Quantum creeps

by Scooter McCrae

Prince of Darkness is an often strange, sometimes terrific but in the end flawed movie that defies broad categorization in a genre known for occasionally creating rigid protective boundaries between what constitutes a horror film and what is science fiction, despite obvious crossover between these forms. Sure, Alien and Galaxy of Terror (to name but two of many) transpose haunted-house tropes into outer space, but rare is the movie that uses theoretical science to explore the nature of our universal fears, and then extrapolates something that posits science and superstition walking hand in hand.

Leave it to John Carpenter to concoct what could well be one of the only horror features that focuses on particle physics for its shock factor. It’s clear Carpenter not only did his quantum-theory homework, but was also very imaginative when it came to connecting the dots between ancient religious conceits and the mysteries inherent in this relatively young field of science. In the end, the film—which plays like a fever-dream remembrance of Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods spliced with a body-count flick—doesn’t achieve the very high level it sets for itself, but it succeeds at doing the legacy of acknowledged master writer of all genres Nigel Kneafe proud—especially as the film Prince most lovingly references is Kneale’s classic Quatermass and the Pit, a genre masterpiece in either its live BBC- TV broadcast or the Hammer film adaptation of that classic show.

It would also be impossible to discount the effect that working with Kneale on Halloween III probably had on this project (and eventually In the Mouth of Madness), even if Kneale ultimately had his name removed from the sequel’s screenplay credit. Before Prince, Carpenter’s science fiction films were firmly rooted in the established notions of what that genre consists of—spaceships and aliens and smart computers and fantastic weaponry—but with Prince, there is the distinct influence of Kneale’s pet themes upon a story that encompasses the confluence between science, religion and folklore to contain the ultimate evil from being unleashed upon the Earth. Carpenter’s conjecture that the Church is a thousand-year-old scam put into place to keep the human population under control, until science could evolve to the point of taking action against the supernatural, is an idea Kneale himself would probably have been proud of.

Much like another film that took a risk with audience expectations, John Boorman’s Exor­cist II: The Heretic (a misunderstood examination of the intersection between faith and science), Prince also fails when turning toward the more horrific elements, as the sci-fi trappings are the most intriguing part of the equation. Indeed, while science fiction fans are probably more tolerant of horrific elements accidentally spilling over into the edges into their cinema, some horror buffs may be less tolerant of the results of these kinds of crossovers, where the logic of science somehow invades the illogic of what frightens us.

Like the work of an eager fanboy who peppers his movie with characters named after influences, Carpenter’s film abounds with namechecks. There’s a reference to Kneale University, the church where the sinister canister containing Satan is being constrained is called Saint Godard’s (as in revered French director Jean-Luc) and there’s a character named Wyndham (after famed author John, who most memorably wrote the novel The Day of the Triffids as well as The Midwich Cuckoos, which Carpenter would film as the second version of Village of the Damned eight years later). The most up-front admission of debt appears in the opening credits, as the director’s screenplay is attributed to “Martin Quater­mass”—which, under the circumstances, serves as a protective balm against any claim of story thievery that a knowledgeable viewer might try to level at the film.

Carpenter is an expert at making people running around in dark hallways somehow feel like an appropriate symbolic reduction to represent the literal end of the world when the narrative begins tearing everything apart. As the tension ratchets up, it is palpable and exciting. But even with that, the film would benefit greatly by losing the baser trappings involving the scientists leaving the church to be attacked by homeless people (led by Alice Cooper), which feels more like unintentional comedy than horror. Cutting away from the claustrophobic tension of the interiors to the outside world dilutes much of the growing menace and distracts from the main focus; the Antarctic base in The Thing was an effective cage for those characters, and the isolation it represented created unresolved menace. There’s a schizophrenic quality to Prince’s story structure that spends a good deal of time establishing the quantum-science aspects (many based on actual theories) and personal interactions— until it eventually devolves into a variation on the stalk-and-slash subgenre, with occasional breaks for scientific reflection when characters aren’t being separated from each other to wander down those dark halls or seemingly abandoned alleyways.

Another flaw in the storytelling that impacts upon the film’s climax is that there is no discussion among the scientists about ancient metallurgy and folk tales that would give an explanation as to why Donald Pleasence’s priest tossing a fire ax into a mirror would do so much damage to Satan. Here, Carpenter is probably overtly quoting Quatermass and the Pit, which established that the devil has a weakness against iron. In folklore, horseshoes are considered good luck because they’re made out of that material; one well-known story relates how in 959 A.D., the Archbishop of Canterbury, a blacksmith by trade, nailed a horseshoe to one of the devil’s hooves while in the midst of reshoeing Satan’s horse. The Archbishop agreed to remove the horseshoe from the much-pained devil only if he promised never to enter a place that had an iron shoe hung over its doorway. Perhaps a scene discussing such concepts was shot and never used, or was deemed unnecessary to provide such a blunt explanation, but considering how many other anomalies of science are openly examined in Prince, it seems an odd absence of exposition that might make things clearer for the audience.

Maybe I’m being a bit too harsh on a movie that I want to match my expectations of what it’s attempting to do—my initial disappointment with it for being a sci-fi film that ends up as a horror film is probably exactly what seasoned moviemaker Carpenter intended all along, so I cannot hold it against Prince for being something that it isn’t. To its credit, the film’s ideas still feel very fresh 25 years after the fact, and it does succeed on many weird and wonderful levels. Much like satanic liquid in a receptacle, the film continues to grow on me, and my admiration for it increases with each passing year. It’s hard to think of another contemporary moviemaker who places enough trust in his audience to make a movie this smart and raises so many issues about beliefs that are thousands of years old and ingrained in the mass consciousness. Prince of Darkness remains a compelling classic on a number of levels, despite its flaws.

SOURCE: Fangoria Legends Presents: John Carpenter – #2 (2013)