21 October 2013

I’ve Got a Message for You, And You’re Going to Like It: John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness on Blu-ray

Prince of Darkness (1987)
Written and Directed by John Carpenter. Starring Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, Dennis Dun, Alice Cooper.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

“Are you asking me about the backstory of the movie? I have no idea.”
—John Carpenter on the commentary track for Prince of Darkness

This week, with the release of In the Mouth of Madness, all of director John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” movies will have reached Blu-ray. The Thing came out a few years ago (from Universal Home Video, doing a better-than-average job), and at the end of September, right in time for the crisp joys of October, Shout! Factory released 1987’s Prince of Darkness—one of Carpenter’s most underrated films.

(His most underrated film? In the Mouth of Madness. More on that in a week or so.)

The apocalypse trilogy films have no connection to each other aside from Carpenter’s interest in events that might bring about the end of the world, a hangover from his childhood fascination with the wild n’ wooly contents of the biblical Book of Revelation. The Thing threatened the globe with a shape-changing alien nasty capable a rapidly assimilating the human race. In the Mouth of Madness brought the Great Old Ones back in full Lovecraftian form, but also undermined all of reality through the power of fiction.

In Prince of Darkness, it would seem that Old Scratch himself is the force preparing to annihilate humanity. After all, what else to make of the title? But Prince of Darkness ends up confronting Earth with a destroyer as much imbedded in science fiction as The Thing. Carpenter combines Catholic-themed religious horror with, of all things, quantum mechanics. The resulting film frequently makes little sense—even John Carpenter acknowledges that—but when viewed as a deep well of bizarre ideas and unnerving atmosphere, it stands as one of the most creative horror films of its decade. I now rank it among Carpenter’s best movies, although it took me a few years to grasp its achievements and shrug off its faults.

Prince of Darkness sets out from its first scenes to undermine the calcified concepts of good vs. evil inherent in most religious horror. During a slow unveiling of the opening credits (it takes more than ten minutes to reach Carpenter’s director credit), we witness Father Not-Named-in-This-Film (Donald Pleasance in his third collaboration with Carpenter) discover a secret secured in the basement of an abandoned downtown Los Angeles church after inheriting a box from a dead bishop. Meanwhile, Professor Birack (Victor Wong from Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China), lectures his students about the decay of classical physics:
And we assume time is narrow because it is as a clock: one second is one second for everyone. Cause precedes effect. Fruit rots, water flows downstream. We’re born, we age, we die. The reverse never happens…. None of this is true! Say goodbye to classical reality, because our logic collapses on the subatomic level into ghosts and shadows.
Professor Birack often speaks as the voice of science against the superstitions of the unnamed priest (apparently, the two appeared in a debate on the BBC at one time), but Birack is more a philosopher than a hard scientist, as one of his students observes. His classroom lecture during the credits sets the stage for a movie where all logic begins to collapse: not only is science not what we think it is, but its opposite, established religion, isn’t what we think it is either. And none of this good news for humanity.

And, while this is occurring (and more credits slowly appear), homeless people gather at the edges of the church in a catatonic state, bugs infect the back of a television, a massive supernova appears in space, and graduate student Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) manages to romance and bed his fellow student Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount) in record time using some of the worst pick-up lines known to science or religion. Say goodbye to classical reality, folks!

None of this hodgepodge of weirdness ever gets worked out to any kind of completely logical conclusion—nor should it, since this is a horror film about quantum physics. The breakdown in normal understanding is expected, and the tone of weirdness develops into a genuinely creepy and unsettling movie.

Father Unnamed and Professor Birack lead a team of scientists, graduate students, and technicians to study the amazing find in the rotting church basement: a giant column of rotating green goo that a secret sect of the Catholic Church has guarded for two millennia. According to a tome kept near the cylinder that contains both Latin inscriptions and deferential equations (yes!), the green liquid is actually Satan himself. But wait, there’s more… Satan is the “son” of the anti-God, an entity that is apparently anti-matter hostile to the physical make-up of our dimension. Jesus was an alien creature who was the first quantum physicist; he came to Earth to warn the planet of the potential danger of the collision of matter and anti-matter. The church adapted this into understandable terms and guarded the secret until humanity could develop the science to understand Jesus’s warnings. Now it seems that anti-god—or anti-matter—is on the verge of getting through to this world and destroying it. “No prison can hold Him now,” bemoans Father Unnamed.

I’ve just provided you as much information on what is happening in Prince of Darkness as the film does—and even that’s fairly iffy. All the crazy events that happen because of that big cylinder of Satan you’ll have to piece together yourself as best you can, because neither the characters nor the director-screenwriter comprehend what’s really going on. Carpenter has admitted he doesn’t understand it; well, quantum physics is way over most people’s heads, so I can’t hold that against him. Only Pleasance’s priest appears to comprehend the implications, and in good Lovecraftian style, it drives him over the edge.

There are two fascinating and contradictory implications underlying this deliberately obtuse mix of religion and physics. First is that Judeo-Christian religion is a misunderstanding, most of it purposely constructed, to explain scientific principals. Second, the Judeo-Christian good vs. evil conflict is correct, since science reflect the Jesus-God-Satan figures, and it is science that has to catch up to the teachings of Jesus. This is what I find so thrilling about Prince of Darkness: it services the themes of both religious horror and science horror without tossing one or the other in the dumpster.

