Sunday, 10 May 2009

Prince of Darkness (1987)

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.Prince of Darkness is probably the most obscure movie of John Carpenter’s beyond-awesome ‘80s oeuvre. After the mystifying failure of Big Trouble in Little China (1986) – a film which predicted, too early, modern Hollywood’s recent obsession for wu xia stylistics – halted Carpenter’s rise up the rungs of the Hollywood ladder a bare eight years after Halloween, Prince was made for a paltry $3 million budget.
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.If Carpenter riled at the indignity at his ticket back to the minors, it didn’t show, except perhaps in the cheapo effects and corny violence, which he had generally avoided in his early low-budget films. It hints at the slapdash quality that tainted his ‘90s output, as one of the best of the American new wave directors became a camp-it-up timeserver. Carpenter’s increasing disgust with Hollywood and American imperialism built up to the orgiastic grotesqueries and greenie apocalypse of Escape from L.A. (1997), but in general most of the films he made after this lacked the uniquely rigorous, high-tensile sense of cinematic construction that marked his oeuvre’s first half.
..And yet, filmed in a hurry and on the cheap, Prince of Darkness walks a tightrope of droll dark comedy and expertly sustained narrative tension: the overall goofiness of the enterprise hardly dispels the authentic atmosphere of eerie intensity. The plot – which even Carpenter, in his hilarious DVD commentary, can’t entirely explain – involves a mysterious canister kept in the basement of a church in Los Angeles that dates back to Spanish colonial times.
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The priest who’s in charge of the canister, a member of the Catholic sect called ‘The Brotherhood of Sleep’, dies in his sleep on the eve of being promoted out of that thankless job, and so his diary and a fanciful cylinder that contains a metal key are passed on to another priest (Donald Pleasance). Pleasance in turn goes to Professor Birack (Victor Wong), a quantum physics professor with a near-metaphysical interest in the contradictions of sub-atomic physics, which makes him the best candidate to fathom the terrifying mystery Pleasance feels must now be revealed to the world.
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.Meanwhile, weird phenomena small and large are occurring: all manner of simple life forms, like worms and insects, begin swarming; a supernova in deep space is revealed; schizophrenic street people begin congregating around the church, apparently drawn by the same force that’s affecting the animals; and an alignment of sun and moon appears in the sky.
..Wong gathers together a team of his and other teachers’ best students for the weekend at the church, including lovelorn recent transfer Brian Marsh (Simon and Simon’s Jameson Parker, sporting a moustache that defies my credulity); feisty redhead savant Catherine (Lisa Blount); wisecracking tycoon-wannabe Walter (Big Trouble’s marvellous Dennis Dun); theology and cryptographer student Lisa (Ann Yen); radiographer Susan Cabot (Anne Marie Howard); cutesy Kelly (Susan Blanchard), and more. Even more terrifying than the thing which awaits downstairs are the so-'80s LA fashions on display.
..They soon find themselves present for an inter-dimensional cross-rip of terrifying proportions, as the being in the canister proves to be the son of not Satan, exactly, but a god of anti-matter, seeking to escape into our world and consume it, and it needs a human avatar to accomplish this.
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.For this purpose it infects Susan, who soon gets around spraying green water into her fellows, bringing them into the devil’s circle, and finally claims Kelly as the vessel it transforms in grotesque fashion into a suitable frame for the beast’s revival. The remnants of the group try to work out if they stand a chance of preventing Armageddon.
..Carpenter’s script assembles elements of his earlier films in a kind of survey; especially Precinct 13’s siege setting and hordes from out of the demimonde, and The Thing’s shapeless, body-claiming alien force. The writing is good, littered with funny lines and highly imaginative contemporary twists on the tale’s origins in the works of Nigel Kneale, to whom Carpenter pays nod-wink homage by billing the screenplay as the work of “Martin Quatermass”.
..Carpenter employs sub-atomic particle theory to jazz up his ideas, which include video broadcasts via tachyons from the future projected into the minds of dreaming people, warning them from 1999 of the awakening beast; each time the dream recurs, the figure in it is slightly different, as actions in the present affect the outcome. So that's what Prince meant...
..There’s genuine creativity here, and in the psychically-written book the team translates that combines advanced calculus, holy texts and witching emblems, and warnings of dire portent. The emphasis is on a group of characters, all of whom are sharply defined, rather than merely its lovebirds. As for those lovebirds, Carpenter makes a winking reference to his favourite director when Brian asks Catherine: “Who was the guy? The one who gave you such a high opinion of men?”
..Likewise Carpenter’s direction is as lean and utterly intelligible as ever, with not a wasted frame in his sublimely skilful employment of edits and camera set-ups, and much of the film is a model of fusing narrative and directorial drive, particularly emphasised by Carpenter’s throbbing score, which interlaces with the nerveless rhythm of the storytelling: the first half-hour ought to be shown in film schools, for how to get a story propelled, and the narrative intensity cranks up to an hysterical intensity.
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The problem is in the production. It’s slightly depressing to see Carpenter try the same effects of shadowy threats and creeping terror stalking his torch-wielding heroes that he used in The Thing, except where there his FX budget allowed him to conjue genuinely grotesque visions to be traced out in the corners of his artful lighting, here they’re assailed by squirts of green water and other tacky, almost joke-shop level terrors.
..That the material is too ambitious for what, in the end, he can pull off on such a stringent budget, hurts the film badly, and Carpenter, as if sensing this, spurns the satisfaction in subtle invention that made his early no-budget films so great, and gives in to a jokey exploitation quality in places, like in a threatened lesbian tryst between two characters, and an Alice Cooper cameo as leader of the schizo army where he recreates a part of his stage act.
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Before, even when being wry about his films within those films, Carpenter had always been utterly straight-faced in terms of the integrity of his storytelling, but here is reflected a loosening in the limbs of the great artisan. Not the total dud it was dismissed as at the time, but not great Carpenter either.
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2 comments:

Bla said...

Carpenter is God. Period.

Roderick Heath said...

Amen.