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.

All Hallow's Read

Not these books, though.

Bestselling author Neil Gaiman came up with a brilliant concept last week.

I propose that, on Hallowe’en or during the week of Hallowe’en, we give each other scary books. Give children scary books they’ll like and can handle. Give adults scary books they’ll enjoy.

And so was born a new tradition, one already embraced by lovers of scary stories around the world: All Hallow’s Read. It’s really simple. Find appropriately scary or spooky books, and give them away for Hallowe’en. Given my love of (a) Hallowe’en, (b) scary books, and (c) giving people gifts, this resonates with me in a big way.

Stories are the real essence of Hallowe’en, so what better way to celebrate it than to share them?

In that spirit, here’s what I am going to do. Would you like a free spooky book, without having to knock on my door? Leave a comment on this post saying “trick or treat,” and make certain you include a valid e-mail address (in the header, so no one sees it). If you’d rather, you could also send Hidden City a DM on Twitter, send a Facebook message, e-mail me directly, or use the Contact form. Just contact me in some way, say “Trick or Treat for a scary book!”, and I’ll send you something.

It’ll be much better for you than another bag of candy corn, anyway.

[I should point out that I’ll have to cut this off if the number of respondents gets too high, but since any post rarely exceeds two comments or twenty visitors these days, I don’t think we need to worry. If the number creeps into the hundreds… well, I’ll faint, frankly.]

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!