The combination of the performances of Donald Pleasance and Victor Wong as the two sides of this dichotomy blends into a single protagonist, a Quatermass-Van Helsing hero. This achieves Carpenter’s aim for Prince of Darkness: paying tribute to both Hammer’s Gothic horror films and their science fiction “Quatermass” series. (Just to make sure people knew one of those influences, Carpenter wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym “Martin Quatermass.”) Both actors tackle their roles with riveting sincerity, especially Pleasance. If this priest held up a No. 2 pencil and told me it contained ultimate evil, I’d believe him.
But the running time of the movie doesn’t consist entirely of a treatise on religion and quantum physics. Standard horror movie business happens around this odd thematic core. Like a number of other Carpenter films (Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing), Prince of Darkness takes place in a restricted location with a limited cast facing an attack. When the Super Big Gulp of Satan breaks free from its cylinder, it begins to possess the students and scientists, making them do inexplicable things, such as typing, “You will not be saved by the god plutonium” on a computer screen and weeping out of control while staring in a mirror.

This is where Prince of Darkness fumbles a bit. Once the possessed team members and the shambling brigade of homeless people outside the church start killing and the survivors barricade themselves against the assault, a sense of business-as-usual starts to enter the movie. It never takes over fully—the ending is as strange as you hope it would be—but the movie remains much more gripping when dealing with the implications of the approaching matter/anti-matter apocalypse. I’d much rather watch Victor Wong and Donald Pleasance have nonsensical but groovy-sounding conversations than watch Dennis Dun’s smarmy physics student try to find a way out of a closet without attracting the attention of two zombie women.

However, I cannot deny the excitement of seeing Alice Cooper, playing the leader of the homeless legions, impale some poor AV geek on a bicycle. And the “I’ve got a message for you, and you’re not going to like it” moment involving mountains of beetles is the movie’s best horror jolt.

The scariest part of Prince of Darkness—one that seems to crawl under the skin of most viewers—is the repeated “dream sequence” that opens with the words, “This is not a dream.” Shot on static-filled video, with a digitally smeared voice narrating a handheld image of the front of the church, these dreams begin to affect multiple people. Each time the dream appears, it plays longer, unveiling that the dream may be a future message calling for help:
You are receiving this broadcast as a dream. We are transmitting from the year one nine nine nine. You are receiving this broadcast in order to alter the events you are seeing. Our technology has not developed a transmitter strong enough to reach your conscious state of awareness, but this is not a dream. You are seeing what is actually occurring for the purpose of causality violation.
The dream becomes the apocalyptic through line of Prince of Darkness, adding queasy weight to the events in the church. Even on its own the blurry message from the future is a perfect nightmare. These few collected minutes of unstable video have more fright to them than 99% of all found footage horror movies made during the last ten years.

John Carpenter composed the music for the majority of his films. His score for Prince of Darkness (done in association with Alan Howarth) isn’t as readily familiar as what he composed for Halloween, Escape from New York, or Assault on Precinct 13, but I think it’s one of his finest soundtracks. The general dread the music creates with choir sounds and a prominent thumping bass motif that begins during the lengthy main title cue is as fine a match for its film as anything Carpenter did.
Prince of Darkness concludes on a note of even greater ambiguity than The Thing. After the final cut to black, the movie leaves behind a myriad questions… but they’re the right kind of questions. Bewilderment in the face of science colliding with religion is a perfectly acceptable state, and Prince of Darkness exits with an existential unease that makes it the perfect center chapter of the “Apocalypse Trilogy.”

Universal distributed Prince of Darkness to theaters and still owns the rights. But they made the wise decision to let Shout! Factory handle the high definition release. (Universal has a devilishly horrible reputation for treating their catalogue Blu-rays as disposable.) Shout! Factory released Prince of Darkness as part of their “Scream Factory” imprint. As far as I’m concerned, this sets the new bar for Scream Factory Blu-rays—and this during same week they released an excellent Blu-ray of Psycho II.

Starting with the captivating new cover art, all the work involved in the Prince of Darkness Blu-ray is top-quality. The transfer is flawless, and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix brings out low frequency thundering from the music that is a great assist on creating unease. The disc also features the film’s original 2.0 Ultra-Stereo mix in DTS-HD Master Audio. Bonus features include a commentary track with John Carpenter and actor Peter Jason, who helps Carpenter open up more than he often does in commentaries; new interviews with Carpenter, musician Alan Howarth, special effects supervisor and accidental actor Robert Grasmere (he of “I’ve got a message for you…” fame), and Alice Cooper; an episode of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds visiting the locations from the movie (the old church is now a theater and museum); the shortened opening from the television version of the movie; and an Easter egg of a Q&A session with Carpenter at Screamfest (click on the cross on the second screen of the bonus features menu). All-around, this presentation should satisfy any John Carpenter fan and bring the film a new appreciation as one of the best in the director’s canon.

If some time has passed since you gave Prince of Darkness a shot, then I have a message for you, and you’re going to like it. This message will be perceived as a dream. But this is not a dream. Get this Blu-ray for the purposes of causality violation. This is not a dream.

Now run. I hear Alice Cooper coming with a bicycle.