Wednesday, November 25, 2015

John Carpenter, part XVI: Party like it's the year one nine nine nine


If only all movies about the Devil could be made with this much obvious joy.

Written and directed by John Carpenter
With Victor Wong (Prof. Birack), Donald Pleasence (Father Loomis), Jameson Parker (Brian), Dennis Dun (Walter), Lisa Blount (Catherine), Anne Marie Howard (Susan), Ann Yen (Lisa), Jesse Lawrence Ferguson (Calder), Dirk Blocker (Mullins), Ken Wright (Lomax), Robert Grasmere (Frank), Thom Bray (Etchison), Peter Jason (Dr. Paul Leahy), Joanna Merlin (The Bag Lady) Alice Cooper (The Street Schizo), and Susan Blanchard (Kelly, and latterly Satan, Son of the Anti-God)

Spoiler alert: moderate

If you'll permit me to be wildly, even offensively reductive, Prince of Darkness represents a kind of litmus test: maybe you love Halloween, or The Thing, or Escape From New York, but if you don't love Darkness, then you might not actually love John Carpenter.  For Darkness is easily the most Carpentery of all Carpenter movies, the apex point of every last one of his signatures as a filmmaker:

  • The sleeping evil, now awakened
  • The rapidly-established characters, living in an uncanny, depopulated world
  • The siege that inevitably ensues
  • The bizarre, even awkward action
  • The co-option of conservative fears as a form of jumbled social commentary
  • The weird intersection of mysticism and science, neither one depicted with so much as an attempt at accuracy
  • The goofy cartoon storytelling that hops along briskly, unfettered by logic
  • The bleak, even nihilistic ending, punctuated by a silly jump-scare, before retrenching right back into mind-melting severity
  • The casting that places repertory players like Dennis Dun, Victor Wong, and Donald Pleasence in featured roles, alongside the most Atkinsian figure they could find who was not, actually, Tom Atkins

(...and, in the most Carpentarian touch of all...)

  • The attempt to make a formally-perfect film within the constraints of a nearly-nonexistent budget, driven by a deep classicism, and a supple, almost magical mastery of mood—while enslaving the whole film to a score so dominating, that if you told me that Darkness was made purely as an excuse to put images to these sounds, I would be compelled to believe you

Of course, it took the destruction of Carpenter's big-ticket career to finally get us to this utopia of unrestrained auteurism, so maybe it's a little too glib to celebrate it so readily.  Carpenter had taken a serious bath once already, when The Thing flopped in 1982; but in retrospect we can see that he rebounded quickly enough, slogging through the exquisite Christine, and next turning in some enthusiastic Spielberg Lite in the bittersweet Starman.  This is how he arrived at Big Trouble in Little China, a fantastic and ingenious and expensive film, about America and racism and wizards.  Naturally, Big Trouble bombed quite terribly; it wouldn't be reclaimed as a cult classic till the 90s.  Thus drummed out of the big leagues for a second time (yet, somehow, not for the last!), Carpenter slipped back into the wilds of independent cinema, partnering with Shep Gordonwell-known supermensch, manager to Alice Cooper, and (most importantly) founder of Alive Films.

Maybe the name's ironic.

The result was a tale of deceptive simplicity, layered with a surfeit of confusing and, frankly, often-laughable exposition.  We begin, though, with outright perfection, a brilliant, near-silent exercise in mystery-teasing cross-cutting, interspersed with just about the only opening credits sequence in any Carpenter movie since the first three Halloween films that's worth a damn.  Although it's still that same basic white text on black, there's a rhythm to the title cards that buffers the two stories being told.  The first involves a dead priest, the last of his order, who has bequeathed a box with a key in it to one Father Loomis; the second revolves around Professor Birack, a learned physicist who, these days, seems more interested in the esoteric philosophy of physics than experiments.

