For this week’s double feature I have decided to go with two underrated and under-appreciated films from recent birthday boy, legendary filmmaker John Carpenter. These two films also happen to be his strangest and most surreal efforts. Carpenter has referred to these two films as the second and third part of his “Apocalypse Trilogy” that was started with his classic The Thing. I wasn’t sure about either when I first saw them but, both have grown on me over the years and I have now come to believe that they are not given their proper due …
PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)
Prince of Darkness is a strange movie written by Carpenter and combining religion and theoretical quantum physics. It sounds like a contradictory combination but, it works better then you might expect. It was the first of a multi-picture deal with Alive Films where Carpenter would make 3 or 4 low budget flicks. The second and last film was the cult classic They Live, as a disagreement over the third film’s budget ended the collaboration.
The story opens with the death of a priest who presided over a small inner city parish. Enter Donald Pleasence as another priest… who’s name is never given… who discovers that the deceased priest was part of a secret society within the church called The Brotherhood Of Sleep. And this sect have been protecting a dark secret that may challenge the very core of what we have come to believe both scientifically and religiously. A team of college students, led by Professor Birack (Victor Wong) and including Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) and Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), are brought to the parish to investigate a strange cylinder filled with a pulsating green liquid in a locked chamber in the basement, as well as, the scriptures that come with it. They discover that the liquid is a form of the Anti-Christ and it seeks release in order to bring it’s father, the Anti-God into our world. And as members of the team start to fall under it’s powerful thrall and they all become plagued by the same strange dreams, it’s terrifyingly obvious that the remaining team members are in a fight against an ancient evil that their science may not be able to contain.
Carpenter delivers a very odd but, effectively creepy film. It’s has an atmosphere of dread from the start to the finish and presents a very chilling scenario that there may be things in existence that neither our religion or science may be able to handle. And as these are two things people most put their faith in, it is a disturbing concept. It also presents an interesting idea that Bible prophecies may have actually been warnings sent from the future as the dream effecting all our college science students appears to be exactly that. Carpenter also presents the possibility that certain Bible stories were put in place to cover more disturbing truths as the scientific knowledge to explain or understand the reality of it was not available. Basically we were told things in fable form because the science wasn’t there to properly explain it and we weren’t advanced enough to understand it. As someone who was born and raised Christian yet has always had an interest in science, I actually have had this thought myself occasionally and it was interesting to see the master filmmaker weave this theory into his plot. Carpenter also uses his low budget well and keeps the story, for the most part contained in the church. Again working with the fear of isolation as a horde of homicidal homeless people keep our besieged team members inside. Gary B. Kibbe provides the atmospheric cinematography and would collaborate with Carpenter on 7 more projects and he gives Prince a very unsettling look yet, rich with color. This is a strange film that may not appeal to everyone, it took me a few years and repeat viewings before I fully appreciated it and it’s grown on me since I first saw it in 87 and wasn’t quite sold on it then.
The film has it’s flaws, some of the make-up FX are cheesy and some of the violent death scenes, especially those perpetrated by the army of homeless people surrounding the church, lead by Alice Cooper, seem a little out of place in a film that starts out working in subtlety. But, since it does switch gears and become more of a traditional horror film in it’s second half, as the possessed students try to kill or possess the others who are fighting against their former friends to stay alive, so, in the overall scheme they work fine. Some may not have patience for some of the science heavy dialog but, I though Carpenter’s script does a good job of giving scientific explanations for some of the more supernatural elements of the religious scripture presented in his story. Regardless of your beliefs, Carpenter poses some interesting questions and the film is really creepy throughout. And adding to the effectiveness is one of Carpenter’s spookiest scores to date.
Overall, Prince Of Darkness is perhaps Carpenter’s oddest and most daring film, in some respects but, yet another that wasn’t all that well accepted at first and now has gained a following over the years and rightfully so. This flick may not be for everyone and it’s mix of science and religion may not work for some but, I think it’s an interesting and thoroughly creepy movie that not only presents some well executed traditional horror elements but, poses some interesting questions and theories about what we believe in as well.
3 canisters of gooey pulsating dormant evil!
