10/28/11

The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It #4 -Prince of Darkness (1987)

I know I've spent the last nine days talking about The Devil and all his vices, but today, brothers and sisters, I have seen the light. I'm here today to testify. I'm here to tell you that I have changed my ways. I have given myself over to a higher power. Yes, friends, it's true that my savior is a simple man. A man who created an only begotten son, and then bade him to off his family and terrorize a neighborhood.. A man who can summon forth The Three Storms, Pirate Zombies, self repairing cars, and the King of Rock and Roll. My savior is a simple Carpenter. Well, a simple John Carpenter to be more specific. Welcome, one and all. to the revival that I'm calling, The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It and #4 Prince of Darkness (1987). We've seen Satan in many forms over the past week, but we've never seen him look so much like Mountain Dew. Yet the Anti-Christ proves that no matter if he's a liquid or a solid, he can still turn any gathering into a gas. (of the Mustard or Tear variety possibly.)

When an old priest dies mysteriously in the middle of the night, he is found clutching a box containing a key to a derelict church. Given the task of investigating, an unnamed priest (Donald Pleasence) discovers a cylinder containing a living force in the church, and he believes it may contain the trapped Antichrist. Enlisting the help of graduate school professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) and his finest group of students, the Priest tasks them with uncovering the cylinder's purpose. As the students begin collecting more information of the cylinder, feeding computers with translation of ancient texts and complex mathematics, everything surrounding the investigation becomes more sinister. The church is nearly barricaded by the homeless, staring slack-jawed at the church (and lead by a pasty looking Alice Cooper). Bits of liquid begins to escape the container, causing the students to become possessed and attack each other. Soon the scientific students learn that the entity in the container is the Devil, and it seeks to usher the Anti-God into this world. Their only hope to save the future of the world is a message from a future they didn't save.

Prince of Darkness is the second installment of what John Carpenter calls his Apocalypse Trilogy which started with The Thing (#1 on The Halloween Top 13: The Remake) and ending with In the Mouth of Madness. Admittedly, I haven't seen Mouth of Madness recently enough to contemplate it, but the notion of the titular "Thing" taking over the world is quite chilling, arctic pun intended. However, while I feel that Prince of Darkness is a lesser film than The Thing, it certainly addresses the end of the world in a very front and center manner. The theological implications that Carpenter's film deals in, that "The Devil" as real physical (though gooey) presence guided by an even more evil daddy figure, are the kind of thing that would send Richard Dawkins into a nervous breakdown. This was the first film where Carpenter overtly used religion in the plot-line, a theme he would go back to in 1998's Vampires. With Prince of Darkness, Carpenter covers several different themes including systemic repression of knowledge, logic versus faith, and man's inherent nature of evil. When you look at his career of films as a whole, these are themes that reoccur time and again, but setting them against a background of Catholicism and Christianity certainly raises new questions in each of the areas.

As is usual for John Carpenter, many of the actors who appear in Prince of Darkness had worked with the director before. Donald Pleasence, who plays the unnamed priest, is instantly recognizable to any horror fan as Dr. Loomis from Halloween and his role in Carpenter's Escape from New York. Pleasence's role as the priest is more low key than the crusading shrink that he usually plays, and the scenes he shares with Victor Wong's Professor Birack are among the best in the film. Speaking of Mr. Wong, who played Egg Shen in Big Trouble in Little China, he is absolutely one of my favorite character actors and I always adore seeing him in anything. Jameson Parker, best known as the Simon who wasn't Major Dad on Simon & Simon, seems to be a mustachioed stand in for Tom Atkins, but he acquits himself well enough. Lisa Blount (Dead & Buried, Cut and Run), Susan Blanchard (They Live), Dennis Dun (Big Trouble In Little China), and Dirk Blocker (Poltergeist, Starman) round out the students, but none of them distingush themselves beyond their demise. Blocker in particular gets it twice, and the second time around is enough to make my skin crawl. Also, look out for rocker Alice Cooper as the most murderous of the gathering homeless. He even gets to off a hipster with a fixie. That must have felt good. Cooper also penned a song for the movie, and it can be heard in the background of his murderous scene, but the song "Prince of Darkness" was not released until a year after the film.

Prince of Darkness was the first of ten collaborations between Carpenter and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe, and already the comfort between the two men is apparent on screen. The camera's movements are fluid and perfectly reflexive of the film's tone. Without dropping all kind of spoilers, I would say that the real stunner for me was the shot near the end after the mirror was broken. It's a technique that would all be done digitally now, but it left me wondering how it was achieved even after watching it over again. Carpenter adds his synthy score to the film, and working with sound engineer Alan Howarth, he added an ethereal atmospheric quality to the film's tone. While the film is credited as being written by Martin Quartermass, a reference to the famous fictional British scientist/ adventurer, it was actually penned by John Carpenter. Nigel Kneale, creator of Quatermass, was none too happy with Carpenter for appropriating his character's name especially after his poor experience penning the screenplay for Halloween III: Season of the Witch for Carpenter's production company.

Of all the titles that I've chosen for this list, Prince of Darkness is perhaps the most frightening version of The Devil for me, even though he looks like nothing more than a time capsule full of lime Jell-O. Despite Satan's appearance, and the over the top gore, Prince of Darkness seems firmly rooted in reality. Perhaps it is because the scientifically trained protagonists believe that this skeptical viewer can accept the theological ground on which the movie treads. It also has to do with the skill of John Carpenter as a film maker. While his work in recent years has not met expectations, it is impossible to deny the scope and depth of his career. Carpenter was (and I believe still is) a visionary film maker unafraid to delve into different genres, tackle big issues, and have some fun along the way. For all these reasons and more, Prince of Darkness firmly deserves it's spot at #4 on The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It.

