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PRINCE OF DARKNESS - 1987
Universal Pictures, Alive Films
Rating: USA: R
When watching John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS, there are a few things you need to get past first. Because if you don't get past it, then it will color your enjoyment of the movie. I'll explain -
PRINCE OF DARKNESS starts off with a sleeping priest, Father Carlton, who dies with a metal box on his lap. Then throughout a very long set of credits, we see a college campus and various students. The camera lingers on Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker: WHITE DOG), whose gaze lingers on fellow student, Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount: DEAD & BURIED). Together, along with classmates Mullins (Dirk Blocker: POLTERGIEST, EQUINOX, NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW, MAD CITY), Calder (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson: THE SUPERNATURAL, NEON MANIACS, DARKMAN), Etchison (Thom Bray: THE PROWLER, DEEPSTAR SIX, THE HORROR SHOW, ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES [TV]), and Walter (Dennis Dunn: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA), they take a class with Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, TREMORS). Now the thing about these college students is, they are ALL really old for their roles. Having attended a University myself (and I might again, who knows?) I can accept the much older classmate here and there in the room. But ALL of these students are in their thirties at least! Lisa Blount and Dirk Blocker were 30 when they made this movie. Thom Bray was 33. Dennis Dunn was 35. Jameson Parker was 40 and Jessie Lawrence Ferguson was 46 for crying out loud! And They Look It! But let that go. You'll have to forget about the age thing if you want to enjoy this.
The script by John Carpenter (writing as Martin Quatermass - wink! wink!*), was written for a much younger cast, as these characters chatter, interact, and have the shy sexually romantic attractions toward each other as young twenty-somethings. Yet we don't get that age of actor. Instead, we get actors who are old enough to be the parents of those young twenty-something characters. So unless you can get past that, you probably won't enjoy this movie. Forget about it! Let it GO!
Everyone I know, who has seen this movie, has commented on that aspect. The unusually older actors playing much younger (as much as 20 years younger!) characters. John has spoke at length about the box office failure of PRINCE OF DARKNESS, but he never seems to "Get" that about his movie. Even the people who otherwise love this movie, have a problem with the characterization and the physical age of the actors playing those characters.
Remember when a 34 year old Diana Ross played a teenage girl in the box office bomb, The Wiz? It's like that. Remember how Martin Short, at the age of 41, played a ten year old boy in the box office bomb, Clifford? It's like that. PRINCE OF DARKNESS is a fascinating, entertaining movie if you can just get your mind around the idea that this is not a movie about parents pretending to be their children. And dressing and talking in the argot of their children. Yeesh!
So let it go, damn it!
The class with Prof. Victor Wong wants to be all about quantum physics but really teeters somewhere between philosophy and spiritualism. Well, it's a Hollywood movie. In Hollywood they believe sound exists in the vacuum of space, people can outrun explosions, with sharpened senses you can hear bullets approaching, you can see laser beams shoot past you and, if you're quick, you can actually DODGE them! Remember, when Hollywood types try and convince you of something they think is "Scientific", consider the source.
Meanwhile, and still during the credits, a Catholic Priest known only as Father (Donald Pleasance: THX 1138, HALLOWEEN, DRACULA , ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, PHENOMENA) is discovering a whole wide mess of stuff left over from Father Carlton at the beginning of the movie. There is Father Carlton's cryptic diary. The metal box Carlton had contains a key. Carlton was the last of a very specific, very secret Catholic sect - so secret, ancient, and powerful within the church that they were unknown even to the Holy See (that's the Pope). Father consults with his fellow clergy. He goes to the run down abandoned cathedral in the bad part of town. The key is to a thick iron door. On the other side of that door is a long stairwell that leads down into the bowels of the earth. And down there, whatever it is, upsets the Catholic Father to no end. So much so that - credits still rolling - he sends a Nun to call upon his scientist friend, Prof. Birack.
The Priest leads Birack down into the deep cathedral basement. Built in the 1500s by the Spaniards, it housed the Catholic Order known as The Brotherhood of Sleep. There deep in the earth, is a huge clear tankard of green fluid that is ever turning. Whatever this fluid is, it is seeping some form of corrosion from its seams and it exerts a great deal of unfocused energy or force. The Brotherhood of Sleep believed that it was no less than the birth fluid of the Beast and from this fluid it would return to earth. The Priest gets Prof. Birack so worked up about it (and Prof. Birack didn't have far to go), that the teacher decides to call upon his students to act as volunteers for this new research.
A mess o' meters, computers, and other machinery later, the students are all studying this tank with the green fluid that goes round and round. All seems harmless enough, except that since the students entered, street people, transients, have gathered outside the cathedral.
As a witness and for backup, Prof. Birack invites on another school professor, Dr. Paul Leahy (Peter Jason: ALIEN NATION, THEY LIVE, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED , GHOSTS OF MARS, ALIEN APOCALYPSE) to help with wrangling all of the students. Dr. Leahy never seems to commit one way or the other regarding the Great Evil that has the Priest and Prof. Birack so upset. In fact, he seems to skate through the whole thing like he's on a vacation. The students also don't know what to make of it all. Nobody seems really sure if they are buying into it or if Prof. Birack is slipping into looneyville. Birack himself is staying cryptic, wanting to see what their various test results produce.
Meanwhile the street people let folks in but they don't let anyone out. And any who try to escape meet with a grisly end at the hands of bums like Alice Cooper (DRAGONTOWN).
So just what the hell is going on? To tell you is to give away the end and I'm never down with that.
Carpenter got experimental with PRINCE OF DARKNESS more than usual, even for him. The creeps and crawlies come less from the story as from the visuals. Not just people being gruesomely murdered, but what happens to their bodies after the evil possesses them. It's all entertaining, but what really sets it apart, the thing that REALLY fascinates, is what happens to people when they sleep in the church. They all have the same dream. It's as if they are watching television except in their dream a voice is actually telling them,
"This is not a dream... (static) ...not a dream. We are using your brainwaves to transmit as a receiver... (static) We are unable to transmit through conscious neural interference. You are receiving this broadcast as a dream. We are transmitting from the year One Nine... (static) You are receiving this broadcast in order to alter the events you are seeing.
Our technology has not advanced enough to transmit to your conscious state of awareness..."
The dream, if it is a dream, is of the church they are in. Something is coming out of the church.
There's a good story here but it gets lost in the telling. John had a good concept brewing, and as a Director, he knows how to tell a compelling tale, but he needed the assistance of someone who could WRITE a compelling tale. The brilliance of the story, and what PRINCE OF DARKNESS was about and should have focused on, was not in the endless stream of scifi technobabble, but in the idea of The Brotherhood of Sleep, and the vastly more interesting parasomniac broadcasts. And one more thing: A cast of actors that are the age of the characters they portray.
Great concept poorly executed, this one is ripe for remake land. Flawed but entertaining, I give John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS 3 Shriek Girls.
copyright 2009 E.C.McMullen Jr.
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In the book,
THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS, a collection of interviews with John Carpenter conducted by Gilles Boulenger over the years, John comments on why he wrote and directed
PRINCE OF DARKNESS.
*Why the wink?
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THE QUATERMASS movies.