Tag Archives: 1987

CAPSULE: SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY (1987)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Merrill Gruver, Michael Edwards, Barbara Millicent Roberts, Ken Carson

PLOT: The dizzying rise and tragic fall of the honey-voiced pop star is dramatized in the context of the ailment that killed her, as embodied by inanimate plastic fashion dolls.

Still from Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The use of dolls to perform a celebrity tell-all while simultaneously deconstructing the societal conditions that lead women into eating disorders is unusual in and of itself, without even getting into the strange collage of tones packed into 43 minutes. But the film’s legal unavailability and overall student amateurishness land it just shy of our list.

COMMENTS: Todd Haynes is earnest. It’s a quality that is remarkably out-of-step with our postmodern, irony-chasing, take-the-piss-out times. Who is this weirdo who insists on taking people at face value? In films like Far From Heaven, Carol, and even the recent Wonderstruck, he trusts in his characters to be open and honest even when they are being deceptive, a quality which is somehow more distancing to a modern audience than a detached remove.

Superstar demonstrates that he possessed this quality all along. In this, his M.F.A. dissertation film, Haynes takes on all the tropes of the celebrity biopic without a trace of irony. Like a soft-rock Esther Blodgett, innocent Karen is plucked from behind the drum kit to become the voice and face of The Carpenters, launching the sibling act into the pop music stratosphere. Just as quickly, the insecure girl falls prey to her own flawed self-image and heaps of abuse from her family, leading her to an equally meteoric crash.

At first glance, it seems like a parody of a Lifetime celebrity TV movie, but there’s Haynes’ earnestness again. Karen is a truly pitiable character, seen here as particularly ill-equipped for the pressures of stardom, despite her perpetual smile. Nearly everyone in her life is either carelessly or viciously cruel to her, and no one is more villainous than the version of Richard we meet here. Vindictive from the start (“I’ve found your singer,” Mom says, only to be met with Richard’s bitter rejoinder, “And lost me my drummer”), he browbeats his younger sister, bellowing at her about the damage she is doing to their career, harangues that are set to the impossibly rich harmonies of the siblings’ songs. So it’s hardly a surprise that he would set out to squash the film—successfully.

And then there’s the other story Haynes wants to tell: the tragically overlooked problem of anorexia itself. The movie gets pretty strange as Haynes starts to weave in a somewhat amateurish documentary about the disorder. The footage is ham-handed, with man-on-the-street interviews straight out of a 7th grade health film. But the facts themselves are horrifying, as we peel back the panoply of societal pressures Karen endured. It’s as if two very different movies were competing for the screen, and that’s even before Haynes goes in for an indictment of society at large, juxtaposing Carpenters songs against footage of Nixon, Vietnam, and even the Holocaust. It’s kind of pretentious, in that way that only young people who’ve just discovered a really impressive idea can be. But Haynes consistently gets away with it, thanks to his pure commitment.

On top of all that, let’s talk about the Barbie dolls. Like the lamest of puppets, these fashion dolls are propped up and posed to the accompanying soundtrack, standing perfectly still even as we’re supposed to imagine them belting out some of the biggest hits of the 70s, and damn if it doesn’t work. Barbie ends up being a perfect stand-in for Karen Carpenter: an impossible standard for beauty who is (literally) manipulated by everyone around her. Todd Haynes feels deeply for this put-upon, disfigured piece of plastic, and so do we.

Although Richard Carpenter’s legal action turned Superstar into a banned treasure (he cannily sidestepped any charges of over-defensiveness by going after the film’s liberal and unauthorized appropriation of the band’s songs, rather than its ruthless assassination of his character), the film has never completely gone away. Bootleg videos, occasional surprise museum screenings, and the electronic frontier have all kept the movie close enough for anyone who really wants to see it. A simple Google search should lead the curious to a lo-fi version of what is already a lo-fi production.

In the final scene, real hands take over for the doll extremities we have seen so far, and one fleeting image of the real Karen flickers in and out, like her life. We often talk about art as a way to get at a more substantial truth. Superstar manages to go one better, using extreme artifice to get at the heart of one very real, very broken human being.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… daringly peculiar… The film’s tragedy works in tandem with its tastelessness for a nightmarish effect not too far removed from one of David Lynch’s explorations of concealed horror…” – David Pountain, Filmdoo

(This movie was nominated for review by Kelsey Osgood, and then unknowingly seconded by Lovecraft in Brooklyn. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.

