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N RECENT YEARS, JOHN CARPENTER HAS BEEN RIGHTFULLY TRUMPETED AS ONE OF THE DEFINING VOICES THAT HAS SHAPED MODERN HORROR CINEMA. Few can dispute the importance of the legendary filmmaker’s hugely influential masterworks Hal- loweenand The Thing, which remain vital bench-


marks in the genre. Even the maestro’s apparent “lesser films” display an exacting command of widescreen composition, camera movement and editing, upon which his unmatched ability to craft a suffocating atmosphere and ruthlessly efficient scares is founded. All of these elements (along with his trademark electronic score) are evident in


his brooding metaphysical chiller Prince of Darkness. Intended as the first of a four-picture deal with Alive Films and Universal (mu-


tually dissolved after 1988’s They Live), Darkness was pre-sold to domestic and foreign markets, ensuring that it turned a profit even before one foot of celluloid was exhausted. With creative control now contractually assured, Carpenter freely riffed on the complex riddle-like theories of quantum mechanics, hanging his the- matically dense ideas on the lean siege narratives favoured by such earlier efforts as Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog and The Thing. This cerebral approach to the genre won few fans upon the film’s release in


1987, but by deftly mixing these disparate influences, Darkness channels not only the oppressive mood and unspeakable terrors of H. P. Lovecraft, but in its attempts to rationalize the supernatural in scientific terms, it also channels the celebrated works of screen- writer Nigel Kneale. Like Quatermass and the Pit and Kneale’s terrifying 1972 made-for-TV ghost story The Stone Tape (see Classic Cut, p.62), Darkness features a young girl named Kelly (Susan Blanchard), who unwittingly becomes the conduit for dark forces, and diligently explores the speculative origins of both humanity and evil (presented here as an actualized, invasive phys- ical force) – themes that particularly fascinated Kneale. As in The Fog, the plot of Darkness hinges on


the discovery of a diary. The writings of a dying priest ominously warn that “The Sleeper Awakes” and reveals details of a cryptic order known as The Brotherhood of Sleep. This sect, whose existence has been kept secret from the Vatican hierarchy for over 2000 years, was charged with guarding an ancient, corroded canister deep in the bowels of an LA church that contains a mysterious swirling green liquid. A priest (Donald Pleasence in his third and final ap- pearance for Carpenter) shares these discoveries with his friend, the respected physicist Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong). Birack assembles a team of his most accomplished students, including Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) and Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), to study this strange phenomenon (a set-up that effectively echoes The Stone Tape). One by one, the mem- bers of the scientific


team are possessed or killed by the sentient liquid, whose imperative is to “bring back the Father from the dark side” and engulf Earth in illimitable evil and chaos. Made at a time when horror was hamstrung by inane comedy hybrids and the


stubborn death rattles of the slasher film, Darkness was viewed as unfashionably earnest and diffuse, with mature, articulate characters replacing the standard teenage ciphers. In its refusal to spoon-feed the audience easy answers to the savage questions it raised about the mysteries of faith and man’s place in an un- caring universe, critics uniformly attacked the film for being ponderous and inco- herent, with several comparing the canister that imprisons the son of the Anti-God to a “lava lamp.” Roger Ebert complained that “the movie degenerated into a bunch of people chasing each other up and down a hallway while the soundtrack went berserk,” whilst Richard Harrington of the Washington Postwas far less diplomatic, stating in no uncertain terms that “Prince of Darkness stinks. It too deserves to be shut up in a canister for 7 million years.” The jury at the Avoriaz Film Festival in France disagreed, bequeathing the film the coveted Critics Award. As with most of Carpenter’s oeuvre, age has lent the movie new charms. Viewers


have slowly begun to reappraise this dark gem, exalting its ambitious ideas, sur- realistic imagery, strong performances and typically assured direction. Twenty- five years after it was first unleashed in theatres, Prince of Darkness now stakes a belated claim to permanency as one of the great (and greatly undervalued) horror films of the 1980s. To celebrate its silver jubilee, the Prince of Darkness himself recently held court with Rue Morgue to share all those secrets that can no longer be kept. ................................................................


What was your impulse for making Prince of Darkness? Well, in terms of my career, I had just finished a big-budget studio film [Big Trouble in Little China] and did not have a very pleasant experience making it. I wanted to return to independent filmmaking and cut a deal at Universal to make several low- budget movies where I would have creative control, which was important to me. It’s always been im- portant that I make the decisions. Prince of Dark- ness was the first movie of this rather low-budget agenda that I sat down and wrote. I don’t get credit for it but I wrote it.


How did you develop an interest in quantum mechanics? I became aware of it only after several years of feel- ing that something was different about the very small. I remember Dan O’Bannon and I were once discussing some stories concerning the very small and I said, “Why don’t we do this?” Dan said, “It doesn’t work like that down there,” but he never explained himself. Later, when I was on a trip to New York publicizing Big Trouble in Lit- tle China, I stopped at a bookstore and just happened to find The Cos- mic Code by Heinz Pagels. 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 in a horror film. I then tried to incorporate some of the ideas I was reading about into Prince of Darkness – sometimes success- fully, sometimes not so successfully.


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