Their stories interweave when Loomis enlists Birack to turn his science against the problem Loomis has inherited: a certain old Spanish church, built centuries ago by a secret society operating within the Catholic Church, not for the purpose of worship, nor to spread the word of Godbut to imprison the thing that Loomis has discovered in the basement.  When Birack sees what Loomis has to show him, this great jar of moving, glowing green liquidindeed, when Birack feels its presence reach outhe immediately agrees to help.  And that means mobilizing his students and fellow professorschiefly, the strikingly-old Brian Marsh, who has evidently been working on his Ph.D. for fifteen years.  However, we'll meet a whole legion of quickly-sketched intellectualswhy, there's even a theologian, doubling as their linguist.  If you absolutely had to decide, you'd say the most important ones, besides Brian himself, are Catherine, a physicist whom Brian has been awkwardly courting, or maybe stalking, though in any event they're sleeping together by the time they get to the church; and Walter, a temperamental physicist who dreams of space lasers and dollar signs, and is either bisexual, or the film makes a faintly homophobic joke.

Oh, 1987!

Even with these folks getting more screentime, however, Darkness remains one of the truest ensemble films around, with no really clear-cut protagonistand an antagonist who has no definite shape of his own at all, happy to work with whatever material he can find.  Specifically, our heroes.

But that's not how it begins, exactly: it starts in "the smallest things," and one of Darkness' pleasures is watching Carpenter slowly render this world as ineffably wrong, with surrealistic imagery of ants and worms, and the film's most iconic sign, the crescent moon hanging above the sun in the day sky.  Then there are the street schizophrenics, their weakened minds easy prey for the thing in the basement.  They soon surround the church.  (Darkness trades on the thousands of mental patients released during the Reagan Era, deploying them as the harbingers of an even more literal evil.  As you might guess, it does this with approximately zero sensitivity.)  Still, much of what we see at first could be explicableand even innocuous.  But the score is our shepherd in Darkness, and it shall not let us forget that what we're watching here is truly the end of days.

This review is a causality violation.

Thus, as dark forces gather, the scientists set up their equipment; the theologian translates the ancient writings; and Birack and Loomis discuss science and religion in long dialogues that only JC could writeand only Victor Wong and Donald Pleasence could recite.  The ultimate emotional effect, however, is infinite mystery.  Each layer of apparent reality gets peeled off, successively revealing more and more of Carpenter's portrait of a moral and physical universe that simply wasn't made for insignificant life forms like us.  The texts, once translated, speak of the true facts, buried by the early Church.  Jesus, we learn, was not God, but just some alien, come to warn us about the thing in the basement; and the thing, if it needs a name, might well be Satan, but he isn't our greatest enemy—that would be his dad.

Birack considers the issue; if there is a God willing into being every particle, and every particle has its anti-particle, then does that not suggest that there must be an Anti-God, exactly as powerful?  Maybe not—I don't know if JC's ever heard of symmetry breaking—but in this film, he's right.  The now-trapped scientists discover this for themselves when the Prince of Darkness comes out of his jar, and possesses anybody foolish enough to get near his gravity-defying liquid form.  At last, he incubates himself into full existence within the body of his most unfortunate victim—right before making preparations to bring his father back into our universe.

He's a real conqueror, bent on conquest.

Obviously, the shrewdness of Carpenter's cosmic horror is easy to miss, since it's slathered in such patent fucking nonsense.  Though the central notion is intellectually horrifying, hearkening back to Manichaean dualism, it's naturally surrounded by all manner of dumbness, starting with Carpenter's impoverished background in sciencefor example, the parable of Shroedinger's cat, related as if it represents a catechism, when in fact it was developed as a penetrating criticism of quantum physics orthodoxy.  (And don't even get me started on the use of carbon dating in this movie.)

But forget all this mere scene-setting: Darkness is the platform for Carpenter's single most absurd experiment in make-it-up-as-we-go plotting, too.  The sloppiness is probably most readily perceived in his use of no less than four different kinds of demonic possession (and with a lot of variation even within each category!).  The possible reasons for these differences are left deeply, perhaps even deliberately obscuredown to such matters as the tiny little acting business Jesse Lawrence Ferguson gets to do with a cross as the only set-up for his frightening gospel recital and subsequent attempt at suicide.