CAPSULE: AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON (1987)

DIRECTED BY: Joe Dante, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton, John Landis, Robert K. Weiss

FEATURING: “Lots of Actors”, including Arsenio Hall, , , Steve Forrest, David Alan Grier, B. B. King, , Steve Guttenberg, , Kelly Preston, , , Andrew Dice Clay, Griffin Dunne

PLOT: A collection of sketches parodying late-night TV content, anchored by a specific parody of goofy 1950s space operas.

Still from Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The sketch film has always been rare enough to merit a double take when one appears in cinemas, but this particular example of the form isn’t especially unusual, with nothing particularly outlandish or shocking, and the majority of sketches being of the one-joke variety.

COMMENTS: Although anthologies have been a recurring genre since early cinema, the heyday of the “sketch film” variant was the early 1970s: The Groove Tube, TunnelVision, and king-of-the-form Kentucky Fried Movie all parodied television’s challenge to attention spans. The form was also fairly economical, providing quick work to underemployed actors and aspiring comedy writers alike. None of these were box office bonanzas, though, so when Amazon Women on the Moon came along more than a decade later, it was fair to ask if it was a bold attempt to refresh the formula, or a last gasp for a format that had never truly lived.

Let’s go with B. First and foremost, Amazon Women is a comedy, but while it has quite a few solid jokes, it reveals time and again that it doesn’t have much else. Let’s consider one of the film’s best sequences, a vivid re-creation of 1930-era Universal horror movies starring Ed Begley, Jr. as the son of ’ Invisible Man. The black-and-white atmosphere is rich, and Begley even gets to repeat the famous bandage-removal scene. The catch: he’s not invisible at all. It’s a funny joke, as he obliviously cavorts about the room in the nude. The problem is, the sketch has another two minutes to go, and so we get more variations on the same joke, searching for an end.

This happens a lot. Scenes have a funny premise at their core, but then they have to keep going to justify their presence in a Hollywood motion picture: David Alan Grier sings in a super-white way—then he does it some more. A funeral turns into a Catskills roast—and we get the whole roast. Other sketches are shorter, but their jokes are smaller, too, and the scenes still feel stretched and padded. Amazon Women on the Moon has a tight five minutes; it gets an hour-and-a-half.

The film is not without its charms. The parodies have a clever eye for their sources, such as a 30s-era scare propaganda film that subtly re-dresses the same set over and over. Several performances capture the desired anarchic spirit, such as Griffin Dunne’s incompetent doctor and Carrie Fisher’s gullible ingénue. And every now and then, the film manages to tap into something sublimely silly; my personal favorite is an In Search Of/Unsolved Mysteries amalgam that manages to mashup the sordid deeds of Jack the Ripper with a more supernatural tale. But Moon’s a film that earns smiles more than laughs.

Ultimately, Amazon Women on the Moon is “Saturday Night Live” with slightly better production values: the jokes are hit and miss, and there’s a lot of work to get to the end of each sketch. It’s not the worst of its kind (that would be the execrable Movie 43), but it’s far from the finest. That honor probably belongs to Kentucky Fried Movie, and the filmmakers know it; references to fictional producer Samuel L. Bronkowitz mark Moon as Movie‘s spiritual sequel. But bad news, Sam: Amazon Women on the Moon is no Fistful of Yen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Amazon Women on the Moon is everything that Movie 43 wished it could have been, trenchant, hilarious, weird, and just plain fun.” — Sean Patrick, Geeks

(This movie was nominated for review by roastphoenix. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: ANGUISH (1987)

Recommended

 

DIRECTED BY: Bigas Luna

FEATURING: Zelda Rubinstein, , Talia Paul

PLOT: An audience watches a movie about a serial killer under hypnotic control by his mother killing off patrons of a movie theater, while themselves being victims of an obsessed killer prowling their own theater.

Still from Anguish (1987)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: You are getting very sleepy, back and forth, watch the metronome. Once you were like a snail, hiding in your shell. Now you’re on an elevator, going down to the twentieth floor, the nineteenth, the eighteenth… when you land, you will become one with us in nominating this unique thriller onto the List as one of the weirdest film experiences to be fooouuunnnd.

