Prince of Darkness
(dir. John Carpenter, 1987)
A Director’s Royal Rumble or The Siege Films In Our Atoms.
Although it’s often maligned and even more regularly abused, I love genre. I love it because it can be a structure and a conduit for big ideas, at its very best the biggest ideas, without them ever seeming forced upon the viewer, without ever drawing attention to themselves, allowing constant reinterpretation and debate. These films have a life far longer than many films that are deemed, somewhat condescendingly to genre films, ‘important’.
It allows even the most topical of subjects to have a universal application, its implicitness allows it to be substituted upon generation after generation, new viewers come along and insert their own meaning from their own time onto it. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers was about communism at the time of its release, but because it never explicitly references it, unlike other more worthy films, it can be applied to the threats of any era. Therefore they’re ageless. Most importantly because of this they can combine what is often not apparent on first release, the high and the low brow, art and commerce, entertainment and the cerebral.
This is why I love John Carpenter. Whenever I spiel off a list of directors I admire (usually to someone I’ve cornered in a room) his name always draws a sharply lifted eyebrow, sandwiched in-between Malick, Tarr, Kurosawa and Lynch; the eyebrow says ‘good god man, are you insane?!’ But between 1976 and 1988 I truly believe he was that good.
Any criticism of the arts is full of hyperbole and sudden declarations of genius, subjective opinions that are expressed as objective, but even though I’m aware of all this I’m going to stick my neck out and say that no one does atmosphere like Carpenter, not Dario Argento, not Val Lewton, not even Hitchcock, think of the empty streets in Halloween, or creeping coastline in The Fog, or best of all the staring Husky in The Thing. There is a sparseness, a cleanness of image, composition, movement, sound and colour, that creates a complex feeling out of simple parts.
Between Assault On Precinct 13 and They Live he had a peerless hold upon genre cinema. Sci-fi, horror, thrillers, martial arts and action all got the Carpenter treatment (it could be argued that many of his films have the archetypes of the western too), even genres within genres, like his oft repeated interpretation of the siege film.
Prince Of Darkness came at the end of this run and often falls under the shadow of the heavy hitters in his canon, but it’s his film that is the most contemplative of wider themes; science and religion rub shoulders with horror in a manner far more noticeably than, say, the politics of Assault On Precinct 13. Instead of seeing them as openly opposing forces, they become either end of the same journey of discovery; religion starts where science ends, science starts when religion is understood. It’s not a pro-religion, anti-science film, in fact Carpenter wears his atheism on his sleeve throughout. But this apart the film deserves great merit for the way it melds the two together in a combination of blame and commendation.
A short synopsis would probably best do justice to this combination. A large cylinder of mysterious liquid is discovered in the basement of a Los Angeles church by a priest, played with an insect-covered paranoia by Donald Pleasence; he requests a group of academics to help him investigate the strange find. Together they run a series of experiments and translate an equally mysterious text also discovered.
All the while the liquid becomes increasingly sentient and eventually contaminates a number of the scientists, turning them into zombie like drones intent on doing the will of some greater evil. In a series of slightly overwritten but nevertheless fascinatingly melodramatic debates between Pleasence and the head scientist (played by Victor ‘you leave Jack Burton alone’ Wong) they come to the conclusion that the anti-Christ is alive and well in the cylinder and once free, plans to release his father, the anti-God, from his prison within anti-matter. The translated text soon reveals that Jesus was in fact an alien being who came to earth to forewarn us of the anti-Christ also an alien being sent from a mirror universe to enslave the world.
Does that make sense? Well add possession, Alice Cooper and a touch of time travel, and then try again. But even though the plot befuddles sometimes Carpenter never allows it to get in the way of the film’s brisk momentum. His grip on an atmosphere that moves perfectly from foreboding, like in the extended, staggered opening sequence, to horror never lets up. His clean, steady tracking shots move through sparse, seedy sets, characters lurk unnaturally motionless at the end of corridors, portents of doom, such as unnatural skies and swarms of insects, play like punctuation between the set pieces, and that synth bass thump, always the creeping electronics.
If you’ve spent time with them, you’ll know in Carpenter films his scores set the tone. It lacks the star roles of say Kurt Russell, Jamie Leigh Curtis or Jeff Bridges as an anchor in the chaos; in fact the characters are pushed firmly into the background to make way for the film’s epic ideas. They stumble through their dialogue and end up impaled by bicycles or on the receiving end of a chopstick to the eye, but I suppose they’re just larger forms of the quantum phenomena the film spears headlong into its theology. Vehicles for Gods and anti-Gods.
Horror in all its forms sits squarely at the end of what is known (or what we believe we know). This is not just a facet of cinema alone, but all forms of storytelling that deal with horror and the supernatural. We’ve been doing it ever since we could tell tales. At the end of our knowledge, where it drops off into speculation and darkness, we place our spirits and our demons. We use the unknowable to explain phenomena we cannot comprehend. At night when we lie in bed we know it’s just the house cooling that makes it creak, but in the dark we can never truly convince ourselves of this.