The Movies That Made Me Weird(er): Prince of Darkness

29 05 2011

When I was just a wee girl I used to check the TV listings for the local stations that played movies all night long. If I found an intriguing title (anything with ‘damned’ or ‘blood’ in it was a surefire winner) or a cool old horror story or space opera that would be playing on the late late movie, I’d set my alarm and creep downstairs to watch it–usually sitting about two feet from the TV with the sound low so I wouldn’t wake my parents. The Movies That Made Me Weird(er) is a look back at the films that populated my childhood dreamscape.

Any one of John Carpenter’s early films could qualify as a childhood favorite of mine: Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing…and those are just the ones I watched over and over. Starman and Assault on Precinct 13 are also pretty fuckin’ sweet. Then, of course, there is THE GREATEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME–which, you guys, I seriously don’t think I could even write about it because I love it SO MUCH.  I am not even exaggerating a little bit.

So Prince of Darkness (1987) might seem an odd choice to cover here. I graduated from high school the year before it was released, which means I wasn’t exactly a kid when I saw it for the first time. And it’s far from my favorite Carpenter film. But it belongs here because of its thematic similarity to our previous Movie That Made Me Weird. (It’s also noteworthy because it has a scary bit that is SO SCARY that I’ve never watched it all the way through.)

“Thematic similarity” is a bit of an understatement. Carpenter wrote the script under the pseudonym “Martin Quatermass” and the plot is basically an homage to Five Million Years to Earth; instead of the Space Devil residing in a crashed spacecraft, it lives in a huge vat of swirling green liquid in the basement of an abandoned church in a not-so-affluent part of Los Angeles.

Somebody ought to clean out the fishtank.

Instead of regular normal townsfolk becoming ESP-wielding racial cleansers, a mob of mentally-ill homeless people led by Alice Cooper serve as Satan’s footsoldiers. And, in addition to the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis re: the Source of Ultimate Evil, we get quantum physics, time travel, ruminations on the nature of reality, an AIDS subtext, and a thuddingly lifeless love story.

Also: this mustache.

Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance, who played Dr. Loomis in Halloween) enlists theoretical physics Professor Birack (Victor Wong, who played Egg Shen in Big Trouble in Little China) to help him figure out the nature and purpose of the big cylinder full of swirly liquid he finds in the basement of the church. Egg Shen Birack volunteers a few of his grad-level theoretical physics students (along with students from other departments with skills that might come in handy) to spend a fun-filled weekend at the abandoned church.

Among the group are Captain Mustache (Jameson Parker, from the ’80s ‘My Parents Watch This’ show Simon and Simon) and Sourpuss (Lisa Blount, Blind Fury), grad students of Egg Shen Birack’s who have begun a chemistry-less romantic relationship with each other.

Who can turn the world on with her smile?

Their motivation for getting together seems to have more to do with not wanting to be alone than with any real connection between them. Captain Mustache is into card tricks as a way of trying to understand probabilities and outcomes. Sourpuss is pretty much just focused on being aloof and finding the deeper meaning in differential equations and such.

At first, the weirdness level is pretty low; there are odd swarms of ants on the ground, clusters of worms climbing the windows (!), and the Alice Cooper Homeless Brigade are acting less schizophrenic than usual–they’re sort of organized into a mute staring Neighborhood Watch.

Welcome Wagon.

There’s a strange (and, I’m pretty sure, impossible) planetary alignment building in the heavens, and that green liquid is starting to swirl around and do stuff.   Lisa, a doctoral candidate in theology, works to decipher the ancient text that Dr. Father Loomis found near the cylinder. Her analysis reveals that 1.) the verses in the text are coded differential equations (or something like that) and 2.) the stuff in the cylinder is basically Devil Juice…From Space. The data collected by the other students indicates that the Devil Juice is self-organizing and possibly becoming sentient, which is a bit worrisome.

That night, Etchinson (a stereotypical ’80s nerd with glasses and one of those awful knit ties) leaves the church when his work is finished–apparently he’s not considered crucial to the mission or whatever. Anyway, he finds a crucified pigeon outside. Then the homeless mob cuts off his escape routes so that Alice Cooper can demonstrate the deadly art of Bike-Fu, which is apparently an actual thing that he invented and used in his real-life stage shows. The bike he uses to impale Nerdlinger J. Poindexter was, in fact, Cooper’s own prop.