COMMENTS: As you read this review, if at any time you feel your mind leaving your body, you should cease reading immediately. Your humble author didn’t follow this warning, and look how I turned out. No really, we’re just passing along the William Castle-like warnings from the beginning of the film. But it’s good advice anyway, because this horror flick starts out invoking standard slasher fare, but ends up reminding you more of The Cabin in the Woods. We meet the creepy old lady Alice (Zelda Rubinstein) and her grown adult son John (Michael Lerner, also in Barton Fink) who live together in a house otherwise occupied by pet snails and pigeons. John is an eye doctor who is ironically going blind as a result of untreated diabetes, and his mother hypnotizes him into murdering people so he can harvest their eyes for her. Not that she’s motivated to cure his ailing vision; oh no, the eyes are just to increase her witchy powers. Among her many talents is the ability to remotely hear conversations by listening to a seashell, and project her own consciousness into her son’s mind when he’s out and about. And for a man losing his vision, John throws a pretty mean scalpel anyway.

But did you think that was the whole movie? Ha, just kidding, this is actually a movie about a theater audience watching the above movie, and getting melodramatically distressed at it. As the hypnotic scenes commence, the audience falls under the spell, variously swaying into a trance, or squirming uncomfortably as if they were held against their will to watch. Ah, but we go back to the movie they’re watching, and now John, in a quest for fresh victims at his mother’s behest, invades yet another movie theater showing The Lost World. Even this black-and-white dinosaur adventure holds its audience enthralled enough to provide great cover for John to quietly off the victims and collect the eyeballs, in between dinosaur roars. A young lady leaves what is revealed to be the theater showing The Mommy, where we’re now starting to get lost as to which layer of of movie we’re in. As we follow the distressed girl getting her bearings in the theater bathroom, we realize that she wasn’t watching The Lost World, but The Mommy, the movie we’ve been mostly concerned with up until now.

Just when we’re begging not to get anymore confused, a new murder plot forms around the people watching The Mommy. As the events of The Mommy continue, the movie theater staff and eventually the audience watching it are preyed upon by a new killer, even as John in The Mommy scalpels victims in his own theater while this new killer prefers a trusty gun. From here on out, events blur between the two theaters, as the film practically dares you to keep up. The new killer huddles in the bathroom and also babbles “mother”; it turns out he’s a fan obsessed with The Mommy. Both killers barricade the doors of their respective theaters, the better to trap victims for an all-out rampage. At times you’re watching an audience watching an audience, at other times you’re asking which bathroom we’re in, and at times even The Lost World’s events blend with the various audiences’ experiences. And guess what? We’re not done shifting points of reality yet, because it turns out we were watching a movie in a movie in a movie… or something. And you thought Inception was hard to follow!

If you’re a big fan of Zelda Rubinstein, who also plays the spooky psychic from the Poltergeist series, then this is your party. Rubinstein dominates the earliest film, her dulciloquent baby-doll voice rasping away and chanting hypnotic spells as her face fills the screen in between shots of whirling spirals, ticking metronomes, rocking lights, and sometimes shots filmed with a spinning camera—bring your barf bag. This goes on for most of the inner movie (and the movie’s movie, and the movie’s movie’s movie…), and when it’s not, the visuals establish artistic motifs around eyes and spirals until it switches to the stacked-movie premise, which invites us to ponder the thin wall between violent movies and obsessed fans (which gets uncomfortably close to later real-life events, even). Anguish does everything it can to drill itself into your conscious. It’s a corkscrew roller-coaster ride through a hall of mirrors, smartly setting you up for an expectation and then veering off into a new curve. While it has some flaws, such as the secondary cast at times giving  performances so wooden they smells like lemony furniture polish, Anguish works its ass off to end up giving you several movies in one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Well, after seeing it in an actual movie theatre (one eerily similar to the two featured in the film), I can safely say that this deeply weird endeavour definitely needs to be seen at a proper movie theatre.”–Yum-Yum, House of Self-Indulgence

CAPSULE: BAD TASTE (1987)

Recommended

 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Jackson, Pete O’Herne, Terry Potter, Mike Minett, Craig Smith, Doug Wren

PLOT: The citizens of the sleepy town of Kaihoro, New Zealand are killed and packed into boxes by alien operatives marketing a new intergalactic fast-food taste sensation; only a crack squad of fearless Ministry operatives stands between them and total world harvestation.

Still from Bad Taste (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even if we were at movie zero, Peter Jackson’s debut wouldn’t qualify. It’s gross and, considering the budget, very well made, but it’s more silly than strange. It is also hilarious, and the only really weird thing about it is how often it manages to be simultaneously charming and disgusting.

