Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness DVD

At the recommendation of the Coilhouse crew I picked up a copy of John Carpenter’s 1987 film Prince of Darkness. Part of Carpenter’s b-movie oeuvre, the film is one of many using the horror potential of the anti-Christ and its associated religious mummery.

The story on this one takes a different tack, though, drawing inspiration as much from quantum physics as from the Revelation of St John the Divine. In Carpenter’s story the devil is a swirling tube of glowing green goo the Catholic Church has been hiding for a couple of thousand years. According to the team of scientists brought in to investigate, Heaven and Hell are more states of matter than states of grace. It also pulls in the unique (to b-movies) concept of Satan being the opposite number to Jesus, with his own all-powerful father, an Anti-God from outside this universe.

While the concepts are interesting, and the film certainly wastes no time whatsoever in dragging the audience into the horror and action, the acting — well, it’s also horrific. Broadly drawn characters I like; they are part of the pleasure of the genre, even characters who might as well have worn their character tropes on printed sashes. But so many of the actors delivered their lines in such a wooden fashion I would not be surprised to learn they got splinters.

Still, you don’t watch this kind of film for the acting, you watch it for the cheap thrills, and those it provides. Broken necks, bile spewing, decapitations, impalements, and creepy insects are all abundantly present, in delightfully cheesy fashion. (Carpenter was clearly not working with a blockbuster budget here.) That it takes some unusual turns in its plot — typically the weakest part of a horror film — is a welcome addition.

All in all I recommend the film for those with stomachs strong enough to handle the special effects and the bad acting, who can appreciate lines like “You are seeing what is actually occurring for the purpose of causality violation,” and who think casting Alice Cooper in the role of “Street Schizo” is actually funny.

The Blair Witch Project

Opening titles

The premise of The Blair Witch Project is nicely summarized in that frame. Three college kids go into the woods to shoot a documentary about a local legend, the Blair witch, and never come out again. A year later some other kids find a bag containing their gear and tapes. The footage is chronologically assembled by a production company at the request of the mother of one of the students; that’s what you are watching.

Through this “found footage,” we get the story of a three ordinary kids who set out to make a clever little documentary and get in way over their heads. The legend of the witch is told by locals who are interviewed on camera; it’s a melange of stories of a child murdered from the 1940s and a witch from the 1700s, with very few details emerging. There’s something about an old cemetery in the woods, and the house where the more recent murders took place. Armed with these few facts, a map, a bunch of gear, and minimal camping supplies, they set off for a weekend in the woods to see what they can find.

Sinister stick men

Even at the abrupt end of the film we know little more than when we started. This is a film about legends, and uncertainty is part of the package. A quasi-realistic horror film should never explain everything, because in the real world, no one is going to step in and fill in the plot details. (Note that science fiction usually operates on different principles; that’s a discussion for another time.) In the end we still don’t know who or what the witch is, or even what happened to the filmmakers, but that’s okay. We know that whatever it was, it was bad.

Viewed by itself, Blair Witch is a suspenseful film. Unlike virtually every horror film made in the last 20-30 years, it relies of the imagination of its audience to build terror. We are getting a partial first-person account, so we only see what the characters see, from their own point of view. At night, with the camera’s mounted light as the only illumination, the most you get are glimpses of something in the shadows. Just like the students, you only know there is something in the woods, and it’s something bad. All of the details are left to your overwrought and unsettled imagination.

Dirty wall

Of course, the film’s reputation rests on it’s intrinsic quality as a horror film, but also earns a place in film history for its pioneering use of a fake web site to help in the promotion. In 1998, a year before the film opened, the writer/directors launched a site talking about the backstory of the legend. Details were included about the missing filmmakers, local legends, brief snippets of raw footage, and so on. This led to a “is it real or is it fake” word-of-mouth campaign, particularly among those people new to the Internet. Add in a fake documentary aired on the Sci Fi Channel and you have a once-in-a-lifetime buzz.

The other noteworthy factor is the camera work. Every bit of the film is hand-held footage, with all the incessant motion that entails. It does impart verisimilitude to the film, as well as an immediacy it would otherwise lack. It isn’t the first film to use the “hand-held footage found on location” trick — that honor belongs to Cannibal Holocaust — but it was certainly the first one to get widespread attention. (This means I can hold it responsible for Cloverfield, but I’ll let that slide.) This is the gimmick on which much of the film rests, but for many, it gets in the way of proper appreciation of the movie. If you are prone to motion sickness, watching the film can be a challenge, which is a shame, as it is otherwise a neat little horror movie.

And who would have guessed? The official movie site is still up, including the background material!

