Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Unseen #26: Prince Of Darkness

Yes its time yet again for yet another installment of Thing's That Don't Suck's most neglected column, THE UNSEEN (Lightening crash)

(The Poster Is Awesome The Movie Not So Much)

Why’d I Buy It?: John Carpenter. Hollywood Video closing. The Math isn’t hard.

Why Haven’t I Watched It?: The film has the reputation of being John Carpenter’s first major misfire. The first downhill coast on the long sad slope that led to Ghosts On Mars. Sure it has its passionate defenders, but so does In The Mouth Of Madness. A movie which a few effective moments aside is dreadful. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

How Was It?: Not as bad as it could have been and not as good as it should be. While this is certainly more of a film by the John Carpenter who made the films I love, like The Thing (Intruders hiding in the skin of friends), Assault On Precient 13 (Urban Paranoia) and especially They Live (Stylistically, philosophically, and iconagrophy) its still Carpenter’s first slip up. The fact that he was eventually able to get close enough to the finish line for a conditional field goal, does not change the fact that he fumbled the ball quite badly.

The problem of Prince Of Darkness is that it never capitalizes on its potential. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, you can’t make a movie that purports to be about the metaphysical nature of evil and then have most of its runtime feature people in pancake makeup hitting each other with planks. It’s not bad but its sadly the first time that Carpenter’s reach exceeded his grasp. The first time the potential outclasses the execution.

The film follows a group of grad students who are charged with monitering a force in an abandoned church, that seems to be the physical manifestaion of evil, and identifies itself as Satan himself. Its an intriguing concept with all sorts of juicy conflicts between religion and reason, faith and skeptisism, homeless people made of bugs and helpless coeds. With enough high falutin talk about Quantum Physics for a new What The Bleep Do We Know? But its all kind of terribly inert.

This is one of those movies that’s just not well thought through. Take Donald Pleasance’s character, as the priest who is confronted with the fact that everything he believes in is a lie. Lest you think that my religion is getting in the way, I’m not offended by the concepts but by the lazy writing. When Pleasance is forced to face this (after giving impassioned speeches about the limits of reason for most of the move) does he struggle? No. He hears a speech that’s half baked by Dan Brown standards, and gives a philosophical seemingly drunken monolouge that can basically be summed up as “Whelp I’ve devoted my life to a lie. Whoopsie Daisy!!! Wackedy Smackedy DooooooOooo!” And has about the same amount of depth.

There is some things to recommend about Prince Of Darkness. Carpenter has some effecting imagery. Using some simple tricks to show the laws of physics being blasely defied. He also uses a crowd of street people who are being effected by the evil to great effect. Never quite tipping his hands to when they go from “normal” to possessed. There is a great paper to be written about John Carpenter’s use of the disenfranchised as figures of horror. Time and time again he returns to that theme and image, Escape From New York, Assault On Precient 13, and They Live, and he never makes it anything less then some truly creepy and thought provoking stuff. Disturbing on more then one level.

The actors are also thoroughly invested, including Dennis Dunn and Victor Wong returning from Big Trouble In Little China, Donald Pleasance who always does strong work with Carpenter even when the script lets him down here. And a guy who looks disconcertingly like Tom Atkins. And even though the film does not quite achieve its ambitions one cannot fault the film for having them.

Still this film arouses nothing so much as the fervent desire that it was better.


Unknown said...

Hmm... I'm gonna have to respectfully disagree with you on this one. The first few times I watched this film I didn't like it either, mostly for the reasons you stated in your post. And then, I let 5-10 years pass and I watched again with a fresher perspective and was taken with how much I actually really enjoy this film.

I like how Carpenter revisits the siege mentality from ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and the dysfunctional group mentality from THE THING. He cleverly pits skeptical scientists against the devoutly religious and then throws them into a crisis where they have to work together in order to survive. As a character says at one point, “Faith is a hard thing to come by these days.” I think that's a key line in this film as there is a constant push and pull between faith and science.

I also like how Carpenter expertly eases us into the horror with unsettling images early on like an anthill covered with swarming insects, a bag lady with bugs covering her, and several establishing shots of creepy, zombie-like homeless people just standing outside the church. The first 30 minutes is a slow burn as Carpenter gradually builds the dread, culminating in the first death. These seemingly unrelated images begin to reveal a bigger picture and a greater evil. Throughout, Carpenter’s simple yet effective electronic score establishes a menacing tone that builds along with the emerging evil in the film.

I also thought it was nice how Carpenter snuck in a social and political message. In many ways, it predicts the corruption of power that is explored in VAMPIRES. Absolute power corrupts and those in such lofty positions hide the truth from society to keep the rest of us ignorant. Carpenter takes a couple of amusing jabs at organized religion with the Pleasance's priest shown riding up to various locations in an expensive limousine. For someone who is supposed to be all about devoting his life to God, he lives pretty well.

What makes this film a refreshing change from most of Carpenter’s other films is that it features his most commonplace protagonists – college students – hardly the stuff that heroes are made of and yet when the time comes, they step up to the challenge because they are forced to in an exciting climax that ends in typical Carpenter fashion with society being saved but at the expense of a few unlucky souls.

Erich Kuersten said...

It's fine you wanna dis this movie--or even his Village of the Damned remake, but man, yer wrong about Ghosts of Mars!

Anonymous said...

I love this one, warts and all. One of the best impalement scenes ever. Death by Huffy!

Franco Macabro said...

The reason why this movie is so low key even thoug it has a storyline that should reach epic proportions is because this film was made under a two film deal that Carpenter made with a company called Alive Films.

He made this movie and They Live for 3 million dollars each. He did a lot with such a limited budget I guess...its probably why both films are so "small" in a way when compared to his previous films.

I was dissapointed by it too, but only when compared to Carpenters bigger films.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ JD: Excellent points. I'm certainly not saying its a valueless movie, and I will most likely revisit it in the future. It just didn't fufill its potential for me.

I agree with you 100% on the homeless footage, and the way the weird imagery built. I loved the way that he never really put his finger on when they turned. One minute they're street people, the next they're possessed and you're never quite sure when that happened. Really Unsettling.

Also I think this is one of the few times that analogue video was used really well in a film. Great effect on the dream sequences.

@ Erich: If anyone could write a reasoned impassioned defense of Ghosts On Mars it would be you.

@ PoT: True Dat.

@ FC: I had no idea that was the case. Very interesting. I really thought that this FELT like They Live. Now I know why. Thanks for the info.