Join me back here again tomorrow for #3, and scroll down below the trailer to check out today's reader picks. This time from my good pal (and 4 time Halloween Top 13 participant) Ryan Harvey of The Realm of Ryan

Bugg Rating



When I think back over the four years of The Halloween Top 13 and of the LBL in general, the thing that stands out most are the friends that I've made. I'm very proud to call Ryan Harvey one of those friends. Not only does he write about all kind of great things from all stripes of geekdom on The Realm of Ryan and Black Gate, he's also a L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future short story winner. If anyone knows about the devil, it must be this guy 'cause he's been making a deal with someone. Without further ado, here's Mr. Harvey's list. 

1. The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976) When I think of “devil movies,” this is the one that immediately pops to mind, even though no devil makes a physical appearance. His son does, however. I think it’s composer Jerry Goldsmith who really plays Old Scratch here, with perhaps the scariest film score ever. A stylish and smart thriller that still packs a wallop all these years later. Ave Satani!

2. Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) Also known as Curse of the Demon for its shortened U.S. release, this is one of the founding movies of both the Anglo Horror cycle and the turn toward contemporary-set horror movies. The demon itself, designed by future James Bond and Stanley Kubrick visual master Ken Adam, is one of the greatest looking monsters in history—the quintessential “demon.”

3. The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1968) One of the finest Hammer Horror films, this one makes Christopher Lee into the hero (bold move) pitted against a Satanic coven in the quiet English countryside. A fiercely directed movie, even if it has a quaint feel to its setting, and the assault of horrors against the heroes inside a magical circle is still shiveringly brilliant.


4. The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle, 1941) This is not a horror film, but it is a great portrayal of the Devil as an icon of American folklore—a peculiar variation on the figure that is unique to the U.S. A famous lawyer clashes in court with the Devil for the soul of man; can’t get more iconic than that. But it’s Walter Huston’s great performance as the Devil that puts this over the top. His is, far and away, my favorite on-screen portrayal of Satan as a character. Every list I’ve seen of “Top 10 Actors to Play the Devil” fails to mention him. Memories are too short.


5. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) If I list The Ninth Gate, I have to include Rosemary’s Baby. Building from Night of the Demon eleven years before, this is another quintessential contemporary-set fright flick, with the nightmare of a Satanic-impregnation dropped into a Manhattan apartment complex with really really annoying neighbors! Showing that humor and horror were co-habiting quite well before An American Werewolf in London.


6. The Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski, 2001) Sometimes I think I am the only fan of this movie, which uses book hunters as its backdrop and mixes in Satan and detective work. My own obsession with old books must have something to do with it. All around fantastic characters, with a scene-stealing Frank Langella as the Satanic power-obsessed tycoon who has had it with the stupid hood-wearing coven silliness. “Boo!”


7. Angel Heart (Alan Parker, 1987) Although this film always makes me wonder, “What is so damn valuable about this guy’s soul?”, it’s still great mash-up of noirand horror, with a wonderfully creepy view of NOLA, plus Bob DeNiro as Lucifer. Love that endless elevator descent to the bottom floor!


8. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) If I didn’t put this film on my list, somebody would want to know why not. I’m not dealing with that sort of hell.

9. Deconstructing Harry (Woody Allen, 1997) An unhappy writer imagines himself going to Hell, where Satan is played by Billy Crystal! Satan’s best bit of philosophy: “Did you ever f**k a blind girl? Oh, they’re so grateful.” Editors note: Being trapped anywhere with Billy Crystal would be my personal hell. 


10. Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987) This is the poorest of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (the others are The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness, the latter one of Carpenter’s most underappreciated film) but it’s damn fun and packed with some whacked pseudo-science explanations for Satan, the Anti-Christ, and the Catholic Church.


11. Fallen (Gregory Hoblit, 1998) A mostly forgotten film for which I have a strange affection. Basically a body-hopping possession story with a demon (a fallen angel), it features a terrific, bleak twist ending. And John Goodman.




12. Exorcist: The Beginning (Renny Harlin, 2004) / Dominion: The Prequel to the Excorcists (Paul Schrader 2005) I am counting these two as one film, because on their own both are terrible. Seen together, they make each other incredibly interesting, since they use the same story and many of the same actors to create two completely different styles. Each movie fails completely in an area where the other succeeds. One of the strangest occurrences in the history of film.

13. Amityville II: The Possession (Damiano Damiani, 1982) The only movie of this series worth watching. The first half of the movie is just grandly crazy, and the second half is a hilariousExorcist rip-off. Yeah, I know that’s not much of a recommendation, but I like the damn thing. Director Damiani is principally a figure of Italian political cinema, and directed one of the best Italian Westerns, A Bullet for the General, so he’s got my respect.

4 comments:

  1. Prince of Darkness has one of my all-time favorite kill scenes with the impalement by bicycle.

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  2. Good to be your friend for four years, too LB! Nice that one of my picks is also your pick for this entry. Got to see Prince of Darkness last month at a screening of all of the Apocalypse trilogy, and John Carpenter introduced them to us on stage!

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  3. Prince of Darkness is Carpenter's most underrated film. It could easily have turned out to be merely silly but in fact it's genuinely chilling.

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  4. jervaise brooke hamsterOctober 31, 2011 at 7:16 AM

    I like Prince of Darkness because when it was released in Oct `87 Heather O`Rourke was still alive, i bet she went to see it dressed as Alice in Wonderland. By the way, i still cant believe that Lisa Blount snuffed it, that bird was so gorgeous back in the late 70`s and early 80`s.

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