The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
--William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming (1919)
I think John Carpenter may have been broken on the wheel during his sojourn through studio filmmaking. Certainly, he was never the same filmmaker after the major studios spit him out at the end of the 1980s. Too much of a maverick, I presume. He couldn't help but chafe at the bit. And it's a shame, too, because early Carpenter was one of the most exciting filmmakers of the 1970s. In any event, after about 1986, Carpenter ceased being an interesting filmmaker. But the decline was slow.
I thought about all of this as I watched Prince of Darkness (1987) the director's first indie film following the financial debacle of Big Trouble in Little China. It's a strange film. On the face of it, it's not really very good. It cobbles together a bunch of sci fi horror ideas that are each suggestive in themselves, then resolutely fails to examine them. Instead, the film devolves into another variation on Night of the Living Dead, by way of Carpenter's own Assault on Precinct 13. It's an exercise in confinement and zombies. Most great films that utilize the ideas of confinement use their settings as a microcosm that lays bare the characters trapped within it. Prince of Darkness barely registers as having characters at all. It has types to feed to the meat grinder.
The story here finds a group of scientists recruited by an esoteric order of Catholic priests who have apparently been holding Satan captive for the last 2000 years. Satan, as postulated by this movie, is an extra-dimensional beastie who had been defeated, but not destroyed, by another extraterrestrial entity named Jesus Christ. To the scientists' horror, the entity is waking up and influencing the world around them. Soon, they're barricaded inside the church where the entity resides, besieged by an army of homeless psychos. Meanwhile, they're being picked off one by one until the entity enacts its master plan.
The screenplay--authored by Carpenter himself as "Martin Quatermass"--is a nod to Nigel Kneale, an association that the director reinforces by allusion through out the film. It's not as cerebral as anything by Kneale, though. This is largely about the gross out, whether through its frequent employment of insects or its means of possession (Satan sort of pisses in his victim's mouths). The endgame of the film involves Satan taking possession of one of the female scientists and enacting a kind of pseudo-pregnancy, which just goes to show that when you dress up a devil movie in scientific jargon, you're still going to end up aping Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist or both, as is the case here. It's surprising, too, to see a palpable fear and disgust of the homeless from Carpenter, whose anti-Reaganism was well known (and which was given full reign in They Live, his next movie). The film's conception of Satan as a jar of swirling green liquid leaves a bit to be desired, too.
The director himself counts this film as the middle film in an apocalyptic trilogy--the other two films are The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness--but this doesn't feel much like either of those two films. What it really feels like is late-period Dario Argento, particularly Trauma or The Stendahl Syndrome, in so far as its narrative is devoted to red meat as a means to draw an audience while the director creates an exercise in pure style. It should be noted, however, that late Argento is every bit as problematic as late-period Carpenter.
And yet, for all of its faults, it does have some arresting images. The way it employs the idea of dreams as transmissions from the future is deployed with expert care, and provides the movie with a memorable ending even if the lead up to it disappoints. The film's use of mirrors as the gateway to another dimension is interesting, too. These points come too late in the movie, though. What sustains the film and makes it worth watching by itself, is Carpenter's eye for creepy widescreen composition. For all its flaws--and they are legion--Prince of Darkness looks great. This is nowhere more evident than in the film's long opening sequence, which could play silent, had Carpenter preferred. It communicates with admirable economy with images alone. One wishes the rest of the film had the same kind of discipline.