Friday, October 9, 2009

Film Friday: Prince of Darkness (1987)

Continuing our discussion of the nature of evil, today we turn to John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. This relatively unknown movie is one of my favorite horror movies and is possibly Carpenter’s best. What separates this movie from the pack is the clever manipulation of our emotions to generate fear and the use of intellectual horror to create a terrifying movie. In essence, it inspires helplessness.

** spoiler alert **

The Plot
As an old priest dies, the last member of a forgotten order -- the Brotherhood of Sleep, Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence) is sent to wrap up his affairs. Pleasence discovers something in the basement of the closed church where the old priest lived as a caretaker: a glass cylinder containing a swirling green fluid. Pleasence calls upon Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong), an expert in subatomic physics. Wong agrees to bring a group of students from several scientific disciplines to examine the cylinder. This group includes Jameson Parker (Simon and Simon) and his love-interest Catherine (Lisa Blount).

As they begin their investigation, they learn the object does not obey the normal laws of physics, and it's locked from the inside. They also begin to experience the same dream whenever anyone takes a nap. This dream purports to be a warning from the future of something evil that emerges from the church. Meanwhile, Pleasence and Wong study the diary of the old priest, which identifies the green fluid as the Antichrist. And it’s alive.
What Sets This Movie Apart
What sets Prince of Darkness apart from other horror movies is that Carpenter seeks to generate emotional and intellectual terror rather than shock to drive this film.
Emotional Terror
To create emotional terror, Carpenter uses our fear of helplessness against us. He does this by putting the characters into a creepy setting, exposing them to danger of which we are aware, and then making them oblivious until it is too late.

Carpenter starts with a truly creepy setting: an old church. But, interestingly, he doesn’t cheat to make it creepy, as so many other horror movies do -- think about how many horror movies take place in decaying castles with rooms that scream “fire damage” or spaceships, e.g. the Event Horizon, decorated with black walls and random spikes sticking from the walls. Indeed, the church is exactly what you would expect. Its room are the right size and shape. The walls are painted like you would expect for an old church. The floors are made of wood and the furniture fits the decor. You wouldn’t want to live there, but you wouldn’t run for your life either. This is the kind of building we’ve all been in and can relate to and that gives the movie an instant authenticity that so many horror movies sacrifice in trying to create their ambiance.

Carpenter then makes the church feel claustrophobic by making us feel trapped. When the scientists arrive at the church, we see homeless people gathering outside. As the movie runs, more and more gather, and soon we realize there will be no escaping the church. Yet, we recognize the danger long before the characters do. This not only triggers our fear of being trapped, but it also triggers our natural instinct to help others. But since we cannot help them, we feel helpless, which brings on a sense of fear.

Carpenter then plays on our fear of being alone, our fear of losing our identities, and our fear of betrayal. As the thing in the basement begins to take people over one at a time, we find ourselves terrified as we helplessly watch unsuspecting students and scientists milling around as the possessed people approach them. There is little more terrifying than watching a monster slowly walking toward an unsuspecting character. What’s worse, everything that happens is avoidable if only the characters could put all of their knowledge together, but they cannot -- only we can, and we cannot help them. This fills each scene with terror as we can see the danger standing there in plain sight, but the characters simply cannot see it for themselves. Thus, the film fills us with a sense of helplessness in the face of this terror.

Also, the entire time, Carpenter cleverly uses the soundtrack to manipulate us. The music sits entirely in the background and you barely notice it. Yet, Carpenter uses the bass to drive your heart rate -- just as sitcoms use laugh tracks to trigger laughter. In this way, he expertly controls the tension of each scene without the audience even realizing it.
Intellectual Horror
In addition to playing on our emotions, Carpenter offers genuine intellectual horror -- something increasingly rare in horror movies. Intellectual horror comes not from shock, but from finding something that terrifies the audience deeply and putting them into a state of mind where their deepest fears could be realized. In this regard, Carpenter aims right at the heart of our belief system: be it religion or science.

What Pleasence discovers in the diary of the dead priest is fascinating and terrifying. Pleasence discovers that Christ was real, though he was merely an advanced being, not the son of God. His purpose in coming to Earth was to warn mankind that an evil creature, a sort of Anti-God, was trying to break into the universe. To help this Anti-God achieve that goal, there was an Antichrist (the son of the Anti-God) who would open a doorway. But Jesus trapped the Antichrist in the cylinder and gave the cylinder to the human race to guard.

This discovery causes Pleasence to lose his faith. He realizes this Anti-God is real evil, and it horrifies him that the church decided mankind wasn't ready for this knowledge and decided instead to treat evil as a theoretical concept to be found within each of us. Consequently, not only is his theology premised on a lie, but mankind has failed to heed the warning of Jesus and now stands unprepared to combat this evil.

But, at the same time, the movie tells us that science is wrong as well. Not only are the rational scientists given undeniable proof of the supernatural, but they are confronted with the realization that everything they thought was true about the universe is false, and the laws of physics which they thought controlled the universe are in fact meaningless. Indeed, this creature obeys no laws of physics. Interestingly, this is essentially how science would define “evil” if it were asked -- a lack of order or structure to the universe.

Accordingly, we are confronted with a world in which the things we rely upon to explain the world -- religion and science -- are suddenly shown to be false. Intellectually, there can be little more terrifying than realizing that nothing we know is true. Not to mention that we now know there is something nightmarish waiting to break into our universe and there are fates worse than death.

