Prince of Darkness; or Why It Gotta Be Science?

Hello and Hallo-Welcome to our first Ash Wednesday! Once a week, your groovy bloggers, Andy and Lilly, will be looking at Evil Dead and it’s offspring–starting next week! First, however, no Hallowfest would be complete without at least one John Carpenter film–or so Andy insists, much to Lilly’s dismay.

Today’s Offering: Prince of Darkness

Not be confused with the less terrifying Viscount of Dusk.
Not be confused with the less terrifying Viscount of Dusk.

Andy: Prince of Darkness is nothing if not a John Carpenter film. It may be the most John Carpenter film. It’s certainly the film that draws together the themes of everything he’d made up to this point, and draws back most if not all of his regulars. Victor Wong and Donald Pleasance pop up, along with Dennis Dun. Kurt Russell’s missing, due to being in a screwball comedy with Goldie Hawn at the time, and Adrienne Barbeau, due to no longer being Carp’s wife. Instead, we get Alice Cooper playing a creepy homeless dude.

Lilly: Wait, does that mean Alice Cooper was John Carpenter’s wife at this point? Twist!

Andy: No.

Anyway, the plot is pretty out there. A very secretive sect of Catholics (operating without the knowledge of the Vatican, but somehow still Catholic?) has been guarding a church in the middle of a rundown Los Angeles suburb. The last member dies of old age, presumably failing in his duty to train a suitable replacement, and a Vatican troubleshooter is sent to investigate, played with a doomy bent by Donald Pleasance. Which is a bit like saying Jim Carrey is a bit zany in some of his roles, but whatever.

Lilly: As secret Catholic sects go, this was probably the least effective one–yes, they managed to keep the thing under wraps for a long time (centuries?), but it wasn’t like the Catholic sect you get in Van Helsing–now they got shit done! I like the secret sect trope, and was pretty excited about this one, but it sort of failed to deliver–I wanted churchy, and instead, got sciencey. Not cool, Carp. Not cool.

Andy: Yeah, it’s a tiny bit crap. Anyway, after a quick look round, and a read of the dead priest’s diary, our Vatican Agent contacts an old acquaintance – a theoretical quantum physicist played by Victor Wong. The professor then rounds up his brightest grad students to investigate the weird thing the sect has been guarding in the basement – a giant vial of green goo that is forever swirling, sealed from the inside and giving everyone who goes near it the heebie-jeebies. Then the really weird stuff starts happening.

Lilly: Of course, you failed to mention the creepy mustache guy flirting with The Hot Girl, which is supposed to make us care about them as a possible couple when really, he lurks under a tree all the damn time and I think she has a boyfriend, but then they have sex? Whatever, your professor wants you, so go do that thing. That might make this film worth watching.

Andy: I can’t fault this film in its ambition. The sheer breadth of concepts it touches on is impressive in itself, from quantum mechanics, to parallel universes, to Catholic doctrine, to time travel, but this may also be its biggest weakness – the film can’t fulfil its creepy promise if you get bogged down in the science. It also detracts from the core mystery – just what exactly is that thing in the basement, and why does reality seem to warp around it?

Lilly: Okay, as an arts student, I have beef with movie science, and always have. I don’t get science. I left science behind me in high school for a reason. So when Donald and Victor Wong start talking about sciencey things, I was immediately turned off. Give me your machines that go ‘Ping!’ and your hot scientist grad students, fine, but don’t try and explain the graduate level science. That was the most horrific part of the film for me. Having to sit and try and wrap my head around whatever the heck they were talking about. Hate movie science. Hate it. And it’s always explained as if it makes perfect sense. TO WHOM, CARP. TO WHOM. I literally just heard “Goo science science Green science Devil? science science TRICKED YOU INTO THINKING IT WAS THE DEVIL IT’S NOT IT IS SCIENCE.”  I then had to spend far more of my life than I deem strictly necessary trying to figure out why I should be afraid. Is it demons? Or is it chemistry? I was shit at chemistry, so that is scary. 

Andy: Yeah, the title alone might give you a few hints about the goo. Certainly an original interpretation.

Overall, the film is effectively creepy, and has a hazy dreamlike quality at its best. The spookiest moments come for me not from its grandiose designs, but the subtler moments. One character has a habit of flicking around a playing card, seemingly practising sleight-of-hand. In one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, the card actually vanishes. It’s a moment of palpable menace, as if the rules about reality no longer apply.

Lilly: That was kinda cool. I felt a bit like I was watching two films for the longest time. There was the scary film, with the goo and the weird zombie-like possessions, and then there was the science-disaster film, where all the scientists get together and do the science together to save the world. Every now and again, the two films would meet up, but not nearly often enough.

Andy: Also the third act gets bogged down in a sort of subpar zombie flick, and the film suffers from the shift in tone. There’s also a worrying equivalence between bugs swarming in certain ways around the church and the horde of possessed homeless people blocking the exits. Not cool Carpenter.

Lilly: Really not cool. I thought they were creepy until I saw the connection, and read Alice Cooper’s credit as ‘Street Schizo’. So, um. Bugs, worms, and the mentally ill? Are all homeless people mentally ill? Or are all mentally ill people homeless? I don’t know what’s happening there and I wasn’t okay with it. It sort of spoke to there being more research done into fake movie science then into, you know, the very real social issue of homelessness. Don’t get me wrong, we watch films with racism, sexism, etc., and so this isn’t the only film guilty of that sort of ‘ick’ feeling right in my conscience, but unlike most of those films guilty of it, this one didn’t seem to even notice it. It was subtle (as said, Cooper was only called ‘Street Schizo’ in the credits). 

Andy: …Yeah. Anyway, I really like this one despite it’s flaws, but I’m hesitant to recommend it unless you like your horror to be about ideas rather than shocks. This will not appeal to everyone, especially people who like straightforward slashers or spooky houses. It aims high, and if it doesn’t quite make it, it deserves some praise for trying, even with some of the unfortunate implications.

Lilly: For me, this is a hard one. If you like gore, science, and zombie-like figures, then you could like this. It has some great effects, some scary monsters, and some tense moments. However, it wasn’t for me–I couldn’t get my head around the science, and what I could get my head around left a bad taste in my mouth.

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