El Orfanato

Last week I saw El Orfanato (The Orphanage), a stylish and original Spanish ghost story. The Orphanage is dark, eerie, disturbing, suspenseful, and genuinely frightening, without resorting to cheap cinematic tricks or gruesome special effects.

A professional couple buys the abandoned seaside orphanage where the wife grew up. The husband is a doctor, and they want to convert the building into an assisted living facility for special needs children. However, the couple’s young son soon expands his circle of imaginary playmates to include one who may not be quite as imaginary as the others. There isn’t a lot more I can say about the plot without ruining the film’s intricacies, but if this makes you think of the Nicole Kidman vehicle The Others, rest assured it is a very different film. (This is not intended to slight the Kidman film, as I found it to be a well made and suspenseful story.)

Still from El Orfanato

One of the reasons the film works so well is by refusing the follow convention. Horror and suspense films tend to use certain devices and scenes as touch-points, occasionally due to the mythological underpinnings, but more often due to the convenience of visual shorthand. The audience understands that vampires don’t like crosses, so it is easy to jump right into using that as a plot point. The Orphanage, on the other hand, works without any preconceptions. Mysterious things start to happen in the old house, but the viewer is trapped in the same confusion as the mother; we don’t understand the rules, so anything can happen. There are a few sequences in the film where in a lesser effort we would yawn and wait for the obvious. In The Orphanage, we are creeping forward in our seats because we haven’t any idea where the story will end up. Fortunately, it still obeys its own internal logic, playing on our innate human need to make sense out of the world around us. We identify with the characters’ struggles, pulled into their crumbling world by our compassion and our shared need to know what is happening.

The non-narrative elements contribute significantly to the film’s success, as well. It is visually stunning, with tremendous artistry in the art direction; for example, the house is clearly old, but with layers of modernity applied as a veneer over the implied history. The sound design is likewise effective and subtle, with the slow creaking of old timbers adding to the undercurrent of unease that suffuses the film. And the camera’s slow shots of the desolate but strangely beautiful seaside contrast wonderfully with the claustrophobic interiors, with careful use of shifting focus to keep the audience is a state of uncertainty and uneasiness. It is a carefully crafted film designed to shock and disturb you, and it succeeds admirably.

This is the kind of film-going experience that I enjoy. I went into the theater knowing nearly nothing about it, except that Guillermo del Toro was an executive producer, it was in Spanish, and had a supernatural theme. I left having been thrilled, surprised, and delighted by my experience, and now — over a week later — I find certain scenes lingering in my mind, still haunting me. And isn’t that, after all, what a ghost story is supposed to do?


I watched David Fincher’s Zodiac this week, and was pleased to find that it lived up to its reputation as a subtle, intelligent film. This is not really what I would have expected from a film about a serial killer, but that was my misconception. It isn’t about the killer, or even the killings. It is an meticulous examination of the effects wrought on the lives of the people investigating the crime, both police and journalists.

The script provides the most accurate depiction of the tedium of real investigation of anything I’ve seen. The film resists the Hollywood temptation to over-dramatize police work; there are no car chases, nothing blows up, no breathless entrances to courtrooms with last minute evidence — even the few killings shown are handled in a rather detached, emotionless fashion. But this isn’t a dull film — far from it. For two and a half hours I was enthralled by the evolution (and dissolution) of the characters, a testament to the acting of Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and Jake Gyllenhaal. The gradual changes wrought on their lives by their investigation and involvement in the case is painful to watch, but nonetheless gripping and sad. Even the wrap-up to the story, handled through text epilogues, seems weary and worn down by the weight of the decades of seemingly fruitless research.

For those of you unfamiliar with the actual Zodiac killings, let me point out that this is not at all a feel-good film. Nothing is wrapped up neatly, and just as with most of life, it ends essentially unresolved. But if you are looking for a fascinating look at the investigation into a part of America’s psychic landscape, this is a great place to start.

3's a crowd

Spider-Man 3 would have been two decent films. Unfortunately, packing three villains and two big sub-plots into a single film only works if you have four hours or so to develop it, and you don’t get that in a tent pole film.

But to give credit where it’s due, the script still has some of the summertime snap of Spidey’s first two outings, and action fans won’t be disappointed. There were a few dialog missteps, even for a super-hero flick, but it was pretty good, and a decent introduction to the villains. The effects were as good as we’ve come to expect — in fact, I don’t think there’s ever been a cape and cowl flick with a final fight scene this epic. One of the keys to comics — the aspects that separate them from other media — is their ability to effortlessly shift scales. In a super-hero comic a person can fight an enemy the size of a building and have it seem believable (within the context). Unfortunately, the cost and capabilities of film special effects have kept most cape movies from mirroring this aspect, ending up with one guy in a union suit fighting another, with some collateral property damage thrown in for good measure. It’s nice to see that this film at least gets that much right.