In the middle of this, Carpenter raises questions of self-sacrifice. What would you do to save the world? And to what could you condemn another person to save the world? Moreover, Carpenter smartly lets the characters engage in discussions of theology and scientific theory throughout the film. Thus, he puts the audience into the right mindset to consider these issues as they arise -- unlike most horror movies which simply dump these questions on the audience unexpectedly at the end.
The Dream
Finally, we must mention the dream, which Carpenter uses expertly. First, by having everyone have the same dream, we grasp that the dream must be something other than everyone just having nightmares, i.e. it is a real warning. Secondly, by letting the dream unfold in pieces, Carpenter gives the audience time to speculate as to its meaning and how it will finish. When you let the audience fill in the blanks, as Carpenter does, they will always find something more terrifying than you can present because they will fill in with the things that scare them personally. But most importantly, Carpenter uses the dream to raise the odds the characters face. In a normal horror movie, good will defeat evil unless evil achieves some goal. But here, we know from the dream that a future exists where evil has prevailed. Thus, rather than fighting to prevent something that is in doubt, these characters are struggling to overturn something that appears inevitable. Intellectually, this raises the level of the challenge significantly. And since we’ve been told that neither science nor religion has the answer, we have no idea how we can fight this thing, i.e. we are left intellectually helpless. Thus, the audience spends the movie struggling to find the answer to avoid a nightmare that seems inevitable. That is intellectual terror.

Try finding that in a slasher flick!

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13 comments:

BevfromNYC said...

Interesting that you should pick this title. Somehow it seems fitting after this morning's stunning announcement from Oslo - Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize!!!! For what???

ScottDS said...

I'm not a big horror fan and I haven't seen this film (or most of Carpenter's movies) but it sounds like I'll have to give it a shot! For some reason, horror movies that deal with Biblical elements (The Omen, for example) seem that much scarier since, even though I'm not religious myself, there's simply something in the collective unconscious that makes us fear ultimate evil.

I probably could've phrased that a little better. :-)

And great call on the production design. Event Horizon has some good atmosphere but it's like, "Really? Why would anyone design a spaceship that looks like a level from Super Mario Brothers?"

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, it was purely coincidence. . . though it makes you wonder.

Sadly, it really doesn't surprise me, given the history of the Nobel Prize. I think others should now follow suit -- Best in Show perhaps?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think the thing that terrifies us about "Biblical evil", i.e. Satan, is that while we can handle the idea of pain or death, the idea that there is a fate worse than death is truly terrifying.

Even if you don't believe the precise religious formula used by movies like this, i.e. you don't share that religion or that interpretation, you can still equate it to your own belief that somehow you are something more than just a lump of flesh, and you can feel the terror that there might be suffering beyond simply being killed.

Think about it this way, no matter how horrible the death, we can always console ourselves that post-death, we go to a better place. A movie like this calls that into question and suggests that if this Anti-God succeeds, you are staring at eternal horror.

That is the kind of thinking that I think lifts these types of movies above movies that traffic in just fear of pain or death.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. On production design, I think that the better horror movies always find ways to make the movie as realistic as possible, so that the audience doesn't need to struggle to get into the movie.

That's not to say that there aren't tricks you can use to make it more creepy, but movies that jump right into unrealistic settings right away lose points with audiences that are very hard to make up later.

Writer X said...

You had me at Alice Cooper. I'll be looking for this movie this weekend.

As an aside, years ago my sister and I were at a local bar in Scottsdale. This weird guy dressed all in black with stringly black hair asked my sister to dance; she turned him down. The bartender later told us it was Alice Cooper. BTW, he is a super-nice guy, still lives in Phoenix, and does a lot for local charities. He wrote a book a few years ago how playing golf turned his life around.

P.S. The Nobel Peace Prize? I'm still trying to digest that tidbit!

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I've heard Cooper's a nice guy, though I have no personal knowledge. He does a great job as the leader of the homeless.

Let us know what you think after you watch it!

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Re: production design, a good example of that I think is The Shining. It's just a nice (albeit secluded) hotel, with the usual offices, kitchens, rooms, etc.

But almost every other filmmaking "device" makes the place scary: the music (mostly Penderecki and Ligeti), Kubrick's choice of camera angles (those shots looking down the corridors), the sound design, etc.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I agree. And the fact that the place is so normal is what makes it all the more real when the other tricks are used to make it creepy. When a movie gets heavy handed and obvious, it loses that sense of realism and becomes fantasy horror.

Plus you're right, the music, the camera angles, and the choice of lens are all tools that help make the movie so gripping. But best of all, they are used so well that you don't even notice the effect they have on your emotions. Thus, your unease feels natural rather than induced, which makes it stronger.

CrispyRice said...

I like to think I'd notice if a zombie-like Alice Cooper began hanging around outside my front door...

But I'm with WriterX. Alice Cooper seems like a nice guy. Hey, he did The Muppet Show, what could be better? :D

Good analysis, though, Andrew. I'm up for intellectual horror, but gore turns me off, so I tend to shy away from the entire genre.

AndrewPrice said...

CrispyRice, Cooper was great in Wayne's World too.

I prefer intellectual horror as well. Especially with horror movies, I like movies that keep you thinking later. Gore never does that, it just grosses you out while you're watching it.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I really enjoyed the movie, and its theological implications (though I don't agree with some of them). I had forgotten how long ago I saw it (when it first came out), but realized while I was reading your review that my son wanted to see it but I had to take him because he wasn't old enough to drive yet. I agree on the Alice Cooper part. He was great. Still, I remember thinking at the time that they hired him because he wouldn't have to change his makeup for the part.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I wouldn't expect anyone to agree with the theological implications, but they are interesting to think about nonetheless.

I think Carpenter took a "what if" approach to theology and filled in with a little bit from different schools of thought, adding a touch of fantasy, and then came up with something that was interesting to watch and think about, even if it wouldn't withstand full theological rigor -- in other words, it makes for a good background for a two hour horror/fantasy movie.

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