As you could probably guess, I've seen many horror films. I grew up watching them, and my intake kicked into high gear once I started reviewing movies here at Final Girl. Though I have an indomitable hope that there are still countless awesome, scary horror films I've yet to see, sometimes it's hard to keep the dream alive. Seriously, watching too much utter crap like The Cavern or The Last Slumber Party is enough to give anyone pause. I get envious when I encounter people who enjoy scary movies but have yet to see the classics; if someone tells me they haven't seen Halloween or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I have memories of seeing those films for the first time and how much they kicked (and still kick) my ass. "Le sigh," I think to myself, "How many horror movies are left for me to discover that will rock my face like Mount Rushmore? Have I seen it all? Is there no hope?"
Yes, I think "Le sigh". I won the French Award in high school and I try to maintain my skills. It obviously also adds a touch of class to my lamenting.
The point of all this is that Prince of Darkness (1987), this month's Film Club pick, was a great find. Getting your hands on some prime John Carpenter goodness for the first time is like finding out you have an eccentric rich great-great uncle who you never met but he just died and left you a million dollars- even if you have to spend the night in a haunted castle in Transylvania to collect it. Gawd I hope I have an eccentric rich great-great uncle.
An elderly priest dies clutching The Littlest Treasure Chest. Inside the chest is a key which unlocks the door to a super secret underground church...which houses an ancient container filled with swirling green goo...which has something to do with something evil...which is...the Prince of Darkness! Eyyarrgh!
Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence of Halloween, and yes the character's name is really Father Loomis- Carpenter certainly isn't above paying himself homage) seeks the aid of theoretical physicist Professor Birack (Carpenter alum Victor Wong) and his crack team of Super Grad Students as he tries to solve the mystery of the green goo and defeat whatever evil is afoot. Can science and religion work together to save the world?
It's a testament to Carpenter's skills as a storyteller (he wrote the film under the name Martin Quatermass, an homage to Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale) that we take the film seriously at all. The fact that the "Anti-God", the threat to all mankind, looks like something you'd find on a shelf at Spencer's Gifts (next to the static electricity globe, of course) and yet we're not laughing at it is amazing. The truth of the matter is, Prince of Darkness is frightening enough to rank with Carpenter's best work.
Despite the "we totally need to save the world from the fucking apocalypse" plotline, Prince is surprisingly small in scope. The film takes place over a day or two, almost exclusively in the small church where the Super Grad Students set up their headquarters. They're essentially held prisoner there when the church is surrounded by murderous, zombified homeless people (led by none other than shock rocker Alice Cooper), and eventually the Super Grad Students must battle each other as the green goo infects them one by one, turning them into murderous, zombified Super Grad Students. The set-up is reminiscent of earlier Carpenter films such as Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing, and Carpenter's love of westerns shines through again.
Prince also reminded me of Halloween in that it really takes its time to get to the "goods", building mood and an atmosphere of dread all the way. Professor Birack gives a speech early on about our perhaps-faulty perceptions of reality that echoes the talk of fate in Halloween; there are also plenty of visual omens throughout that we don't immediately comprehend. Sure, the homeless people start acting weird...
...but, you know, they're homeless, so of course they're acting weird. I mean, that's how people get to be homeless, right? They're weird? When the sun and the moon begin acting weird, we really know things are gonna get hinky.
There's plenty to be found in Prince of Darkness that's simply great horror, from the Bugs of the Apocalypse to some truly terrifying kill sequences to a far creepier than it has any right to be recurring dream sequence, which may in fact be a video broadcast from the future. Again, it's a ludicrous idea that, in lesser hands, would be completely ineffectual. Carpenter knows to keep the horror subtle, however, and the damn dream sequence got to me every time I saw it.
It's odd that the film doesn't go where you'd expect it to go; with all the talk of God and Anti-God and evil taking over the world an bringing on eternal darkness, you might think the film would turn into a bombastic, over-the-top battle of good vs evil with lots of wind and flashing lights and explosions. Carpenter doesn't take that approach, however, and as I said, he keeps things subtle and he keeps things small. The film doesn't end so much with a bang as it does with a whimper, but that's why it works. Everyone knows that atmosphere is more effective in the long run than a jump scare. That's not to say that Prince of Darkness is all build-up and no delivery, however; it's simply that it delivers the way Halloween delivers, in a way that will stay with you.
Consider my face rocked, much as Jameson Parker's face is rocked in a way that ensures him a spot in a future installment of Moustaches of Horror.
Give it up for the Film Club Coolies:
Lazy Eye Theatre
If you've got a review up, let me know in the comments and I'll add you to the Cool List. Thanks for playing, kids!