Tag Archives: Kurt Russell

30 Days of Madness, Day 28 — Prince of Darkness (1987)

by Tom Kapr

Wherein I attempt to watch one new-to-me horror film every day of October till Halloween and write a quick review. I will end my review with a letter grade like we do on our podcast (A, B, C, D, or F–pluses and minuses are for the non-committal!) and with the movie’s rank on my Flickchart.

princedarkness3

“Say goodbye to classical reality, because our logic collapses on the subatomic level into ghosts and shadows.”

Written & directed by John Carpenter.

Starring Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Alice Cooper for about a minute, and a bunch of white people with bad hair.

In my last review of Christine, I lamented how unfairly forgotten and underrated it was compared to Carpenter’s other work. With Prince of Darkness, I get it.

The slow build toward apocalypse is good and tense (at least when Mustache McGee and Lady Hockey Hair aren’t making out and having inscrutable conversations), helped along by Carpenter’s soundtrack and the acting talents of Pleasence as a priest from a secretive Catholic sect and Victor Wong as an eccentric quantum physicist. But then about halfway through it kind of stalls and just plateaus. The freaky things that start happening are undercut by underreaction from characters almost across the board. It starts to crescendo again, but then there are weird scenes that go nowhere, leading to a pretty trifling “apocalyptic” climax. It doesn’t help that the screenplay’s grasp of theology is tenuous at best, so it all feels rather silly.

As with any Carpenter flick, a lot of the special effects are really well done, but the philosophy behind the homeless zombie horde was a bit insulting. Every homeless person in the vicinity of this parish immediately becomes part of a hive mind, but not the scientists or students, because, what, they have better brains and aren’t susceptible? Not until they get physically infected, anyway. There’s even a conversation about it when the physicist is comparing their behavior to that of the ants, which do have a hive mind, and the other bugs and creepy crawlers that start showing up. It just draws an uncomfortable parallel, as if the homeless are on the same plane as the other vermin. It’s not Carpenter’s most nuanced writing.

And that’s too bad, because the idea of crossing the usual Judeo-Christian religious traditions with quantum physics in an apocalyptic plot is unique, and would be fascinating, if the religious part of it was treated with as much respect as the physics part. If only the entire script was as good as that excellent line from Victor Wong’s character that I used at the beginning of this review.

I also said in my Christine review that this would fill the remaining gap in what I consider the “classic Carpenter” era–1976 through the 80s. That is, the era beginning with Assault on Precinct 13, which put him on the map and allowed him to make Halloween, which catapulted him to being one of the premiere directors in Hollywood working in the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy genres. Through the 80s, he made film after film that cemented him as a cult classic director.

I didn’t start watching R-rated horror and sci-fi until the late 90s. I was in high school, and Escape from L.A. was my introduction to Carpenter, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. I wasn’t even fully aware that it was a sequel. But I developed a kind of affection for that film and for Snake Plissken as a character. I had already been a fan of Kurt Russell. In college, I saw Vampires, and by the time I saw Ghosts of Mars I knew Carpenter’s reputation and had already begun familiarizing myself with The FogThe ThingStarman (which I’d seen part of as a child and was freaked out by it), Big Trouble in Little China (a personal favorite and a film that is more important than it gets credit for), They LiveHalloween, and the original Escape from New York. Unfortunately, Ghosts of Mars was a terrible movie, but I’d become a late-blooming Carpenter fan who figured it was just a case of a master filmmaker losing his edge.

Prince of Darkness isn’t the only film of his from his “classic” era that I’m not sold on. I’m pretty indifferent toward The Fog and found Assault on Precinct 13 too disturbingly violent to be enjoyable. (I just don’t need to see little kids getting gunned down in the street in what is essentially a basic action movie, though an important one. Even with something like City of God, I’d rather not watch that kind of thing.)

Nevertheless, I think Carpenter, even post-Ghosts, remains one the most fascinating and respectable filmmakers in history. Now I need to fill in the pre-Assault and early-90s gaps. And I’m especially interested now to see In the Mouth of Madness. I did not realize until today that it is the third in what Carpenter calls his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” after The Thing and Prince of Darkness. That is a fascinating trilogy of apocalyptic themes–one extra-terrestrial in nature, one mixing Judeo-Christian religious tradition with quantum physics, and the third an exercise in Lovecraftian horror.

Final grade for Prince of Darkness: C

My Flickchart ranking: #1629 (out of 3273, a relative 50/100)

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #4: “Nobody trusts anybody now… there’s nothing more I can do….”

By Tom Kapr

(Spoilers ahead….)

In the opening scenes of John Carpenter’s The Thing, two men in a helicopter are chasing a husky through the Antarctic wilderness, shooting at it with a rifle and lobbing grenades at it. When I first saw this film, my initial reaction to this introduction was one of disgust toward the men in the helicopter, and some hesitation about the film in general. I have a deep and abiding love for dogs, and something approaching a deep and abiding hatred toward anyone who would commit senseless acts of violence against dogs. In cinematic terms, I tend to hate movies that show dogs meeting gruesome or violent deaths. For example, I hate Tony Scott’s film Revenge, in part because it is a silly film, but mostly because of a graphic close-up of the “hero’s” yellow lab being blown away with a shotgun, a consequence of his affair with the wife of a mobster (the “hero’s” affair, not the dog’s). (On the other hand, I am a sucker for Independence Day and always get a thrill from that ridiculous slow-motion shot of Boomer the golden retriever jumping to safety just in the nick of time as a fireball roars past behind him.)

Doggone aliens, always trying to invade Earth and whatnot....

So, getting back to my inaugural viewing of The Thing, when the husky reached the American scientific research compound and Donald Moffat’s character blew the rifleman’s eye out with his pistol, in effect saving the life of the dog, I felt relief. The dog was safe. (A man was dead, but we can save a discussion of the moral implications of valuing the life of a dog over that of human being, however despicable, for another time.) It is not until twenty minutes later that we learn the truth, in the kennel, as the mysterious husky’s face suddenly splits open, revealing the true nature of the beast beneath, and an entire team of huskies has to suffer the consequences; the truth, that our heroes have quashed what was in fact a last-ditch, desperate attempt by the now-pitiable, eyeless-and-dead rifleman to stop a violent and cunning alien life form from further invasion of our planet.

Kurt Russell and company spend the remainder of the film wondering who is still human and who might be the alien in disguise. The Thing is unquestionably the masterpiece of John Carpenter’s science fiction filmography, a perfect blend of alien terror, body horror, and psychological suspense as the characters try not to turn on each other while knowing that no one can trust anyone, because anyone could be the monster. And this monster is one of the best in history, terrifying in both idea and execution. The creature effects, created and designed by Rob Bottin (with a crew that included the late great Stan Winston), still hold up after nearly three decades, putting to shame most current science fiction films and all their computer-generated imagery. Truly great practical, or in-camera, effects will almost always outlast CGI, which, even when done well, usually has an aura of un-reality about it.

I can sum up the horror of the monster in The Thing in one sentence: Nothing in cinema ever was or ever will be quite like a human head scurrying across the floor on spider legs.

My migraines, personified.

On a final note, the “husky” in the beginning of the film is one of the best performances by a dog in the history of movies. Played by Malamute-Wolf mix Jed (who also starred in The Journey of Natty Gann and White Fang), every movement seems deliberate, every facial expression full of thought and meaning. The human cast is fine, and Kurt Russell is one of the greatest, but performance-wise, Jed steals the show. Rest in peace, Jed (1977-1995).

Next on the countdown: “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next, you’re next…!”