COMMENTS: Directorial debuts are always interesting, if only to see a filmmakers’ interests and techniques in their beginnings.  planted his flag early with The Falls, establishing himself as an obtuse, technically brilliant painter-turned-documentarian-turned-narrative filmmaker. threw down his gauntlet with Reservoir Dogs, and has pursued a path between hyper-violence and hyper-loquaciousness ever since. And then there’s Peter Jackson. With Bad Taste, he somehow established how he would not turn out. Tone-wise, it would be difficult to find a film further from his beautiful first foray into the “main(er)stream” (1994’s Heavenly Creatures), or his towering fantasy achievement, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, the only connections one could reasonably find between Bad Taste and his popular Tolkien adaptations are staggering competence and New Zealand locations.

A desperate call for help, listened to by a no-handed man. The Minister is panicking and wants to call in the army and air force to deal with the murderous menace; the no-handed man says no: “I think this is a job for real men.” Those real men are none other than Derek (Peter Jackson), Barry, Frank, and Ozzy. Their job: keeping mankind safe from any and all extraterrestrial threats. The enemy: alien harvesters working for “Crumbs Crunchy Delights”, who have killed, chopped, and packed the inhabitants in the small town of Kaihoro. The aliens hope to get a permit to serve humanity, in all its deliciousness, to hungry interstellar fast food connoisseurs. Will our hometown heroes save the day, or will Lord Crumb (Doug Wren) and his swarms of alien goons escape with the samples? One thing’s certain: never before have inhuman monsters underestimated a gang of New Zealand lads so completely.

Bad Taste is a mountain of silly gore that amuses as it grosses out. The movie constantly reinforces the cheekiness of the premise, and the tone never slips into “grisly.” Its most (in)famous scene—the secondhand dinner enjoyed by the third-class aliens in their base—is about as far as Bad Taste pushes its… bad taste. Overall, though, it plays like a nonsense romp through alien-invasion-sci-fi-action. With the bulk of the movie a showdown between the boys and the alien horde, we enjoy a lot of well-executed amateur stunts and gags. That being said, there’s nothing too “weird” here, but “wacky”–most definitely.

To justify, if only slightly, the film’s “Recommended” status, let me say straight-up that this is neither one of the better movies out there, nor even one of the better Peter Jackson movies out there (nor, even, the best low-budget sci-fi movie out there). Before watching it for this review, the last time I’d seen it was during my high school days when I was beginning my exploration of offbeat cinema. The movie, made in 1987 for very little money, has held up astonishingly well, and I’m almost always pleased to boost movies made for the sake of making movies. The subject matter is ridiculous, definitely, but that’s part of its charm. Bad Taste earns its recommendation because it shows what a handful of talented artists can do if they put their minds to it. It doesn’t over-stay its welcome, it’s full of life, and its ample bad taste is more than matched by its charm.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…so over-the-top it achieves a unique level of surreal slapstick.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Review (DVD)

CAPSULE: WINGS OF DESIRE (1987)

Der Himmel über Berlin

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk

PLOT: Angels wander around Berlin, able to read people’s thoughts but unable to intervene in their lives aside from providing vague comfort; one decides he wants to become human.

Still from Wings of Desire (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The film is a masterpiece, but scarcely a weird one. It’s few odd points are firmly anchored to its internally logical art-house ambitions.

COMMENTS: The two melancholy angels listen to people’s thoughts. “There’s nothing good on TV.” “How will I ever get a washer and dryer in here?” They envy them: “I’d like to be able to say ‘now’… No longer ‘forever’ and ‘for eternity. I’d like to take the empty seat at a card game…” They follow a retired academic who muses to himself about storytelling; spy on a college student working as a streetwalker; listen to the last thoughts of a motorcycle accident victim and a suicide. They share notes, compiling a record of what it means to be human without being able to feel, to taste. Until, after an hour and a half of this torment, one of them decides to fall… “First, I’ll take a bath. Then get a shave, from a Turkish barber, if possible.”

It’s more involving than it sounds: challenging, but hypnotic. It succeeds brilliantly in its mission to try to get you to focus attention on the small details of life, the things a child notices that your adult brain has learned to ignore. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades a purgatorial Berlin. The cinematography (mostly misty black and white, with color interludes) was courtesy of Henri Alekan, who was nearing 80 at the time. (The director wanted Alekan because he had shot La Belle et la Bete, which Wenders considered the most beautiful black and white film of all time). The music, by Jürgen Knieper, is downbeat celestial, with a choir, harps, and a moaning viola. The two angels (with ponytails) are appropriately ghostly, but the decision to cast Peter Falk as himself, in town to play a role in a historical WWII drama, was a winning gamble. Falk’s partly comic, avuncular persona supplies a New World warmth the solemn Teutonic angels can’t. Falk’s naturalistic “coffee and cigarettes” monologue is one of the most moving humanist statements ever put on film. As life-affirming films go, Wings of Desire succeeds where lesser attempts fail because it recognizes humanity is overflowing with pain, sorrow, and boredom—and, fully acknowledging the cost, gleefully argues that being alive is worth it anyway.

