One afternoon a friend of mine and I were really bored. We were just sitting around smoking pot and watching MTV and everyone else we knew were at work and we didn’t have anything to do.
“Hey, let’s go see a movie,” he said. “There’s a new John Carpenter movie playing.”
I agreed. I wasn’t really sure who John Carpenter was, but I’d heard the name before. I was vaguely aware he was a horror director; I knew he had directed the remake of The Thing and he had also directed Escape from New York, which I’d really liked.
I hadn’t really gotten into horror movies much in the heyday of the slasher movies; I’d never seen any of the Friday the 13th movies (still haven’t) or any of the Halloween films (I’ve seen them all now); I wasn’t really into the gory movies with lots of graphic violence and dismemberment and splashing blood–but I did enjoy horror; this was when I was trying to write it, was using Stephen King as my guiding force and writing lots of (really bad) short stories. I don’t know what I was expecting when we went to see this movie–but I was absolutely terrified almost from the very beginning.
The premise of the movie is incredibly clever. The devil of the Bible actually was an extraterrestrial being with amazing powers of darkness and evil. At the beginning of time, God and this being fought for control of Earth and the universe. This being knew he wasn’t powerful enough to win, so he sealed his son’s essence in a container and buried it in the Middle East till the day his son could assume form and attain his own power, and free his father from the other side, which God was going to banish him to. He was banished, and his son, sealed into his canister, was forgotten about. But Jesus knew the story and told it to his followers, none of whom believed him because it was so crazy, and it was in the best interests of the Catholic Church to not tell people that evil was actually an outside force rather than something within, so they kept it a secret for several thousand years “until science had advanced enough to prove Jesus was right.” For some reason, they moved the canister containing the devil’s son to a church named St. Godard’s in Los Angeles (it is never made clear why), and he is watched over by the Brotherhood of Sleep. Now, there has been a change in the canister–the priest guarding him has died–and the Archdiocese, represented by a priest played wonderfully by Donald Pleasence, enlists the help of several different schools of science from a local university, including quantum physics, to not only prove the story so they can warn the world…but at the same time figure out a scientific way to stop the prince of darkness.
From the opening credits, when the score (also written by John Carpenter, and one of his creepiest) the sense of dread grows. I watched the movie again a few years later on video, and it was just as terrifying.
I watched it again last night, in preparation for writing this blog entry, and it wasn’t scary at all to me; then again, I also knew what was going to happen so it wasn’t likely to work again. I did think it was just as clever a premise as before (you can never go wrong with old secrets about religion in my book), and I enjoyed watching.
The best parts are, of course, Donald Pleasence, and how, as the power of the prince grows, how he is able to take control of first the creatures around the church–the insects, worms, etc–and then the students themselves. (He also is able to control the minds of the homeless people who live in the neighborhood, which is kind of homeless-phobic, in implying that as homeless people their minds as weaker somehow). But I did enjoy it–I also enjoyed the weird dreams that everyone who sleeps in the near vicinity of the church all share (they all have the same dream; which is actually a broadcast through quantum physics from the future).
But the acting is really horrible, and I can’t help but wonder what Carpenter was thinking. All of the characters are supposedly grad or Ph.D students–and there isn’t enough make-up or soft lighting to make them look young enough (and yes, older people can be students, I know that, but when everyone in the cast is at least in their early thirties….) The male lead is Jameson Parker of Simon and Simon fame, with his eighties porn stache, with Lisa Blount as his love interest…and the absolute worst, Susan Blanchard, whom I recognized, even in 1987, as the actress who played Nurse Mary Kennicott on All My Children in the early 1970’s. Even having an older cast would have been fine, but the characters are written young, and having a woman who is in her mid-thirties play the part as a gum-chewing pony-tailed co-ed was just a silly choice.
I would be very interested to see this remade, actually; the concept was great.
And now back to the spice mines.