Man, this movie is all kitchen sinks.

Yet it's frankly glorious just how abjectly silly and arbitrary everything gets; in fact, it's sort of the point.  Meanwhile, the film itself takes all of it so impossibly seriously—up to and including the telepathic messages from the future.  (Of course, if you're looking for the movie where Carpenter takes a crumbling reality and makes it legitimately horrifying—well, you'll just have to wait, though not quite till 1999.)

But the real genius of Darkness—and maybe it's an accidental genius, though a few key visual markers suggest something of an intent behind it—is that it is one delicious parody of what might be my least favorite horror subgenre of all: Christian horror.

The field includes such films as Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omenas well as about one billion terrible knock-offs, all of them revolving around demonic-possession this, and Satan's-baby that.  The commonality to all of them is that they explicitly treat Christian mythology as objectively real—while implicitly yet unmistakably denying everything that's important about actual Christian theology, principally its soteriology, which makes demonic possession moot, its eschatology, which makes any final battle between good and evil academic, and most crucially, its fundamental conception of an omnipotent God, who once defined an everlasting order to all this bullshit, somewhere between 6000 and 15 billion years ago, depending.

Carpenter takes the assertions of Christian horror at face value.  "Very well," he says, "If evil is real, if evil is a physical thing, then what does that actually mean?"  Darkness is his answer: "If it can be scientifically measured and described, if it can be seen and felt and heard, and if it can gain a foothold upon reality, then that means God isn't God.  And that means that we are fucked."  And so we have a fine work of cosmic horror after alleven if it's all in good fun.

And what good fun it is, as Carpenter conspicuously fails to resist the urge to take his jabs at all those Christian horrors of note.  We first find him playing with the iconic image of a woman seemingly impregnated by Satanbefore revealing that Satan doesn't have much inclination to be some lady's baby.  Then he goes about mocking the image of the victim of demonic possession.  In Darkness, once Satan's manifested, he just sits right up from bed, and goes about his business of dominating the universe, doing things that may actually further his evil plans.

Plans that go beyond just ruining a mattress.

Darkness exists as the second entry in Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy"it's the creamy middle, between the vastly more serious first and final chapters, represented by The Thing, in all its paranoid severity, and In the Mouth of Madness, in all its lunatic terror.  Though each chapter is separated by years and several other films, this thematic trilogy always saw Carpenter at his very highest ebb as a filmmakerand in Carpenter's case, that means excellence.

Darkness finds Carpenter working with a new cinematographer, one Gary Kibbe; he'd serve Carpenter more-or-less well throughout nearly the whole remainder of his career.  Though nobody is ever going to describe Kibbe as a completely adequate replacement for Dean Cundey, Darkness is probably the closest he ever got.  It offers great opportunities for moody, oppressive lightingand a few superb compositions straight out of the Halloween style guide.  The film's champion, however, must be editor Steve Mirkovich, who gives Carpenter his best-constructed film of all.  Every single cut propels the story with precision, right through Darkness' batshit insane climax, never once letting up until the closing credits roll.

But no, it isn't really Mirkovich's editingat least not alone.  If you want to find the real engine powering Darkness, just close your eyes and listen: it's the most present, varied, and tangible score Carpenter and Alan Howarth ever made, either together or apart, the single finest electronic score ever composed between the Barrons' Forbidden Planet and Trapanese and Daft Punk's TRON: Legacy.  It's that good, and it elevates Darkness to the very highest tier, practically single-handed.

But we still haven't reached Carpenter's best quite yet; in truth, Darkness isn't quite his second best.  Even so, Darkness is perhaps my favorite to watch over and overbecause it's John Carpenter's penchant for doom, balanced perfectly with his sense of fun.

Score: 10/10

No comments:

Post a Comment