Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Halloween 31 For 31: Prince of Darkness (1987)

Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: Martin Quatermass
Cast: Donald Pleasence (as the Priest); Victor Wong (as Professor Howard Birack); Jameson Parker (as Brian Marsh); Lisa Blount (as Catherine Danforth); Dennis Dun (as Walter)

Synopsis: The science department of a university are called by a priest (Pleasence) to research onsite a mysterious, giant container kept hidden within an abandoned church. Even though the scientists are sceptical, when its revealed the contents are a millennia old and pure evil, they find themselves trapped in the church and an entity from the container possessing them one-by-one. Eventually they must accept the being trapped within the artefact is a literal demonic being.

With "Martin Quatermass" as the pseudonym used for the screenplay, I've ended up with a Nigel Kneale theme amongst others in this Halloween season. John Carpenter has been as much inspired by Keanle as he has been by classic Hollywood cinema, and Prince of Darkness is an interpretation of the science fiction/horror crossbreeding found in the likes of the Quatermass stories. Reinterpreting a mythological figure of the Devil and Christian dogma, the film is still firmly in the supernatural but there is a tip of the hat to such influences in that the truth is of a cosmic nature, that outside human comprehension baring a secret group of monks who kept it a secret for centuries until the last one dies and Pleasence's priest uncovers it. The film feels like a continuation of The Thing (1982), where a group is trapped within an environment while an unknown entity takes over the party slowly, an unknown substance in a vast container entering victims alive or dead and possessing them. The film is also in the middle of an "apocalypse" trilogy of the director's which In The Mouth of Madness (1995) closes, the grimness of the material here as prevalent as it was in The Thing.

The film is relatively minor from Carpenter, but knowing that this is from comparing the film to the likes of Halloween (1978), that's an unfair act in itself when when Prince of Darkness has developed a greater appreciation over the years from horror fans and deserves it. It's only been with The Ward (2010), in fact, where I've sat through a middling John Carpenter film. Even films like Vampires (1998) and Ghosts of Mars (2001) aren't as bad as their reputations suggests, with virtues of the best of his films still within them, especially his sharp dialogue and ability to create tension. Such films were merely compromised, and like most cult directors -  from Tobe Hooper to Dario Argento - I'd argue Carpenter has been dealt unfairly like them by the changing genre industry over the decades, unlike a Steven Spielberg able to keep their trademarks when the budgets become smaller and the options are chosen for them. Here he is certainly making a Carpenter film in presentation, his own score co-written with Alan Howarth over the scenes of isolated church corridors and the oppressive outlook of his other movies written all over it. With Alice Cooper leading zombie-like homeless people outside, preventing the individuals inside from being able to leave and ripping any apart who try it, the result is a claustrophobic, small scale film where people are trapped within rooms and corridors as the anti-God is to be reborn, their own turned. Those who are turned can also suffer the fate of being aware of their gradual transformation, even suicide not preventing them from becoming a cackling, hulking undead figure who stares glazed over into a mirror for hours. With the added religious content, such as Pleasance's priest becoming disillusioned by the secrets he discovers through the container's existence, it has a mood that stands out. The odd subplot of a subliminal dream that everyone has when they fall asleep is also compelling, a concept straight out of a Nigel Kneale story with a strange shot-on-video effect to depict it, the fact that its never explained fully adding to its importance in being the film. Plus there's plenty of gross content, from dripping salvia to one of the most freakish moments in one of Carpenter's films where someone dissolves into a mass of beetles. The only real flaw is the ending, an abruptly finished conclusion with a cheap twist finale, but that doesn't stop the rest of the movie beforehand from being immensely engaging.

Also the film stands out because of its script, having to juggle so many characters at first, making sure everyone stands out and has enough to attach to them in terms of personalities. The most memorable character is in fact the male prick character Walter, actor Dennis Dun along with the script managing to make him such a charismatic figure despite his obnoxious attitude. That the character becomes under threat , and you worry for his life, partially trapped in a closet witnessing the actual plan of the container's contents, is a testament to how well Walter is drawn. That Dun previously played the actual hero of Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and can also play this character is a testament to his acting as well. The prominent Asian cast in the film, including Victor Wong, and the fact the nationalities of the characters are never brought up is also something to admire when it feels as if teeth have to be pulled out just to have a horror films that has a multi-ethnic cast and doesn't make it tokenism.

Technical Detail:
The score co-written by Carpenter is of immense importance for the film to work, like the scores for Assault On Prescient 13 (1976) and Halloween as much part of the mood of the content, a mix of electronic music with religious chorus that brings out a heavenly dread to the material. The cinematography contributes immensely to the film as well.

Abstract Spectrum: Fantastique/Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Nothing abstract to comment on.

Personal Opinion:
A delight to have seen this finally, very much necessary after my personal disappointment with The Ward to show Carpetner's talents.

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