For this week’s double feature I have decided to go with the two low budget movies John Carpenter made as part of his deal with Alive Films in the late 80s. A little burnt on dealing with big studio films, these where modestly budgeted flicks which Carpenter wrote and directed himself and were financed by Alive. A disagreement over the budget of a third film ended the deal, but these two films have become cult classics. I have covered Prince Of Darkness here before, but do think it makes a really good fit with the other film in the Alive Films/ John Carpenter collaberation, They Live…
… If you are interested in these titles, both films are currently available with gorgeous new prints and some fun extras from the awesome folks at Scream Factory.
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 from Big Trouble In Little China) 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 seven 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 composed with frequent collaborator Alan Howarth.
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. Also stars another Big Trouble In Little China alumni, Dennis Dun in a fun role as a skeptical student.
3 canisters of gooey pulsating dormant evil!
THEY LIVE (1988)
John Carpenter wrote and directed his second and last feature in the ill-fated Alive Films deal. This flick was a fun alien invasion, Sci-Fi/Action flick based on the short story Eight O’Clock In The Morning by Ray Nelson. Carpenter also mixed in some deft messages about class warfare and how the rich and powerful manipulate the government and media to reduce the rest of us to little more then slaves…a message even more relevant today then it was in 1988, with big corporations running our media and, to be honest, our government…but I digress…
The story focuses on unemployed construction worker John Nada (Roddy Piper) who through a series of events comes across a pair of special sunglasses that let him see the world for what it truly is, an alien run society where humans who collaborate and cooperate are made rich and powerful and those who don’t are coerced by subliminal messages placed in all the media to basically follow orders and do what they are told. If you’re not one of the haves, you’re little more than a have-not slave. Nada has nothing else to lose so, he decides to join a growing underground rebellion and fight back, taking reluctant friend Frank (Keith David) and accidental hostage Holly (Meg Foster) along for the ride. But the aliens are everywhere and so are the traitorous humans that have sold out and John Nada and Co. have some pretty big odds to overcome if they are to find and eliminate the beings’ hypnotic signal and wake the world up from it’s alien induced slumber.
They Live may not be Carpenter’s strongest work, but it is still a fan favorite and a lot of fun. The film moves fast and there is a lot of suspenseful action including a now classic fistfight between “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and The Thing’s Keith David and the gunfight finale inside a cable TV office building. As usual Carpenter gives the film a nice look on a low budget with Gary B. Kibbe once again filling former Carpenter DOP Dean Cundey’s shoes nicely with some beautiful camerawork. The political messages are a little heavy-handed, but there is enough action and aliens to even it out and the film has some really nice SPFX for a very modestly budgeted film especially those that portray the real world as seen through the signal blocking glasses. The film has some clunky dialog and it could have used some more time within the workings of the rebellion to get us a bit more endeared to the freedom fighters before they clash with the invaders, but the focus is on Nada and Frank and it is they who are left with the task of taking the bizarre invaders down. The film also has some very uniquely designed extraterrestrials to act as our villains and the make-up FX work well. It is both one of Carpenter’s lighter films and yet, ironically, one of his most politically and socially critical. As, despite the dire message, the film also has a very satirical sense of humor as well and that helps us past some of it’s flaws as it doesn’t take itself too seriously that we don’t have a good time watching Piper run out of bubblegum and kick ass.
And as for our leading man, Piper does OK here. Carpenter hired him because he felt he had a look of someone who has lived a hard life and that works in the case of down on his luck Nada. Piper isn’t the best actor, but he holds his on especially during the action scenes and only stumbles a little in some of the more dialog heavy moments. Kurt Russell would have been prefect, but Piper works better than expected. Keith David is good as always. He makes Frank a likable and honorable man, but one who we believe doesn’t take any crap from anyone. Foster is a little stiff as Holly, but since she plays a woman thrust into a very surreal situation, it almost fits the part. There are also some solid small roles from frequent Carpenter collaborators like Peter Jason as the rebellion leader Gilbert and George ‘Buck’ Flower as a homeless man who discovers the benefit of playing nice with the ruling alien elite. Carpenter and associate Alan Howarth again deliver a memorable score to support the film.
They Live is now considered a cult classic and I certainly agree. While it may have some familiar elements and common themes, it still comes across as a unique little movie and one with an important message that still resonates almost three decades later. And despite it’s message being a large part of the film’s plot, Carpenter wraps it with a fun, Action/ Sci-Fi coating to make it easily digestible. Piper may not have been the strongest actor to cast in the lead, but he does carry the flick and it’s fun to watch him have a good time with the part even if he stumbles a bit in the film’s more serious moments. Not Carpenter’s best flick, but still very enjoyable and once again another film that has found it’s audience years later. Again John Carpenter proves he is a director who is well ahead of his time.
3 men all out of bubblegum!