Friday, 8 October 2010

Traces of Quatermass in Prince of Darkness...


A few weeks ago I volunteered to contribute to John Carpenter Week at Radiator Heaven, momentarily forgetting that I'd also be moving into a new flat this week. What I had intended to write was a thorough piece with academic aspirations about the thematic and ideological parallels between the works of both John Carpenter and Nigel Kneale, using Prince of Darkness as a starting point. What follows instead is me talking about why Prince of Darkness is like totally my favourite Carpenter film and stuff...with a few broad generalisations comparing it to Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit. At the very least, I hope it encourages those unfamiliar with this film or Kneale's works to seek them out as they serve as examples of a kind of sci-fi/horror that no longer seems to exist.





The thing I remember most about Prince of Darkness is my dad's comment about how different the film would've been if Dolph Lundgren had been among the academics studying the thing in the basement. Dolph would've kicked all the evil-possessed people in the head in five minutes and that would've been the end of it. This was mostly on account of us having watched Dark Angel (or I Come In Peace) the week before. I can't remember how old I was seeing it that first time - around eleven or twelve at a guess - but I remember it was a sunny afternoon. When it came to horror films, dad would usually watch them first the night before to make sure there was nothing too distressing in there (the only one I remember failing this test was Phantasm). This meant the horror was offset slightly by the daylight streaming through the windows, but at the same time heightened by the fact I was inevitably watching the films alone. I saw some of the best films that way, and Prince of Darkness was one of them.

There's another childhood/dad memory linked to Prince of Darkness. When I asked my dad what the scariest thing he ever saw was, his answer would either be Eraserhead or Quatermass and the Pit.





This was before the internet and DVD and everything ever being available at the click of a button, so it was some time before I got to see the original BBC TV series. Eventually dad found a VHS copy and I found he was right - it was indeed incredibly scary. But more than that, there was something in the writing that was different from the majority of the horror films I'd seen before (which by then was a staggering amount) and at the same time a familiarity. This post is about that familiarity.

The connections between Nigel Kneale and John Carpenter are fairly well-known and well-documented. It would seem that Kneale was never particularly happy with the films that came from that connection. Carpenter hired him to write the script for Halloween 3, but after coming up with the previously unheard of idea of writing a sequel that had nothing to do with its predecessors (something I sometimes wish happened more often), Kneale fell out with Dino De Laurentis who wanted more gore. The script was rewritten by director Tommy Lee Wallace, although retains a lot of Kneale's signature ideas and themes. When it came to Prince of Darkenss, I don't know whether Carpenter ever considered hiring Kneale as writer again, but he did acknowledge his influence over the project by crediting himself as Martin Quatermass.


Prince of Darkness certainly feels like the Nigel Kneale film Carpenter would have liked Halloween 3 to be. There is one obvious similarity to Quatermass and the Pit that crops up in many of Kneale's other works - the idea of an ancient, buried artefact that may be extra-terrestrial in origin. In Kneale's story this took the form of a buried spacecraft that appears to be responsible for supernatural occurrences above ground. On investigation, Kneale's protagonist Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andre Morrell in this version) theorises that the creatures within perhaps experimented on humans, and that the origin of witchcraft and the devil in our culture is a direct result of these experiments.

In Carpenter's film, the artefact is a container holding hat may be the devil in liquid form and which is also responsible for unexplained events happening outside the building where it is housed. The religious aspect of the story is foregrounded here - the Church are responsible for hiding the container as it suited their purposes to have the world believe 'evil' was something spiritual and not physical. As in Quatermass and the Pit, the hidden artefact is revealed to be tied into the origins of evil in our culture and, crucially for this comparison, it is suggested that the Devil contained within is of extra-terrestrial origin.

There are more minor plot similarities, like the fact that in both stories the secrets of the artefacts are revealed in the form of psychic messages transmitted through time. Both stories also have a sense of impending apocalypse. But the other major similarity is in the characters. Professor Quatermass is an academic working for the British Experimental Rocket Group. He is called in to help with the mystery of the buried spacecraft by a palaentologist friend. And when matters escalate to the point that the human race is under threat, it is Quatermass's understanding of the creatures through science that allows him to fight back.

In Prince of Darkness, there is an obvious substitute for Quatermass in the form of Professor Howard Birack (played with a perfect combination of eccentricity and wisdom by Victor Wong). Birack puts together a team of students specialising in a variety of scientific areas and in a way can be seen to be splitting the almost Sherlockian genius of Quatermass into a number of characters. And here we're back to my dad's Dolph Lundgren comment above. These characters aren't action heroes, they're academics - a point no more obvious than in the fact that they spend a good majority of the third Act knocking down a wall (Lundgren would've kicked through it). Where Carpenter's previous siege movie, Assault on Precinct 13, put hardened cops and criminals in peril (although it could be argued that the toughest character in that film is the receptionist played by Laurie Zimmer), Prince of Darkness pits a group of students against the ultimate evil. This greatly increases the tension, because while trying to figure out how to solve the problem they are faced with the physical challenge of fending off their possessed associates.

There is nothing new in this comparison - as mentioned above, Carpenter even acknowledges it in the opening credits. That said, I think it's still an important point to revisit. What I like about both Quatermass and the Pit and Prince of Darkness is their use of a tried and tested genre to tell stories full of ideas on the origins of our culture and the link between science and religion. They both refuse to compromise; they take their stories and their audiences seriously and only ask for a little patience in return. And there is one final similarity to point out between Kneale and Carpenter - both told stories that were unique to their individual vision and, aside from this instance, both are beyond comparison.

4 comments:

J.D. said...

Excellent post! I was aware of the influence of Kneale's QUATERMAS AND THE PIT but had forgotten the extent. Your post was particularly illuminating and now I really want to watch this to see for myself how much of an influence it was on PRINCE OF DARKNESS.

Thanks so much for contributing to my JC Week. It really means a lot to me.

Chris Regan said...

No worries, really enjoyed taking part and have had a great time reading the other blogs.

Chris said...

Chris - this was awesome and informative. I've heard so much about Quatermass but haven't had the opportunity to check any of the films yet - I'll have to rectify that ASAP.

Chris Regan said...

Thanks Chris, glad you enjoyed it and definitely check out Quatermass if you get chance. The BBC series of Quatermass and the Pit is the best one in my opinion, but there's a Hammer film of the same name which is also good.