Tuesday, February 13, 2018

John Carpenter Revisited: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

“This isn’t a teenage movie.  Many films today are about young people being hip.  But these characters are adults.” – John Carpenter in Fangoria #69 (1987)

I was a teenager when I first saw Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS and I had mixed feelings about it.  On one hand, the film captured the same atmosphere of dread that I loved in HALLOWEEN, THE FOG and THE THING.  On the other hand, it seemed incongruously “talky.”  Much of the dialogue was over my head (I knew nothing about quantum physics), and sometimes seemed downright silly.  As a result, I privately regarded PRINCE OF DARKNESS as an “almost movie” for years.

This was before I discovered the work of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and learned to appreciate a more abstract kind of horror cinema.  When I finally re-watched PRINCE OF DARKNESS in my early 20s, I was much more impressed.  I allowed the atmosphere of dread to infect me emotionally, instead of letting my overactive brain dilute that effect.  I still didn’t know much about quantum physics, but the evocative imagery and the haunting score really stayed with me—so much that I inadvertently cribbed Carpenter’s ending in an early script I wrote. 

Since then, every time I watch PRINCE OF DARKNESS, I like it more and more.  Seeing it soon after I moved to Los Angeles in 2006 (and visiting the church where it was filmed) added an aura of immediacy to the story.  When I watched it last week, I realized that PRINCE OF DARKNESS has actually become my favorite John Carpenter movie—because it resonates for me on many different levels, emotional and intellectual.   

The most striking thing about the film, for me, is still its oppressive tone.  It has an undeniable nightmare quality, a sense of the uncanny, or what Freud called “fear without object.”  From the very beginning, the pacing and the music are brooding and ominous; the imagery (a dead priest, a partial solar eclipse) portentous and elemental.  The film’s atmosphere as a whole is neo-gothic, a vaguely Roman nightmare transplanted into modern Los Angeles.

Carpenter took some of his inspiration from Dario Argento, especially the film INFERNO.  Some critics have pointed out similarities between the courtyard stabbings in both films, but for me the slasher-movie stuff isn’t the strength of either film.  My favorite part of INFERNO is the underwater room sequence; I love how careful and restrained it is.  Argento is usually remembered for the way he visually and aurally assaults audiences with hyper-violent murder set pieces, but I think his greatest strength is his ability to build an aura of nightmarish unreality.  The underwater sequence in INFERNO reveals the director at his dreamiest: luring us into a beautiful, surrealistic trap that we can’t escape from. 

This is exactly the sort of thing that Carpenter does throughout PRINCE OF DARKNESS.  He sets the pace with an opening credits sequence that uses long, languid takes to pull us into his slowly dying world.  In 1987, when MTV-style cutting was the order of the day in horror movies, that took some confidence.  The rest of the film builds just as slowly.

Carpenter was going clearly for the feel of “classic horror”—classic cinematic horror as well as classic literary horror.   Most people know that Carpenter is an H.P. Lovecraft fan, and we can see that author’s influence in the otherworldly creatures in THE THING and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.  But what the director really learned from Lovecraft was how to create an atmosphere of mounting dread.  In several interviews, Carpenter has alluded to Lovecraft’s short story “The Outsider,” about a character who lives in fear of a lurking monster.  When the character finally comes face to face with the monster, he realizes that he’s looking at his own reflection in a mirror.  He is the monster.  Carpenter told biographer Gilles Boulenger, “If I applied anything from [Lovecraft] for PRINCE OF DARKNESS, it was […] the way he built his stories very slowly to reach that gasp.” 

Jean Marais in Jean Cocteau's ORPHEUS (1950)
PRINCE OF DARKNESS also builds to a revealing scene involving a mirror, but the final imagery in Carpenter’s film seems to owe as much to Jean Cocteau’s film ORPHEUS as to Lovecraft.   I don’t know for sure that ORPHEUS was an influence, because I’ve never heard Carpenter say anything about Cocteau—and I have a feeling that he might have mixed feelings about Cocteau’s work in general, because it can be rather pretentious.  Jean Cocteau was not a genre filmmaker; John Carpenter is perhaps the purest genre filmmaker of his generation, so it’s natural that Carpenter should talk about Lovecraft rather than Cocteau. 

Lovecraft’s fiction is about a mythological barrier between our world and a parallel world inhabited by a race of ancient monsters.  Cocteau’s ORPHEUS is about a symbolic barrier between life and death.  When the philosopher-poet at the center of Cocteau’s story (played by Jean Marais) travels to “the other side” via a liquid mirror, a beautiful agent of death (played by Maria Casares) chastises him for crossing a barrier that man was not meant to cross.  Cocteau’s story is modeled on a classical Greek tale about a man who woos the gods, and wins; Lovecraft’s stories are classic apocalyptic Gothic tales, about the meaninglessness of man’s existence in relation to the gods.

