Friday, May 8, 2020

Prince of Darkness

Prince of Darkness
John Carpenter

A group of graduate student scientists are gathering together at an abandoned church at the behest of the Catholic Archdiocese. In the basement is a container of swirling green liquid… and it is waking up.

When John Carpenter is writing under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass, he’s tipping off viewers in the know what kind of film he’s making, when he gives characters last names like Marsh and Danforth he’s practically screaming out the inspirations for the film, yet at the same time, Prince of Darkness is very much a Carpenter invention. If anything, it is a master class how to draw from inspiration without having to slavishly pay ode to them by creating a pastiche. Prince of Darkness is the middle entry in Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, consisting of The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness (1994). It is interesting to see the progression of doom in these films. The Thing ends with a chance that the alien has been defeated despite a heavy cost, while In the Mouth of Madness ends with the full-bore cosmic apocalypse raining down on humanity. Prince of Darkness ends on uncertainty, it is impossible to tell if our heroes triumphed or not… and honestly, it does look good in those final moments.

Sacrifice my mustache to save the world? Sorry, Earth, no dice.
When Carpenter used Martin Quatermass as his pseudonym and mentions a university named Kneale, he is tipping us off about the structure of this film. Drawing from the Quatermass series of films, written by Nigel Kneale, and most specifically, Quatermass and the Pit (1967), we are presented with an alien invasion that has already happened millions of years ago. This invasion has been obscured by time and by humans. In the case of Prince of Darkness, the Catholic church has deliberately hidden the existence of the tube of liquid anti-god that’s been sitting in the church for a very long time.  Whereas Kneal’s story starts out small and slowly expands both it’s physical and metaphysical impact, Carpenter’s film keeps expanding the cosmic implications of what is happening but turns that into a pressure cooker as this force threatens to burst from the confines of the church and leaves the protagonists less and less space to survive.

Apocalypse or not, that Timex looks in great shape.
Although Carpenter also name drops H.P. Lovecraft character surnames like Danforth and Marsh. The specifics of Lovecraft’s stories are less apparent. The Lovecraft influence comes largely from the notion of an inescapable cosmic evil that is only glimpsed in part. There are also elements of body horror and these outside influences affecting people with mental illness. Many films made later feel the need to directly insert themselves into Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, but I prefer this lighter touch.

I’ve always found the opening and closing dream transmissions some of the most chilling images that Carpenter has ever put to screen. There is something so horrific in their half-glimpsed visions and the way their meaning becomes clearer by the end of the film. Prince of Darkness might not be the most well-loved Carpenter film but it is my personal favorite.

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