In "Prince of Darkness" (selected theaters), John Carpenter seems to be hovering between cold-eyed mechanical fear-making and horror camp. The movie deals with cataclysmic possibilities--the destruction of the world and the triumph of Hell--in a peculiarly light-headed way, with a premise that jumbles together "Night of the Living Dead," "The Omen" and Carpenter's own "The Thing."
Throughout, it alternates between a bogeyman solemnity and a forced humor that makes you wonder if the wilder jokes are always intentional. What can you make of the scene where a zombified black student clumps up a staircase, giggling hysterically and singing "Amazing Grace?" Or the movie's symbol of ultimate evil: a cylindrical canister--supposedly Satan's home for 7 million years--that looks like a green lava lamp from a '60s crash pad?
Supposedly, Satan's victory is imminent, unless the devil can be kept in his can. And yet the people in charge--a wild-eyed physics professor (Victor Wong) and a dolorous priest (Donald Pleasence)--can't come up with a more substantial counterattack than to gather about a dozen USC graduate students in an abandoned church on Temple Street, put them up on cots and try to crack a bunch of Coptic or Gnostic codes--to find out what the Devil is up to. Obviously they're mostly lambs to the slaughter--it's like "Halloween" without sex or TV--but the method is varied. The woman tend to get green slime spit at them, while the men get skewered.
This church, the remarkably centuries-old hangout of a secret society called the Brotherhood of Sleep, Satan's jailers, is genuinely bizarre. For one thing, it seems to be twice as big on the inside as it is on the outside. It's full of vast corridors and bedecked with thousands of flickering candles. Who keeps them lit? The Brotherhood of Sleep? (No wonder they're tired.)
It's also full of bugs--3,000 worms, 6,000 stink beetles and 30,000 ants according to the movie's press book--swarming at any stimulus.
And it's been fitted for the weekend with dozens of computers, although no one seems to have run in a phone line or a two-way radio. Naturally, the Devil runs hog wild when faced with such feeble resistance. Outside, his minions--a gang of homeless zombie derelicts led by Alice Cooper--stand motionless, on comatose guard duty for hours on end, without anyone inside or outside trying to check them out or call the police.
There's a curious emptiness to many of Carpenter's movies, yet "The Thing," despite bad reviews, was probably his best work. Here, he's trying to reawaken the same kind of mounting horror in tight quarters. Yet "The Thing" was plausibly isolated; it was set on the North Pole. Here, we're in downtown Los Angeles. Zombies or not, it shouldn't be that hard to contact the outside world.
Carpenter, along with writer Martin Quatermass--brother of the British rocket scientist, Bernard--sets up this mongrel premise. Then the director pumps it up with a driving, minimal, repetitive score that suggests Stewart Copeland under Phillip Glass. But much of the movie remains an accretion of carnage and glop, interspersed with stone-faced scientific bibblebabble--and set against periodic maulings, marauding bugs and those incessantly flickering candles. No doubt coincidentally, some of these insects are actually carpenter ants--their jaws removed to prevent them from chewing the actresses.
To give the movie its due, it's been directed, at least on the visual level, with unusual elegance: filled with graceful, gliding tracking shots, and icily precise Hitchcockian setups of the bleak decor and scary effects. Wong and Pleasence are both fine; these two know how to make the most of shallow excess. And, even if the shocks throughout seem as patterned as an aerobics class, the movie's climactic kicker is electrifying.
"Prince of Darkness," (MPAA-rated: R for violence) though, can't survive on actors' skills or director's touches. It has too many holes, too much green slime clogging it up. Obviously, Carpenter is thinking as much of Hawks as Hitchcock here. The physicists are a pseudo-Hawksian group and, at one point, Jameson Parker reads one of Lauren Bacall's "To Have and Have Not" lines to a stony-faced Lisa Blount. But, at these moments, Carpenter's far from his masters. He's like a man who's got all the footwork down but misses the soul--maybe because he's too busy dancing over squishing bugs.