Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Final Girl Film Club - John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness

Cody is endeavoring to write about all of the Final Girl Film Club entries he missed over the years. The movies will be covered in the original Film Club order in most cases, while some of the articles will be posted to coincide with certain dates.

A master of horror's 1987 vision of the apocalypse.

A rundown inner city church in Los Angeles sits atop an underground chamber that was built in the 1500s to house a mysterious container filled with swirling green liquid and capped with a lid that can only be opened from the inside. For the last 30 years, a "guardian priest" has lived in the closed church, leaving only once a week for supplies, going into the cellar every day to check on the container. The priest is a member of The Brotherhood of Sleep, a forgotten sect formed to watch over the container, its existence hidden even from the Vatican. The container holds a lifeform referred to as "the sleeper", and the sleeper has begun to awake, its stirrings coinciding with a change in the Earth and sky, a change in feeling.

The death of the guardian priest puts the keys to the ancient secret in the hands of a priest played by Donald Pleasence. Pleasence's character name is said around the internet to be Father Loomis, a nod to the Doctor Loomis character he played in John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), but I didn't catch it if the name is ever said or displayed in the film, and the end credits simply list him as "Priest".

Along with the container, there's also a two thousand year old book in the underground chamber which has been written and rewritten in multiple languages over the years, telling the entire story of the sleeper. The Brotherhood of Sleep's purpose was to keep the secret until science had advanced enough to prove the claims within the book. That time is now.

With the help of Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong, who worked with Carpenter on the previous year's Big Trouble in Little China), the priest gathers a large group of grad students to the church for a weekend of research and tests on the container. Physicists, radiologists, microbiologists, biochemists, they all get to work. The task of translating the book falls to a woman seeking a doctorate in theology, analysis of ancient scriptures. The more their work reveals, the more disturbing the situation gets.

The stories in the book are very different takes on stories and characters from the Bible, and if these stories are true, that means the self-forming life within the container, the sleeper, is Satan himself, the Antichrist, son of an even greater evil, the Anti-God. The Anti-God was banished into the world of anti-matter, which is accessible through mirrors, and when the sleeper is powerful enough he will try to bring his father into our world... Of course, that's exactly where this story is going.

One-by-one, students fall under control of the sleeper, while others who try to leave the church are immediately struck down by a group of murderous, zombie-like homeless people who have surrounded the building (one of whom is played by Alice Cooper). If the people trapped within don't figure out a way to thwart a plan set in motion millions of years ago, this church in Los Angeles might be the starting point for the end of the world.

Writer/director John Carpenter apparently has some very different ideas on how to spend a relaxing downtime than I do, and it was his hobby of studying theoretical physics and atomic theory that was the inspiration for this story combining science and the supernatural. He wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass, a nod to a character in science fiction/horror stories by writer Nigel Kneale which were also a source of inspiration. Kneale and Carpenter had worked together a few years earlier, when Kneale worked on the screenplay for Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Kneale had his name removed from the credits of that film because he didn't like the way it turned out, and he also wasn't pleased that Carpenter paid homage to him on this one. Oh well.

Prince of Darkness is one of Carpenter's lesser known and lesser seen works, but I find it to be very effectively unsettling. The tone is dark, the story unnerving, it's filled with disturbing and gross images, many of which have to do with bugs and worms, with yet another cool Carpenter/Alan Howarth score moving things forward.

The cast is good, featuring several people Carpenter had worked with before, like Pleasence and Wong, Big Trouble in Little China's Dennis Dun, and Starman's Lisa Blount and Dirk Blocker, people he would work with again, like Peter Jason, Robert Grasmere, and Susan Blanchard, as well as a lead role for Jameson Parker, at this time six seasons into his eight year run on the "brother private eyes" show Simon & Simon, a childhood favorite of mine.

The movie is a slow build, with a deliberateness that does hold it back from quite reaching the level of horrific batshit insanity that I'd like to see it get to. The sleeper zombies are pretty low-key for the most part and with the beleaguered characters being grad students, they tend to be sensibly analytical about what's going on. Still, there is some good action in the last 15 minutes. Carpenter never has Dun use his Big Trouble moves to deliver any jump kicks to demon-zombie skulls, but Dun is involved with what I find to be the best and most memorable sequence in the film, in which his character is trapped in a janitor's closet by a room full of the possessed, once of which is going through some terrifying changes. Other students have to attempt to bust through the back wall of the closet to save Dun before the servants of the sleeper get to him.

I've seen Prince of Darkness several times on home video over the years, but the best viewing I've ever had of it was at the 2010 Shock Around the Clock twenty-four hour theatrical horror marathon, where it was shown as the last film in the line-up, playing out before a room full of the exhausted and sleep deprived. It was the perfect film for that position, dealing with sleep and dreams as it does. As the characters' night in the church goes on, some of them start falling asleep and each of them has the same dream, which is actually a transmission being broadcast from the future (the year 1999!). At one point, the Pleasence character asks the others, "How many of you have fallen asleep tonight?" Those who have raise hands. Since I had nodded off at various points throughout the marathon, I raised my hand in the theatre as well.

Prince of Darkness was first released to theatres on October 23, 1987, a very appropriate release date. It'd be a good horror film to see for the first time around Halloween, and if any horror fans reading this haven't seen it yet I would recommend adding it to your October viewing list.

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