If this film had been a comic book, it would have been spread over several issues; in fact, I understand that the story lines pillaged for this took years to play out. I wish the same could have happened here, but I guess Sam Raimi was afraid that he wouldn’t get to make Spider-Man 4, and wanted to get it all out of his system now.

So while I have little doubt that there will be a Spider-Man 4, I will retain some hope that the director and producer will pick one story and carry it through, instead of trying to trump quality with quantity again.*

*Really, though, I can’t say I care that much. I’ve always been more of a DC Comics guy than a Marvel guy, and yes, I’m willing to publicly admit that.


Heavy Metal: Yes, I saw then in the theater when it was first released. Since I had not been indulging in mind-altering substances at the time, I can only guess that my fond memories of the film were based on my date (a lovely young woman), an appreciation for comics, and the animated naked women with large breasts (speaking of my date). Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t hold up terribly well. The Superbit DVD edition looks grainy and the animation is choppy as hell, almost Scooby-Doo quality in places. Yes, I know it was made back in 1981, but I don’t see those problems on other animated feature films from earlier years. The stories (and naked chicks) are still okay, though, and it’s interesting to see how the visual styles of the comic artists who created the stories (Moebius, Richard Corben, Angus McKie, etc.) translated to the big screen. Still, the Harry Canyon sequence made me laugh, even after all these years.

Immortel (Ad Vitam): This odd little science-fiction film has been shown in the SciFi Channel, I hear, so you may have seen it. There’s certainly little chance that you saw it in the theaters, where it apparently played for about fifteen minutes in 2004. A French-made English-language film directed by Luc Besson, it is loosely based on a trilogy of graphic novels by Belgian artist Enki Bilal. As mentioned in my entry about The Fifth Element, I admit to a certain fascination with French science-fiction’s tropes: American cars, Egyptian gods, female assassins (and Nixon, although he doesn’t appear in this film), so a DVD cover with a pyramid floating over some megalopolis and Bilal’s name was enough for me. (The price being $6.99 didn’t hurt any, either.) It isn’t bad, although it’s heavy on atmosphere and visuals and skimpy on plot. I admire the production’s willingness to take a chance on mixing CGI and live action, and for the most part it works. Similar to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the film was shot entirely against blue screens, with all the sets and many of the characters added digitally. Again, for the most part it works, and the New York City of the future looks as dystopian as you’d expect. However, an unfortunate reliance on deus ex WFT? left me a bit cold. While this is clearly more a film of style rather than ideas, I had hoped for more.

It does bring up an interesting point, though, and one which has been the subject of some debate on-line. A woman in the film is raped by a man possessed by a god. Afterward the woman — who is not entirely human herself, having perhaps been created for the purpose of carrying a god’s progeny — becomes somewhat nonchalant about the ordeal, and even falls in love with the man who’s body was the conduit for the assault. So do the facts that the non-human woman doesn’t care and that the possessed person doesn’t get punished (though the god does) mean that the film is anti-woman and pro-rape? Immortel has been criticized by some viewers for just that, which makes little sense to me, mainly because the film just isn’t that deep.

The Fifth Element

The Fifth Element is one of those genre films I never seemed to find time to watch, even though many friends told me I’d enjoy it. I finally got around to putting the disc in the player after watching another English-language French science fiction film, Immortal (Ad Vitem), about which more tomorrow. Somewhat to my surprise, it was quite enjoyable.

Mind you, this is not deep, though-provoking Russian futurist film-making. All you really need to know about Fifth Element’s priorities is summed up in the opening credit: Costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier. This is a film reveling in its own sense of style, without a thought in its head. Yes, it is perhaps a little too reminiscent of Blade Runner in places, but it uses a much brighter palette, as is appropriate for a light action-comedy.

Fortunately, it has a lot of style. Weird mid-90s style, to be sure, but it’s hard to deny that it is visually inventive. Of course, the same charges are also leveled at French science fiction comics, from which this gets its ambiance and most of its motifs. What is the modern French fascination with extraterrestrial Egyptians; thin, athletic, naked female assassins; and American cars from the 1940s, anyway?

In the end it was two hours of flashy costumes, inventive visuals, cheesy plot, Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman chewing scenery, action-comedy soup, and Milla Jovovich naked. There are certainly worse ways to spend an evening.