Prince of Darkness
Directed by John Carpenter
Can’t believe it’s taken us this long to get round to doing a John Carpenter film.
Yeah ok so I get that maybe he’s not exactly one of the most accomplished filmmakers out there. But he’s definitely one of the (how should I say this?) tastiest? Especially if your tastes have never really matured that far from that “teenage boy” setting (and for once I don’t think I’m saying that as a bad thing). His films are often dirty, nasty, chaotic and as sharp as a wire stretched across your neck. If other filmmakers aim to serve finely cooked meals with lots of healthy ingredients decorated with all the trimmings then a John Carpenter film is more like a hamburger, fries and a milkshake kinda thing. And then the milkshake comes alive and tries to eat your face.
I’ll admit that it was pretty tough to choose which one of his films to pick for the Film Club tho. The obvious first choice was The Thing of course. But having rewatched it for about the 100th time a few weeks ago I’m not really sure what one can say about it apart from “That is a really really really good film.” The next most obvious is They Live but I’m pretty sure Zizek has already sucked all the juice from that one. (Plus you know 15 transcendent minutes do not a good movie make: even if it is the best depiction of 21st Century life ever put to screen). Halloween was another option of course but if we ever do get into slasher films I feel like Scream would be a better place to do it. Escape from New York is a lot of people’s favourites but it’s a bit too trashy even for me (sorry). Assault on Precinct 13 is good but the only thing I really remember is that one OMG moment. And yeah I’m sorry John – but I kinda find Big Trouble in Little China to be almost unwatchable. Yeah. That’s right. I said it.
But fuck it – let’s do Prince of Darkness.
First things first – I will happily admit that this movie is no one’s first choice for “Best John Carpenter Movie” but just between you and me I think it might just be the “John Carpenter Movie That I Love the Best.” Yeah The Thing is more complete and accomplished. Yeah They Live is more politically right on. Yeah Halloween has a better soundtrack. But Prince of Darkness is just a lot – cooler.
I’ll admit upfront that part of this comes from the fact that when I’ve shown this movie to other people it’s just left them completely cold and befuddled. Like I’m pretty sure that I could show The Thing to anyone and they’d grok it. It’s like a perfect delivery machine: ice, isolation, shape-shifting alien. If it leaves you cold then you just need to come to terms with the fact that maybe you just don’t like fun. But Prince of Darkness feels a lot more… how should I say it? It’s like the album a band makes when they’ve had their big mainstream successes and they decide to make something that’s a bit more… strange. The thrills aren’t front-loaded in the same way and everything is kinda designed to be a bit more counterintuitive. Like in a more traditional version of this kinda movie everything would unroll in a much slower and more steady way. Everything would be explained. And everyone would get a chance to be much heroic.
But in Prince of Darkness everything kinda falls apart much more quickly than you’d expect. Things are gestured towards instead of being properly mapped out. And the good guys only really win due to sheer good luck in a way that makes the victory feel almost hollow. But that’s what I love about it. Because the culmination of all of all this stuff makes everything feel way more hopeless and fraught and despairing than you normally manage to get close to. Like in most movies the good guys saving the day always just feels like a matter of time. With Prince of Darkness the way everything is weighted makes it feel like the opposite – that Evil is slowly prevailing and all you can do is watch.
Also – that thing I said before about the thrills not being front-loaded? That’s actually bullshit. I mean if you like to think of movies as basically being a collection of cool scenes stitched together then Prince of Darkness is probably pound for pound one of the best movies out there. Like it’s been a while since I’ve rewatched it but there’s so many cool moments that are etched into my mind like dirty words on a school desk: Man’s head falling off in the basketball court (“Pray… for death”). Evil Green Vomit going in backwards. All that shit with the mirrors. Evil homeless people standing around in a kinda fucked up way. Green glowing liquid. Fucking up looking belly swelling. IN FACT… YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED! And – oh yeah holy shit – “This is not a dream. Not a dream. We are using your brain’s electrical system as a receiver. We are unable to transmit through conscious neural interference. You are receiving this broadcast as a dream.” (which still makes all the necks on the back of my hair stand up).
Basically there’s so much to love about this movie. And that’s even before we get to the cool way it uses Deep Cool Philosophy Talk in much the same way that a chef uses herbs and spices and a dash of salt. As someone who actually did Philosophy at uni my toes always curl whenever I watch movies decide to do the Deep Cool Philosophy Talk (Andrei Tarkovsky – I’m looking at you). Because it’s often as dopey and stupid as fuck and is just a bunch of people trying to sound Insightful and Smart in a way that makes me feel like they’re actually the opposite. Like if you want to do the Philosophy thing it’s probably better if you go The Matrix route and just dramatise the ideas instead of having people talk about them. But then – Prince of Darkness man: it has this approach that I don’t think I’ve seen before where Donald Pleasence and Victor Wong say cool shit to each other that doesn’t really make all that much sense if you want to go away and analysis it as a philosophical position or whatever but nonetheless is as evocative as hell (“Common sense! It allows his deception. He lives in the smallest parts of it. In the atoms… smaller… invisible… he lives in all of it. In the sum of its parts. We must translate this book. You must prove it scientifically… to convince the outside world.” “The outside world doesn’t want to hear this kind of bullshit. Just keep it locked away. You’ve already managed that for two thousand years.” “No prison can hold him now.”)
I don’t know if this is an idea that’ll only make sense to me but in many ways Prince of Darkness is the perfect VHS movie. Like I’ve said – it’s dirty, nasty, chaotic and as sharp as a wire stretched across your neck. And what more could you possibly want from a movie?
Having not rewatched Prince of Darkness for a while I mistakenly thought of it as “a collection of cool scenes stitched together.”
