a Fest… yet) and In the Mouth of Madness (Horror Fest III) – all of which deal with the end of the world in some capacity. At the risk of spoiling both films, let’s just say they don’t end well for the protagonists. Prince of Darkness has the, shall we say, “happy” ending of the three, if you can call it that.
 Thematically, The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness deal with different aspects of the human experience: in The Thing, it’s the inability to trust one another, and with In the Mouth of Madness, it’s about notions of reality. Prince of Darkness is about the uneasy space between science and religion, and Carpenter poses some intriguing questions but doesn’t always get around to addressing them.
 Writing under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass (the first of several references to the British science fiction film series), Carpenter ties together quantum physics with religious prophecy and makes a somewhat uneasy mix, largely because of the uneven nature of the film. Donald Pleasance plays a priest invited to see a dying colleague, who passes holding a metal box. Inside the box is a key that unlocks the basement of the Godard Church, where the “Order of Sleep” has been keeping something ancient and almost certainly evil in a large glass container. Convinced that this green liquid is a physical manifestation of the “prince of darkness,” he contacts Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) to investigate its origins.
 Birack teaches quantum theory at Kneale University, and brings along his PhD students (including cast members Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, and Dennis Dun) to help him study the cylinder.  (It’s worth pointing out that while Parker’s Brian Marsh says something to the effect of getting his “doctorate” in physics, there’s also a scene where Birack says “now I know none of you have your degree in this” which puts a puzzling  conundrum about how old these students are supposed to be). At the church, they set up equipment and meet a number of other scientists, including chemists and microbiologists led by Caler (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson) and Dr. Paul Leahy (Peter Jason), as well as a theologian (Ann Yen), there to help translate a book resting near the green liquid. Of concern to almost everyone inside is an ominous – and growing – contingent of the homeless outside of the church, including Alice Cooper (billed as “Street Schizo”).
 Undoubtedly there’s some creepy imagery (nature also seems to respond to the presence in the basement, so there’s a lot of creepy crawly business and one great scene involving beetles) and admittedly some novel combination of religion and science (one of the many discoveries in the book are a set of equations that go beyond what any of Birack’s students recognize). The hook comes halfway into the film, when a collective “dream” sets in: we later discover that it’s a transmission from the future (1999!) sent to warn people in the present that they have to stop the coming of Satan and the release of the “Anti-God.” It seems to change slightly every time we see it, but would be served better had it not been introduced so late into the narrative.
 The problem with Prince of Darkness is that there are so many good ideas swirling around that it’s disappointing when most of them go undeveloped. Blame it on a cast that keeps growing in the first thirty or forty five minutes, to the point that we’re continually being introduced to people and just barely aware of what purpose they serve, other than to (SPOILER) be possessed. The grand “plan” to release the “Anti-God” isn’t really clear until nearly the end of the movie and is resolved so quickly that it barely has any impact. Moreover, it’s meant to be a “tragic” ending for Marsh, but Jameson Parker has more of an impact for his rockin’ (if uneven) mustache than his chemistry with Lisa Blount’s Catherine. It’s also puzzling that the most obnoxious character ever – Dennis Dun’s Walter – makes it all the way through the movie when his “type” is usually marked for death from the first inappropriate comment.
 I don’t actually mind that Walter lives – it’s a good bit of misdirection for Carpenter – but the why of who is and isn’t possessed is unclear and the seemingly endless discussions between Pleasance and Wong about their respective fields don’t add any insight to either position. Prince of Darkness has some good ideas knocking around, but Carpenter (as he would later admit) doesn’t quite know what he wants to say about them. The end result is a very good premise that’s diluted in the execution, giving the film a somewhat earned cult status among John Carpenter fans. It’s certainly worth watching, but for my money the weakest entry in the “Apocalypse Trilogy.”
 Up Next: Speaking of Satan, how about Rosemary’s Baby?

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