The scientists in PRINCE OF DARKNESS find themselves on that same threshold between worlds—but their story is closer to Lovecraft’s, because the “gods” in Carpenter’s story have come to them, not the other way around.  Carpenter once said that his original concept for the film was simple: “The Devil is buried under a Los Angeles church, and graduate students come to fight him.”  To say that PRINCE OF DARKNESS is about fighting the Christian Devil, however, is as reductive as saying that Maria Casares represents Death in Cocteau’s ORPHEUS; she is an agent in a more mysterious mythology of life and death and transformation.  Carpenter’s original idea likewise evolved, and PRINCE OF DARKNESS ultimately became (like Carpenter’s earlier films HALLOWEEN, THE FOG, and THE THING) a film about a fabulous, formless Evil.  

Maria Casares in ORPHEUS (1950)
To be fair, Carpenter probably never thought too seriously about the Christian Devil when he was making PRINCE OF DARKNESS—because he doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in the Christian Devil.  Carpenter’s formative influences were not Greek mythology and Christian theology, but British and American genre movies of the 1950s and 60s.  Foremost among these movies was the work of playwright and screenwriter Nigel Kneale, the man responsible for the QUATERMASS series (produced by the BBC, and later remade by Hammer Films) and THE STONE TAPE (BBC).  Kneale, like the American writer Richard Matheson, often told stories about cosmic horror subjected to the scrutiny of modern science.  His greatest achievement is arguably QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, about a group of scientists who examine evidence of an ancient-but-advanced alien civilization buried beneath the streets of London. That story has much in common with PRINCE OF DARKNESS.

Carpenter acknowledged his debt to Kneale in the opening credits of PRINCE OF DARKNESS, by attributing his own original screenplay to “Martin Quatermass.”   I don’t think he did this because he felt like he was ripping off Kneale’s story, but because he was aspiring to Kneale’s kind of horror.  The older writer once said, “If you can’t involve people’s imagination beyond the stage of look-behind-you, you miss a great deal.  I mean, the raising of a whole structure of ideas that should tingle in the audience’s mind long afterwards.”  Carpenter had already mastered the look-behind-you experience with HALLOWEEN; now he was digging deeper—and, like Professor Quatermass, examining the darkness and devilish forces that hide within the marrow of our world. 

Kneale might have provided the inspiration, but he didn’t provide the science, which Carpenter culled from his own private reading.   At some point in the early to mid-1980s, he encountered a nonfiction book called The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature by American physicist Heinz Pagels.  In a 2012 interview, Carpenter remembered, “That book described the subatomic world and its physical properties—and lack of them—and my mind was blown!  I thought, ‘Where has this been?  Why has nobody ever talked about this before?’  I felt there was something about quantum mechanics and particle physics that could work as a horror film.”

Pagels wrote that contemporary discoveries in the field of quantum physics demanded “a new picture of reality requiring a conversion of our imagination.”  He explained that quantum reality is “rational but not visualizable,” and that it can only be perceived intellectually, through the use of symbols and metaphors.  He went even further to say the use of symbols and metaphors not only depicts, but dramatically alters, the deeper reality—because physicists have proven that, on the subatomic level, the mere act of observation changes the thing observed.  In other words: Storytelling can transform reality at the deepest and most fundamental level.

This makes me think of something that John Carpenter said to me when I interviewed him in 2008.  We were talking about some of his favorite movies of the 1950s and he said, basically, “You have to understand that these movies made me who I am—not just as a filmmaker, but as a person.”  I told him I understood, because his movies have done the same thing for me.  I am who I am because of certain storytelling influences, and I know from experience that movies—like all art—can change the world by changing the way we view the world.  That said, I can imagine (to a certain degree) how reading The Cosmic Code might have affected John Carpenter in the mid-80s.  I certainly remember how a similar book (Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics) affected my own worldview in the early 2000s; for me, there was a distinct “before” and “after.”  While a reader is fully engaged with a book like that, the past and the future are being rewritten for them.  

Pagels wrote a lot about the past and the future.  He suggested that if we mentally project ourselves back before the Big Bang, when the known universe was just “primordial matter soup,” then we can imagine/create an alternate beginning.  Instead of hearing the Biblical cry of “let there be light,” we might hear the scientist’s “let there be symmetry.”  According to Pagels, the Big Bang transformed the primordial matter soup into contradictory parts: something and nothing, energy and vacuum, matter and anti-matter.  Carpenter heard that message, and imported it into his film in the vaguely religious symbolism of “God” and “Anti-God.”  In PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the latter has an opportunity to infect the modern world.  And “infect” is the optimal word…. The plot of the film revolves around an ancient canister of primordial soup gone bad.  When that canister is opened, Evil begins to spread like a virus.  That’s a notion of apocalypse that a filmmaker can visualize, and one that horror movie audiences (in 2018, if not in 1987) can certainly understand.