The Devil Juice, meanwhile, has begun to drip upwards out of the cylinder onto the ceiling and infect members of the research team, starting with Susan the radiologist (I think? Kelly might be the radiologist, not Susan, but whatev. Susan is definitely the one who gets the first blast of Devil Juice to the face, at any rate.) She snaps the neck of one of her co-workers and sets off to share delicious Devil Juice with everyone else.

Meanwhile, Egg Shen Birack and Dr. Father Loomis begin to put the pieces together and theorize that the Devil Juice, which is basically Satan, is the son of “Anti God” in the same way that Jesus is the son of God. Anti God is bound to the realm of antimatter like God is bound to matter. Oh, and also Jesus was sent from space (or the Space Dimension or whatever) to help us understand and combat Satan, as their two fathers battle over who gets control of our world.

Sure, it sounds crazy. But do these guys look crazy to you?

Chuck the bio-chem dude (whose chinos are so tight you can count his individual ass hairs) is very skeptical of this line of reasoning. Rather than calling bullshit on it, however, he calls ‘caca’, ’cause he’s hardcore like that. Anyway, he takes his chino-encased ass outside and is promptly dispatched by a homeless lady with half a pair of scissors. There are a lot of bugs around. This will matter in a moment.

More of the ancient text is deciphered. A strange symbol is accompanied by the words, ‘Be you not deceived of his purpose, for one will be chosen.’ Captain Mustache’s wooden ship of a girlfriend notices that Kelly’s got a big bruise on her arm, and also a mark in the shape of that strange symbol. They fail to connect the dots (even though that’s a REALLY WEIRD bruise) and Kelly goes off to take a nap.

Perfectly normal bruising. Nothing to see here.

While Sourpuss and Kelly are busy NOT GETTING IT, Susan the possible radiologist is barfing a bunch of Devil Juice into Lisa the theologian. Now, I don’t know about you guys, but whenever unwelcome and/or unexpected fluids come flying at my face, my instinct is to SHUT EVERYTHING. Eyes, mouth, pretty much all my face holes. In this movie, Devil Juice comes shooting out at people and they all OPEN THEIR MOUTHS.

This is a REALLY ineffective strategy for keeping Devil Juice out of your face holes.

The people who haven’t yet been killed or spewed upon are all starting to have the same dream whenever they doze off. The dream contains images of an indistinct, ominous-looking figure in the entryway of the church and a scratchy-sounding audio transmission ‘from the year one-nine-nine-nine.’

SO CREEPY.

It starts with fragments, but each time they fall asleep the dream is longer, with slightly different details. These dream sequences are by far the coolest thing in this movie; they are creepy and atmospheric and much more effective than movie dream sequences usually are.

Here’s the text of the transmission they hear in their dreams:  This is not a dream… not a dream. We are using your brain’s electrical system as a receiver. We are unable to transmit through conscious neural interference. You are receiving this broadcast as a dream. We are transmitting from the year one, nine, nine, nine. You are receiving this broadcast in order to alter the events you are seeing. Our technology has not developed a transmitter strong enough to reach your conscious state of awareness, but this is not a dream. You are seeing what is actually occurring for the purpose of causality violation.

Dr. Father Loomis explains that everyone who falls asleep near the church ends up having the same dream. He calls it the Brotherhood of Sleep. The science folk theorize and speculate about tachyons that move so fast that they travel into the past to change the future and other stuff that sounds like Star Trek Technobabble.

Calder, the Cheerful Black Guy, pops by to say hi to Lisa, who is zombied out and typing I LIVE! over and over again. Then she types the following friendly words of encouragement: “You will not be saved by the Holy Ghost. You will not be saved by the God Plutonium. In fact, YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED.” Then the Sisterhood of Devil Juice double-teams him in order to share their refreshing beverage.

Outside, Snuggie Slacks Chuck (‘member him?) is calling out to our gang of heroes. They gather at the window and he tells them to PRAY FOR DEATH. Then his head falls off as he is devoured from the inside by countless bugs. It’s pretty awesome. His voice even sounds all buggy and gross.

