Friday, October 30, 2009

If I were John Carpenter and you were a Satan: revisiting Prince of Darkness

In some dilapidated, out-of-use Los Angeles church sits the ultimate cocktail. It swirls in a cylinder, demon-green, smoky, and capable of inducing a hell of a mean drunk. Donald Pleasence is a priest who enlists Victor Wong’s cockeyed, waddling old professor and his finest PhD physics students to come and investigate the weirdness. According to the promptly decoded accompanying literature the cocktail is actually the Anti-Christ, waiting to materialize and enter the world all decked out in Nosferatu garb. The local homeless population, overdressed and uniformly grotesque, stand around like catatonics apparently waiting to do the evil one’s bidding, whereas the Anti-Christ has to hork loogies into the mouths of the smart middleclass academics to get them playing on his team. One of them turns into a pillar of bugs before collapsing in the parking lot. Another has her skin turned inside out and hangs before a mirror to take Satan by the hand and pull him out. Tachyon transmissions from the future override the dreams of all involved. “Our logic collapses on the subatomic level into ghosts and shadows,” says Wong. It also collapses at the movies, which can invade our subconscious even while our conscious mind knows perfectly well that what we’re watching is very, very silly.

Prince of Darkness screened last night at my neighbourhood second-run/rep cinema. I was eager to revisit the film after having last seen it at least a decade and a half ago—the length of my adult life, basically. I was prompted not only by a voracious appetite for horror, not only by a longing to remember what it was about the film that scared me so intensely as a kid. (For the record, it was the grainy television broadcast dreams from the future, as well as that startlingly despairing image of a woman suddenly finding herself trapped forever on the other side of a mirror with Satan. Plus, well, anything apocalyptic freaked me out as a kid.) What drew me to watch Prince of Darkness again was also my recent reading of Kent Jones’ eloquent 1998 essay on Carpenter, ‘American Movie Classic.’ Jones is one of the very few critics whose work has not only enlightened but actually moved me, and his heartfelt defense of Carpenter’s oeuvre struck a chord, especially since it reminded me of one of the most arrogant things I think I ever wrote in my shambling, accidental career as a critic. It was something to the effect of Carpenter seeming like “kind of a dumb guy.” I won’t try to justify this now rather embarrassing statement other than to say I was reviewing Ghosts of Mars—sorry, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars—I was very young, and I was trying on what I thought might be the critic’s cloak. (Rest assured, a reader did write in to take me to task for this.) The one piece of advice that Paul Matwychuk, my first editor, always stressed when asked was that I should be more opinionated. He was absolutely right to do suggest this to me, but it’s an inherent risk of the trade that sometimes being opinionated winds up making you sound like a nincompoop.

“Carpenter stands completely and utterly alone as the last genre filmmaker in America,” writes Jones. My first response to reading this was, what about Carl Franklin? But my second was a sense of the genuine nobility of this role in the film industry, a role once filled with such dynamicism by the likes of, to use Jones’ examples, Edgar G. Ulmer or Robert Siodmack. Cinema history has taught us repeatedly that working—seemingly—within the dictates of the establishment, within the literal
generic, offers filmmakers unique opportunities for subversion, subtlety, sophistication, and signature. But with the exception of Assault of Precinct 13, I confess that all my recent Carpenter viewings—which by means have been complete—have left me questioning again and again the distinction and richness of the filmmaker’s contributions to the various genres he’s dealt in.

Prince of Darkness is an interesting case study, written by Carpenter under a pseudonym, featuring no stars to overshadow the general buzz of collaboration under the guidance of a by then highly respected auteur—or to cloud the frequently awkward, faux-banal dialogue, hokey exposition, shrugged-off love story, or somewhat muddled treatise on the limits of science and religion and the ostensible urgency of their marriage. Of course, those TV news footage dreams and that through-the-looking-glass death shot endure, still freaking me out between my spells of hypnosis induced by yet another of Carpenter’s thin, monotonously portentous synth scores, and fits of spontaneous laughter, from myself and my fellow audience members, over Pleasence’s hammy monologues, Alice Cooper’s rather improbable impaling of a guy with a bicycle, Satan’s overwrought messages warning of his wrath, his acrobatic zombie minions, and that guy from Simon & Simon, who actually gives a fairly solid performance but whose moustache dances every time he smiles. (I should add however that Wong is terrific in the film, and the ending is quite nicely timed.) Jones champions Carpenter’s willingness to tell stories where protagonists are confronted with some pure, external evil, but I still question the depth of Carpenter’s investment in evil in Prince of Darkness as much as in Christine, where the car from hell is so inane it demands to take a backseat to the much more stimulating relationships, the nicely rendered air of teen alienation, and the filmmakers’ obsession with the vestiges of the 1950s. If only those elements, all of them worthwhile, could take control of the film rather than finally submit to the cornball, humdrum horror movie plot mechanics.

I’ll keep at this task of watching Carpenter’s films, probably every last one of them, partly out of my attempt to understand Jones’ fascination and respect, and partly because the truth is I have yet to see a single Carpenter film that’s all bad. Each seems to have its charms, the craftsmanship brought to the simplest details especially. The details are as consistently winning as the premises tend to feel negligible, leaving you wondering what does Carpenter really care about? What does he really want to share with us? What in these stories really speaks to him? I remember watching him interviewed on television and hearing him say that movies don’t scare him. So maybe that’s my fantasy John Carpenter movie, the one where we might actually get some glimpse at what really scares, beguiles, or moves John Carpenter.


Joe Wet Cow said...

Although I haven't seen Prince of Darkness yet, I can sympathize with your fascination/frustration with Carpenter. He never seems to produce a thoroughly good film (perhaps Assault on Precinct 13), but I still keep returning to him just to see what he does next.

I think it might be something in the attitude, that "fuck the system" stance that is so exhilarating. Usually leftist American films are more contemplative and intellectual, but Carpenter just wants to kick some ass, damn the man and all that. It's liberating, I suppose.

But of course, that's just a theory. Like you, I'm still working through his oeuvre.

Good post, by the way. I always enjoy seeing a critic grapple with his conflicted feelings towards a filmmaker (strong opinions are nice and all, but a bit of ambivalence really hits the spot sometimes).

JB said...

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Joe Wet Cow. You make a good point about Carpenter's action-oriented, anti-authoritarian stance, which, free of irony, yet smarter than most contemporary action or genre material, makes his appeal pretty unique these days.

If you don't know it, I would absolutely recommend that Kent Jones essay I mention in the post. You can find it in a recent collection of his essays called Physical Evidence, the introduction to which is, for me at least, one of the best statements about the role of the critic.

Joe Wet Cow said...

I managed to find that Kent Jones essay posted on Carpenter's own site, and it is indeed a lovely piece of criticism. Certainly, it has renewed my resolve to explore more Carpenter films.

But thanks for the recommendation of Physical Evidence. If this one essay is any indication of what to expect, I should get my hands on a copy.