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Prince of Darkness (1987) – Carpenter countdown #7

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With no-one willing to give Carpenter loadsamoney any more, he got a deal with Alive Pictures for a couple of low budget films. Ideas come cheap, none cheaper than 'adapting' some classics of horror/SF. If Psycho made people afraid of showers, and Jaws made people afraid of swimming in the sea, this one will have you wondering whether or not to touch that mirror…

Concept: 'Let's remake Quatermass and the Pit!'

An old priest dies. He has been guarding a key, which gets handed to Donald Pleasence (also seen in Halloween and Escape, of course) along with a cheerful journal saying 'the sleeper awakens'. The key turns out to open a church basement, home of the secret Brotherhood of Sleep, and he calls in help from quantum physicist Professor Victor Wong (from Trouble). The secret they've been keeping turns out to be a large ancient transparent-sided canister, filled with a swirling green liquid, which has just started to misbehave. Before long, newly together students Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount are asked told to join a mixed discipline group, including Dennis Dun (Trouble, again), Susan Blanchard, Anne Howard and Ann Yen, for a long weekend at the church. Watched by a group of homeless, led by Alice Cooper, a pile of equipment is brought into the church, and the work begins.

They discover that the canister's manual logbook contains 2,000 year old differential equations and lines like 'And the Prince of Darkness was Himself sealed' in it. Oh, and the canister can only be opened from the inside. One of them leaves the church and within a couple of minutes of spotting a crucified pigeon, is stabbed to death by Alice Cooper's broken bicycle. "So it's a John Carpenter siege movie," go the audience as Howard realises the canister is seven million years old. Say, what's that green liquid doing, dripping up from the canister onto the ceiling? Oops, some is squirted into her mouth, she becomes Zombie Howard and starts killing people and turning them into zombies too.

The others, being too busy to notice this, are discussing the history. The book reckons the contents were buried by its father in the Middle East long ago. Christ ("He was extraterrestrial, but in human form") came to warn humanity about it, but the Church covered it all up, and taught that evil was within man – not a canister they were hiding – keeping man at the centre of things. "We are salesmen after all," admits Pleasence. All of the team start to have the same dream – "This is not a dream" it says, showing a dark figure coming out of the church. There's a lovely bit where Pleasence asks Wong, "What were you dreaming?" only to be told that, "Your kingdom, Father, does not include my unconscious. It's mine."

Zombie Howard clambers on top of one of the other women – who's developed a mark on her arm just like a symbol in the logbook – while she's trying to get a quick nap, squirts into her mouth, and before long new zombie is typing "I Live!" a lot, along with lines like "You will not be saved by the Holy Ghost. You will not be saved by the god Plutonium. In fact, YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED!" while outside one of the other zombies is saying '"I have a message for you, and you're not going to like it: pray for death!" Before long, the humans are down to just six of them in three locations and the zombies are showing a fascination with mirrors. Just before the end, Blount has to choose between helping Parker in his life or death struggle with one of the zombies or sacrificing herself to stop the devil getting into this world from the dark side. But will what she chooses work?

What's good: The structure. Act one: growing sense of menace: strange skies, insects, the homeless gathering etc. Act two: it begins to go wrong and people start turning. Act three: green stuff hits the fan ceiling and it's a life or death struggle. The end. Each section works, particularly the first and last acts, and the ending is perfect for the film.

Nearly all of the ensemble cast are very good, Donald Pleasence especially, particularly when dealing with his loss of faith (and leaves it nicely open as to whether he gets it back).

The cinematography. I was impressed to see that this was Gary Kibbe's first feature as Director of Photography, and he went on to do most of Carpenter's subsequent films. The lenses used give a distortion at the edges of the picture, reinforcing the 'there's something not quite right here' feeling, particularly during the external shots around the church.

The music.

What's not so good: There's a reason his scripts usually skip the astrophysics / mysticism. "The outside world doesn't want to hear this kind of bullshit!" Quite. Others disagree and think the mashup of science and religion is great, but argh some of it is so clunky. Does someone doing a physics PhD need to have the basics of Schrödinger's Cat explained to them? Not unless the US education system is really, really bad.

Jameson Parker may have been the co-lead in a US TV comedy drama for eight-ish years, but he's not really leading man quality here. Especially in the romance aspect. You could say 'typical physics student', but it's the Tom Atkins issue all over again. I've just realised – both have moustaches! Now Carpenter certainly had one when doing Fog, I wonder if he had one for this… Ordinary looking guy with 'tache gets the young beautiful woman… Hmm, wishful thinking on the part of the writer/director or what?

Music: Improvised 'in association with' Alan Howarth for the last but one time, this is the last truly great Carpenter score with some fabulous sounds from Howarth. Pounding synth bass rhythms, twinkly synth sounds on top, synth voices. This is how to use 'aaah' voice synth sounds properly and the contrast with the 'aaah's in Starman is particularly striking.

As well as the soundtrack CD linked to here, there's a double CD version which – as well as the contents of the earlier release – has the 'This is not a dream' and 'Prepare to die' sounds, new tracks, plus expanded and alternate versions.

Miscellany: Martin Quatermass, credited with the script, is perhaps the most obvious pseudonym he's ever used. Particularly as it's supposed to be Kneale University that Jameson Parker's come from.

Neither the credits nor IMDB say, but if it's not Carpenter's distorted voice doing the 'This is not a dream' sequences, I'd be very surprised. (You can tell that I've heard his voice a lot recently, can't you?)

The mirror effects were done with mercury borrowed from various bits of film equipment.

Post-production was done at Walt Disney Studios!

Overall: My summary of the concept is perhaps a bit cynical, but it's impossible to deny that it shares the basic ideas of the Quatermass stories, especially Pit. Here, it's the 'real' devil rather than extinct Martians behind it all, but we have an ancient artefact uncovered underground and it begins to control people, with the aim of taking over the planet, plus it turns out that alien visits are behind much of religion. The $3m budget meant that the struggle couldn't extend across a city, so it's crossed with a Romero-style zombie siege. But unlike They Live, the budget matches the brains – green liquid is so much cheaper than 'real' aliens – and it looks wonderful and sounds great.

It's only because the top six are so good that this is at number seven. Most directors have never made a film as good as this (especially for this sort of budget!) and there's a lovely line in one of the other reviews of this film that it's one of the very few horror films that becomes scarier, the more you think about it. It made money too.

TL;DR It was downhill from here, but it lives!

Film: 4.5/5
DVD: 3.5/5

Chatty commentary along with Peter Jason including covering the music and the basic 'how to' quote: "All a director has to do is have an answer!" – plus trailer. Watch that after watching the film: it gives away what happens at the climax and suggests the ending was different (worse) at one point.

DVD (more expensive than some versions, but even if you don't want the commentary, this is the one with the best picture), basic soundtrack CD, and the currently unavailable – clearly all of us with copies are holding onto them! – expanded 2CD set:

Written by Ian

June 22nd, 2011 at 7:59 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

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