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There’s a strange energy emanating from downtown Los Angeles. It alters the behavior of insects and the homeless population. It gives everyone in its vicinity the same recurring dream. The Catholic Church has been covering up, among other things, a secret for the past 2000 years, and it is now living in a basement. This is John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.
This movie, about students of quantum physics coming up against the forces of darkness, is something of a comfort movie for me. Not as referenced as some of his other films — those that have become household names or spawned franchises — to me, his less lauded work becomes more enjoyable upon repeated viewings and therefore deserves a second look.
There’s something oddly comforting, for me at least, about a group of scientists having a sleepover over one long weekend — even if it is in a creepy church with a basement in which some kind of green devil juice resides. They set up their computers and their careful devices of measurement, trying to create order and structure around something they ultimately can’t control, which may in fact devour them. It’s a battle between science and religion in a sense, or at least between science and the supernatural. Scientists who have come up against forces greater than themselves which they ultimately can’t explain.
What the character of Catherine (played by the late Lisa Blount) in conversation with her classmate Brian (Jameson Parker) says, early on in the film, about quantum physics and the nature of reality, is perhaps a bit of foreshadowing.
“Just when I think I’ve got it, visualized it — it just all goes away. I start seeing old-fashioned classical reality again. I want the clockwork back. I want to put it all into a little box, but whenever I try, it just slithers out…”
In a way, it’s like scientists with all their structure and knowhow must still face the greater question of mortality against which we are all ultimately powerless.
Or that is one interpretation.
This movie could almost have the alternate title 101 Fun and Creative Ways You Too Can Be Possessed (not since Kubrick’s The Shining has typing been so ominous), but as Victor Wong’s quantum physicist Professor Howard Birack explains, it’s only demon possession “of a kind. Not what we would expect, though.”
Prince of Darkness is an ensemble movie, and the way its different characters react, fight, fall, or are transformed — each in their own unique individual way — is one element that makes it fun to watch. It’s also just fun to hang out with a group of people who are all thrown together in a building, inevitably under extreme circumstances. (Ensembles sequestered together, facing challenges, is a concept so popular that it’s become classic reality show structure. Perhaps humans just enjoy watching groups of other humans.)
Carpenter himself points out that he makes two kinds of movies: “journey movies” and “siege movies,” the latter being movies in which people are holed up and trapped in one location. This premise does echo throughout his work, from his early films like Assault on Precinct 13 to 1982’s The Thing.
If the premise is simple, there’s a beauty, mastery, and style in the way it’s executed. With his synth and his ensemble of actors and insects, Carpenter creates a mood for us that’s fun to be inside of.
Indeed, a lot of this movie’s atmosphere derives from Carpenter’s synth score. He played the movie back on a television set and just improvised over it with a 24-track recorder hooked up to create a score on the spot, modestly saying, “I’m not smart enough to come up with anything before I see it.” Starting out early in life with music in addition to filmmaking, his scores have become a large part of his signature style.
John Carpenter is a masterful filmmaker who also has the invaluable skill to do a lot with whatever resources he has on hand. He employed Alice Cooper in a small but very memorable role because he brought with him an impaling gag that he used in his live stage show. “You can be in the movie if we can use that,” Carpenter told him. Adding further rock cred to this movie: Carpenter got a symbol that appears ominously on one character’s arm from the cover of a Blue Oyster Cult album.
And then there are the movie’s deliciously unsettling analog effects. There’s a special creepiness invoked by the textures found in the older technologies that this movie exploits — all the more apparent at a distance of 35 years. The repeating dream the characters in the film share was shot on video and photographed off a television set at close range. The graininess of it matched with AM radio-sounding audio gives us the intended feeling of a “transmission.” But it also gives us that haunting quality of a remembered dream upon first waking, quickly fading back into the subconscious, and it would not be as effective if the technology used to create it had been more pristine.
Another comforting element of this movie is that despite being made in the ’80s — an era which was not always so progressive — there’s a multiracial cast and women are portrayed as scientists alongside men without comment. Except for one misguided attempt at flirtation when Brian says to Catherine, “Every theoretical physicist I know wonders why it is that no one who looks like you ever seems to settle down in our end of the building.” To which she replies, “That’s not true and that’s an extremely sexist thing to say.”
That moment aside, everyone’s working alongside each other and being pursued equally by forces they don’t understand. This force (despite initially preying upon insects and the homeless population) is an equal opportunity possessor. Women are not struck down because they’re scantily clad, although there’s an absence of that in general because there’s no organic place for it here. (They’re attractive, but these scientists don’t moonlight as pinups, and the film doesn’t exploit them as such.) Also, there are wisecracks, a little flirtation, and one consummation early on, but couples aren’t immediately struck down upon having sex like some kind of puritanical cautionary tale — that odd trope of horror films.
There’s also a rather large cast of bug extras in this film (sadly uncredited). Unlike today, when live insects might be replaced by CGI, there’s again a textured quality to effects that are real. Carpenter at one point said, “We had this whole setup where we poured bugs down these pants.” Carpenter used a bug wrangler to supply all the insects, from ants to beetles to maggots, about which ensemble member Peter Jason wondered, “Who picked them up?”
The tying together of all of these elements later led Carpenter himself to ponder, “I’m not quite sure what it all means but it sure was fun to do.” The enjoyment comes across onscreen. For me, Prince of Darkness, perhaps a darker, quieter cousin to Carpenter’s much more loudly heralded The Thing, is a film that grows on you the more times you watch it.
Prince of Darkness screens starting Saturday, Nov 12th.
Saturday, Nov 12 – 10:30pm
Sunday, Nov 13 – 7:30pm