In his book, Pagels relates two theories about the end of the world as we know it.  Either (1) we exist in an open universe that will expand forever, pulling us away from the sun until our planet freezes to death, or (2) we exist in a closed universe that will eventually contract, until everything is re-absorbed into primordial matter soup.  Of course, Pagels stipulates, neither of these things is going to happen for a very, very long time—so it shouldn’t keep us awake at night.

PRINCE OF DARKNESS prophesies a much nearer apocalypse, apparently culminating in the year 1999.  At that point, it seems, the virus has spread across the earth and the Anti-God reigns—but someone has learned how to project a warning back through time, into the dreams of the physicists studying the canister of evil goo in 1987.  This plot twist was apparently inspired by Gregory Benford’s 1980 sci-fi novel Timescape, about scientists who communicate across time by using tachyon particles.  In both stories, the messengers from the future deliver a warning to the past, along with a promise: You have a choice about what kind of world you co-create.  

Carpenter’s film revolves around two groups of people that are working to determine the fate of humanity.  On one side is the group of physicists, led by Professor Birack (Victor Wong, in a role that recalls his sage-like character Egg Shen in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) and Donald Pleasance as Father Loomis (an obvious correlative to his character in HALLOWEEN).  On the other side is a horde of violent street people, led by shock rocker Alice Cooper.  These “bad guys” are pretty one-note, developed no further than the creepy-crawly bugs that live and breed in their tattered clothes.  (Once again, Dario Argento seems to be a significant influence.)  That apparently bothered some viewers, who complained that Carpenter was vilifying homeless people. 

Alice Cooper in PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)
Taken within the context of a single film, it’s a fair criticism—but I think there’s a broader context worth considering.   In a 2003 interview, Carpenter explained his depiction of the street people: “At the time, I was reading an old review about how the brain works.  It was talking about schizophrenia, and it described a woman who was speaking in a different language and making motions with her hands as if guided by some other force.  It was really creepy to me, and I thought that the almost schizophrenics were maybe more susceptible to this power.”  In a 2012 interview, he reiterated, “The street people were meant to be schizophrenics that were susceptible to the evil’s power and influence.”  His goal was not to vilify the homeless or persons suffering from mental illness, but to convey how terrifying mental illness can be.  If you’ve ever been close to anyone who suffers from schizophrenia, then you understand the very real horror of belief constituting reality.  Schizophrenics live in a horror movie that no one else recognizes as a horror movie.

That’s a concept that Carpenter would go on to explore much more effectively in his 1995 film IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, and in his 2010 film THE WARD.  It’s also an idea that appears briefly in Heinz Pagels’ book.  Toward the end of The Cosmic Code, the author remembers a meeting he once had with a mentally-ill man who described to him “how alien beings from outer space had invaded the earth.” According to this young man, “aliens” were not little green or gray beings, but rather a “mental substance” that infects human minds, and controls human actions “through the creations of science and technology.”

Why did Pagels include this anecdote in a nonfiction book about quantum physics?  Because he recognized that there is some truth in the young man’s supposed “delusions.”  It is true, Pagels wrote, “that science and technology come from ‘outside’ the realm of human experience,” and he recognizes that “what may be perceived as threatening in this alien contact is that scientists, in reading the cosmic code, have entered into the invisible structures of the universe.”  When scientists study deep reality, they are changing deep reality.  By pursuing knowledge, they could be creating a gothic monster.  Of course, in a balanced universe, they could also be creating the monster’s opposite.

Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount in PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)
Maria Casares and Jean Marais in ORPHEUS (1950)
On that note, it’s appropriate that one of the scientists in PRINCE OF DARKNESS tries to balance out the darkness with a contrasting light.   The light in Carpenter’s story is the relationship between two physicists who fall in love while the world is dying around them.  It is tempting to compare the love story between Brian Marsh (played by Jameson Parker) and Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount) to the relationship between the philosopher-poet and the female agent of death in Cocteau’s ORPHEUS.  In both films, the female character compassionately sacrifices herself at the end.  In ORPHEUS, that sacrifice allows the male character to survive and keep evolving.  In PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the sacrifice allows humanity at large to survive and keep evolving. 

For anyone who views PRINCE OF DARKNESS as a story about the Christian Devil, Catherine Danforth might be regarded as a Christ-like figure… but no true H.P. Lovecraft fan could leave it at that.  In the final scene of the film, Brian Marsh is haunted by visions—seemingly projected into his dreams from the year 1999—of Catherine as a kind of bride of the Anti-God.  His visions suggest that the woman he loves has been thoroughly corrupted, and will only return to “our world” as a devil.  The final emotional note in the film is a combination of heartbreak and horror.  When Marsh wakes up and approaches a nearby mirror, it is with overwhelming dread about what really exists on the other side.  Carpenter wisely leaves it at that; the rest is darkness and imagination.