The Sisterhood of Devil Juice brings the cylinder to the room where Kelly’s having her nap. The cylinder opens and empties the Devil Juice into Kelly’s body. This basically turns Kelly into Satan, and ruins her complexion. Kelly gets to work bringing her new FAAATHER through to our dimension. A mirror is necessary to this process, and she first tries with a small compact makeup mirror, which can’t handle the task. Then she finds a nice big wall mirror and sticks her arm into that.

Like so.

Dr. Father Loomis tries to stop her by cutting off the arm with an ax. The severed arm goes floating into the mirror realm, and Kelly grows another arm. Loomis changes tactics and chops off her head, which she picks up with her freshly regrown arm and sets back onto her neck.

Nice.

Then she traps Loomis behind a furnace and sticks her arm in the mirror again. This time, FAAAATHER’s hand grabs onto hers and she starts to pull him through. His hand is, unfortunately, rather comical-looking. I mean, the shot is nicely done, and the mirror effect is suitably creepy and dreamlike. It’s just that the hand itself looks like Space Devil Action Figure with Kung Fu Grip.

Unconvincing.

Sourpuss watches as Kelly hauls a good bit of FAAAATHER’s arm through the mirror. Realizing that she’s the only one who can do anything about it–since everyone else is either a Devil Juice zombie, fighting with a Devil Juice zombie, or stuck behind a furnace–she finally works up something approaching an emotion and tackles Kelly and dives with her through the mirror into the other dimension. It seems like she could have just pushed her, but whatever. She sacrifices herself and Dr. Father Loomis tosses his ax at the mirror, shattering it and trapping Sourpuss on the other side.

Captain Mustache is pretty upset about this.

Now we’re in the dream transmission again. Only this time, instead of the shadowy figure from before, it’s Sourpuss who stands in the entry of the church. Captain Mustache starts awake, all sweaty and stuff, then looks over to see Sourpuss in bed with him, but all pizza faced like Kelly. Then he wakes up for real this time, safe and sound.

Maybe.

***

There’s a definite AIDS subtext in this film, what with the transmission of fluids as the vector for infection, and some of the scenes where the zombies treat the uninfected to some Devil Juice have definite homoerotic undertones (in 1987, AIDS was still new, poorly understood, and associated mainly with the gay community.) Alienation and isolation are themes here as well, and the mind-controlled homeless mob is a commentary on one of the most basic fears of modern society: becoming homeless, or getting your stuff taken by someone who is.

The ’80s were not awesome for most people, and Prince of Darkness is sort of about that. This was the first movie Carpenter made after the box-office failure of GREATEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME (I’m serious) Big Trouble in Little China, and the comedown from the highs of being a big-budget, big-movie director was a blow. His downbeat attitude infuses Prince of Darkness with a bleakness and coldness that ultimately makes it work, despite its problems.

And there are plenty of those. The performances are often perfunctory, some of the FX are pretty subpar (that ridonkulous devil hand!) and the third act devolves into a basic zombie fight that’s a bit disappointing after all the buildup about ancient scriptures and tachyon transmissions from the future and the mirrors of reality. But there is a real and pervading sense of doom and several haunting images that make this movie stick long after you’ve watched it.

So what about that part of the movie that I still can’t watch to this day? It’s those damned dream transmissions. Each one of them creeps me out, but the tension of the last one is just UNBEARABLE to me. Here’s the clip. It’s not gross or anything:

Now, I know what happens in the dream. I just. Can’t. Watch. As the POV gets closer and closer to the door, I start to shrink away and look anywhere but at the screen. I did it just now when I watched the above clip. The part immediately following, the part with the pizza face wake-up call? Doesn’t bother me at all. But that dream…it works on me every time.

Prince of Darkness gets three out of five vats of Devil Juice from your humble blogger. Now, if you are offended by religious horror, then this movie is not for you, obvi. But if you like Bike Fu, window worms, sexy mustaches and ’80s ladies in big old shouldamapads, check it out. It’s on DVD, available for streaming on Netflix, and shows up on cable from time to time.

Here are some fun GIFs of Captain Mustache waking up to terror, courtesy of YTMND.

Next up: Last Man on Earth (1964)

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