Often, when John Carpenter’s name is mentioned, it’s in the context of landmark genre fare like “Halloween,” “Escape From New York,” even “Big Trouble in Little China.” But it’s the supernatural thriller “Prince of Darkness” — a film that Carpenter himself describes as one of the “less heralded” entries in his decades-long filmography — that will screen Saturday when the 12th annual Screamfest Horror Film Festival presents the writer-director with its career achievement award.
The 25th anniversary screening of the film will begin at 7 p.m. at Regal Cinemas at L.A. Live, and will be followed with a Q&A with Carpenter moderated by Sean Decker of Dread Central. Reached by phone earlier this week, Carpenter said he was flattered by the recognition, even if it signals that he has perhaps reached a certain age.
“It’s something that happens when you get old,” Carpenter said with an open, friendly tone. “I know I’m old. I understand that part, it’s not a mystery to me. What can I do about it? I’m an old guy now, I’ve embraced it. It makes me look back. I’ve had a long career in this business and it’s been just forever, it seems like.”
Released in 1987, “Prince of Darkness” centers on a group of physicists tasked with investigating a giant vat of mysterious green goo discovered in the basement of an abandoned L.A. church. Carpenter said he was inspired to write the script by an interest in quantum mechanics, a branch of physics interested in understanding the behavior of microscopic particles.
“It’s such an oddball movie,” Carpenter said. “It’s a movie that just came from the heart at the time I made it. I had gotten fascinated by quantum mechanics. I began reading about it that particular summer. I thought, how can I get this into a film? I didn’t particularly do it, getting it into a movie, I sort of hinted at it and had dialogue about it but I didn’t really do anything quantum-mechanical strange, but it gave me an idea to set the film in the world of physics.
“I began to read a little bit more about this stuff and the idea of antimatter, and I came up with anti-God,” Carpenter continued. “But at the time, everybody thought it was the devil, which it was not. It wasn’t the devil. The devil is an angel who was cast out of heaven. The bad guy in my movie was the mirror image of God. That’s not the devil. It has nothing to do with Satan.”
Carpenter made the film independently after finding himself frustrated by the Hollywood studio system — securing the financing led to an unexpected cameo from Alice Cooper as a homeless man: “One of the business partners who put together the deal to make the movie was Alice Cooper’s manager, that’s how it all came about. It was fine with me. Alice is a really wonderful guy.”
Perhaps more noteworthy, though, is that “Prince of Darkness” marked the last time Carpenter worked with actor Donald Pleasence. The English actor who famously portrayed the wise, troubled Dr. Sam Loomis in the “Halloween” films and a distressed president in “Escape From New York” played a priest in the director’s 1987 feature.
Mixing theology and horror can be tricky business, and “Prince of Darkness” was not warmly embraced by critics upon its initial release. Roger Ebert wrote at the time that the film got off to a promising start before it “degenerated into a bunch of people chasing each other up and down a hallway while the soundtrack went berserk.”
Carpenter hasn’t actually seen “Prince of Darkness” in the last two-and-a-half decades. He said that he can’t bring himself to go back and watch his finished films under almost any circumstances.
“You’ve got to realize that by the time I have made a movie, I’ve seen it close to 100 times,” Carpenter said. “I watch the dailies of my films. I watch the first cut through the last cut of my films, I see them, I evaluate them, I think about them. It’s not that I don’t watch my movies in the sense of work – I watch my movies a lot when they’re finished in the mixing situation. I can’t watch it anymore. I can see everything I did wrong. I can see everything that doesn’t work. It just pains me.
“I remember years ago – I won’t tell you what movie, but I remember deciding, I’m going to watch one of my films,” he added. “I got so depressed. When I see something, everything is so slow. I just say to myself, why didn’t I speed this up? Why didn’t I make this move faster? What was wrong with me?”
Tickets for the tribute to John Carpenter are available online at screamfestla.com.
— Gina McIntyre
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