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1995)
John Carpenter directs what might be his most surreal film, from a script by Michael De Luca, and the final film in Carpenter’s self denominated “Apopcalypse Trilogy” begun by The Thing and Prince Of Darkness. The Lovecraftian film opens with Insurance Investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) being dragged in a straight-jacket into an insane asylum. An interview with his psychologist, Dr. Wrenn (David Warner) reveals that Trent was on a case to discover the whereabouts of famous, best-selling horror author Sutter Cane (a creepy Jurgen Prochnow) when his publishers file a claim that the Stephen King-like author is missing and hasn’t delivered his next book, which is due to be released very soon. Trent starts to read Cane’s books as part of the investigation and starts to have strange hallucinations but, chooses to wave them off as effects of his imagination combined with Cane’s effective prose which is said to have an equal effect on his readers. He decides to find Cane’s favorite setting, the supposedly fictional town of Hobb’s End which he believes is very real and is where Cane is hiding as part of a publicity stunt. Publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) agrees to Trent’s quest as long as he brings Cane’s editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) along with him. But, while the journey does indeed lead to Hobb’s End, Trent and Styles find that the town may not be all that is real from Cane’s books as they are slowly drawn into a nightmare that may suggest that the belief in Cane’s novels by his massive fan-base, may be giving life to his prose and that his influence for those books may be from darker depths then just his imagination. Can Trent and Styles escape this living nightmare or are they just characters whose fates have already been decided by the pen of Sutter Cane and the ancient evil that serves as his muse.
Carpenter presents one of his strangest and most surreal film to date and while it gets a little hard to tell whether Cane’s books are effecting reality or if we are actually watching one unfold before us and it’s taking such life that it’s characters don’t realize they’re fictional… but, maybe we’re not supposed to figure it out which, does add to it’s unsettling atmosphere. Carpenter delivers his trademark visuals supported by frequent cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe and we get glimpses of horrible things lurking in the shadows, all tentacles, eyes and teeth, much like the horrors of H.P. Lovecraft. Hobb’s End seems like a typical sleepy New England town but, Carpenter slowly reveals that there is something horribly wrong here as there is an evil underneath the Norman Rockwell exterior with it’s children blood-thirstily pursuing a frightened dog or the sweet old lady who runs the inn and keeps her frail old husband handcuffed behind the counter. When we finally meet Cane things really start to spiral into madness for Trent and Carpenter takes us on the ride with some of the most bizarre and trippiest sequences he has presented and that’s saying a lot.
Where Madness really stumbles is in some weak dialog in it’s script and in an area that Carpenter is usually strong in, casting. For characters in a John Carpenter film, I found Trent and Styles to be fairly weak… though it is not his script or they, his original characters… characters from Carpenter’s own scripts are usually memorable and strong. But, I also thought that Sam Neil and Julie Carmen, didn’t quite fit their roles properly with Carmen especially appearing very uncomfortable or unsure how to play the material. She is the weak link in the film though I don’t really feel Neill, who I am a big fan of, quite fits the role of Trent either. He just seems like he really isn’t clicking with the weird material though he is nowhere near as awkward as Carmen who is borderline annoying here. Neill at least seems to enjoy playing the ‘going mad’ part of his role while Carmen gets worse as the story gets stranger. Prochnow is the only one who seems to get what’s going on and dives in with both feet in his portrayal of the sinister Sutter Cane and Heston is a perfect fit as Arcane Publishing head Harglow. Except for a few of the supporting characters in Carpenter’s The Ward… another film not written by the master… this is one of the only Carpenter films where weak characters or miscast actors were a factor. Classic characters are Carpenter’s forte’, at least when he writes the script.
Overall, In The Mouth Of Madness is a creepy, freaky, surreal film that works far more then it doesn’t. It’s his visually and conceptually most surreal film and it is very effective in both atmosphere and delivering some really cool creatures and bloody gore. Carpenter again writes a cool score, though this time with composer Jim Lang. While it’s leads don’t seem quite right for their roles, it still provides a spooky 90+ minutes that messes with your head a bit and there’s nothing wrong with that. Another Carpenter film that has garnered a bit of a cult following and as a fan of his work, I agree this under-appreciated flick deserves it, even with it’s flaws. Also stars Bernie Casey as Trent’s boss Robinson and John Glover as an eccentric asylum employee.
3 deranged Sam Neil’s!