THAT WAS A MISTAKE.
Watching it the other day and feeling my whole body vibrate with joy as I watched it I realise now that actually the whole “cool scenes stitched together” is how other lesser films work. And in fact comparing Prince of Darkness to The Thing I feel like I wanna say something a little bit outrageous like: I actually think that Prince of Darkness is a better film. Because yeah I mean I know that The Thing has better actors (Kurt Russell > Some Blonde Guy with a Unfortunate Tache), The Thing has better more realistic dialogue (“You’ve got to be fucking kidding” = probably one of the best movie lines of al time) and all in all in a way that I can’t even really put my finger on The Thing just feels… more refined.
But the thing with The Thing that no one ever really talks about is that the ending is kinda… (whisper it) disappointing. Not that final scene between MacReady and Childs which is ominous and chilly in all the right ways (Sure looks like you can’t see Childs’ breath to me – but who knows?). But the whole final conflict between MacReady and The Thing itself. “Yeah fuck you too” is another great line I’ll admit but it’s all kinda done much too quickly and after the exquisite / glorious build up of well – the entire rest of the movie it just feels a little bit disappointing you know? I mean you’re introduced to MacReady with him pouring his glass of whisky into the chess computer (“You cheating bitch”) which kinda sets you up for thinking that there’s going to be somekind of similar genius move at the end of the film but erm it’s just… throw the dynamite at the monster. Which yeah is effective. But it’s not exactly next level thinking or whatever you know?
But wait – that’s not the point.
The point is – it kinda snags the climax. It’s not as transcendent as it could be. And yeah of course I’m asking for a lot especially especially as everything around it and every other scene is pretty much as close to perfect as you can possibly get. So you know – what does it matter – right?
Actually no wait – that’s not the point either.
The actual point I want to make is this – a movie is more than a collection of cool scenes stitched together. And in fact the best movies (the transcendent movies) are the ones that organise their parts in such a way that the whole thing builds and moves and flows together like – well – a piece of music. A symphony. Everything working together and playing off each other and interlocking in such a way that all the parts join together to great something greater.
Which is to say that – even tho I think it’s pretty much an objective truth that The Thing has better scenes, better production values, better acting, better dialogue and is just basically better all round – I think Prince of Darkness is actually a better movie. Because even tho most of the scenes aren’t that good, it kinda looks a bit cheap, some of the acting is rickety, most of the dialogue is substandard etc etc etc – the way that everything works together is more effective. Even tho the parts aren’t the best the accumulative effect is much more powerful.
Of course this kind of thing is much more difficult to put into words. And it’s the same kind of problem that results in lots of writing about movies to treat them as if they were novels – talking about the dialogue and the characters and all the stuff that’s easy to pin down in words. I think there’s a Stanley Kubrick line where he talked about the fact that most film criticism is basically identical to the way that people talk about plays and you know over a half a century later the same problem remains. Like if the parts of the movie aren’t that good but there’s something over and above it that makes it all work then how am I supposed to describe it? Just wave my arms in a big circle and say that “you know – it’s the whole thing”? (That does sound tempting).
To try and be more specific – I think the thing that works with Prince of Darkness is just how taut it is in terms of how it unfolds. The good guys don’t really have any sense of what they’re getting themselves into and all the bits kinda seem disconnected and scattered until about an hour in you kinda realise (along with them) that they’re completely surrounded and completely fucked. It’s like Carpenter lights one small fire over here and then another small fire over there and then another one just over here and then everyone turns around and realises that they’re standing in the middle of an inferno (interestingly I’ve just realised that this is the same basic structure as Prometheus which also has lots of bits which are kinda shoddy but that I also have a massive crazy outsized amount of love for but that’s another story). Going back to the music metaphor again – it’s like the film sets out this basic drum pattern. Then it adds some bass. Then a little motif on the trumpets. More drums. Then this cool sounding electronic noise. Then a descending guitar line. More drums. Then some violins. Cellos. More drums. More drums. More drums. More drums. More drums.
How I know this works – my right leg started tapping about half an hour in and then just got more and more insistent as the movie kept going. Like I know it sounds a little wishy-washy to say that “I love the feeling that the movie gives me” but – I love the feeling that the movie gives me.
Also I think it’s worth pointing out (and I think that the movie gets an awful lot of it’s power from this) but it’s really cool how basically the whole plot is pretty much just the Ultimate Evil of the Universe (“The Anti-God”) putting each of it’s plan together successfully and all of the heroes basically standing around completely impotent and inept. Things get worse and then keep on getting worse. And then the day is only saved by two split second lucky decisions (one of which comes at a terrible terrible cost) that feels a hell of a lot more satisfying than just “Yeah fuck you too.”
But then saying all this I get that maybe it might not be all that convincing. I guess what I’m trying to make clear is that there’s a kinda holistic approach to approaching movies that means that you can watch Prince of Darkness (overlooking it’s superficial aspects) and get an awful lot out of it (in fact it kinda reminds me of Speed Racer in that way – another film where the whole is much greater than the sum of it’s parts). But it’s funny – reading and watching reviews of Prince of Darkness after I finished watching it most people’s reaction to it is “it’s dumb” and “it doesn’t make sense” which I must admit is kinda dumb and doesn’t really make sense to me LOL
Because for me a movie doesn’t have to be something that makes total sense and doesn’t have to explain everything in a way that’s neat and tidy. I just want an overwhelming experience that gives me some cool emotions. Personally I don’t believe that there’s an ancient evil older than mankind that wants to come back and rescue it’s Father from a place trapped behind mirrors – but it’s awfully fun to watch something that makes that seem real.
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