In a bit of irony so cutting it could have come out of a satire, Hollywood bought the rights and remade Wings of Desire—as a sappy, over-explained romance with a pop-rock soundtrack, starring and 90s sweetheart Meg Ryan, helmed by the director of Casper! Where Wings of Desire is about the joy of being human, the misconceived City of Angels demonstrates the shame of the same condition. Even so, Angels is arguably better than Wenders’ own unnecessary Wings sequel, Faraway So Close!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Wings of Desire’ doesn’t release its tension in a smooth plot payoff. It creates a mood of sadness and isolation, of yearning, of the transience of earthly things. If the human being is the only animal that knows it lives in time, the movie is about that knowledge.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER (1987)

DIRECTED BY: Jerry Rees

FEATURING: Voices of Deanna Oliver, Jon Lovitz, , Thurl Ravenscroft

PLOT: A forgotten appliance and its fellow overlooked mechanicals set off on a journey to find their long-lost master, and encounter many perils along the way to their surprising reunion.

Still from The Brave Little Toaster (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The movie has a rough charm that comes from its modern setting, fresh characters, and willingness to flirt with bleakness in its darkest moments. That distinguishes it from what we’ve come to expect from animated films ostensibly aimed at children. But it’s not much different from the purest forms of fable, where danger and derring-do culminate in an important lesson.

COMMENTS: Disney’s rejection of The Brave Little Toaster is the stuff of animation legend: an enthusiastic animator thought Hugo-winner Thomas M. Disch’s “bedtime story for appliances” would be the perfect material for the studio’s first all-CGI feature. However, the cost-conscious House of Mouse had been burned before, taking a bath on the computer-live action hybrid Tron, and the notion of inanimate objects with hope and fears was strange and off-putting to the Disney execs who were about to be overthrown by Michael Eisner. Mere minutes after the animator completed his ambitious pitch, Disney fired him. That luckless wannabe-pioneer’s name? John Lasseter. So that all worked out.

The Brave Little Toaster that did emerge (hand-drawn, produced independently but with Disney financing) is a likeable modern-day fairy tale pitting Toaster and Friends against powerful forces that could easily destroy them, including nature, mass consumerism, and jealousy. Three of the film’s four songs (composed by Van Dyke Parks, none especially catchy) feature our heroes being threatened with destruction. Appliances are broken, electrocuted, submerged in raging rapids, vivisected for their parts, and thrown into a kind of abattoir for machines. At one point, a character’s fear of being short-circuited takes the form of a nightmare vision of a sinister clown firefighter. Toaster pulls no punches, which is bracing and shocking in this day of trigger warnings and safe spaces.

The film is helped immensely by its appealing cast. Beginning with Oliver, who has a good blend of overconfidence that matures into selflessness, the casting is solid all the way through, catching Groundlings veterans Lovitz, Hartman, and Tim Stack right before they would leap into television, presenting voiceover legend Ravenscroft (he’s grrrreat!) in a wholly new context, and even crafting an appealing performance from child actor Timothy E. Day. Toaster also boasts an unusually strong roster of behind-the-scenes figures from the impending Disney renaissance: Kevin Lima (Tarzan and Enchanted), Mark Dindal (The Emperor’s New Groove and Chicken Little), Chris Buck (Tarzan and Frozen), and Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) are all on the payroll. The most important credit is undoubtedly that of screenwriter Joe Ranft, who would go on to become the soul of the early Pixar films. In fact, Lasseter’s interest in the story and Ranft’s role in shaping it point to the biggest problem in judging Toaster on its own merits, and that problem rhymes with Shmoy Shmory.

The parallels between Toaster and the adventures of Woody and Buzz accumulate quickly: the young master whom the appliances revere, the tension between old-but-functional and new-and-shiny technology, the bespectacled nerd who exploits the heroes for financial gain, the terrifying climax in a junkyard, even the protagonist’s redemption and sacrifice for friends and cohorts—the echoes are strong, and perplexing to anyone who doesn’t know which one came first.

Disney may have been terrified of talking kitchen implements then (a fear they overcame with the enchanted accoutrements of Beauty and the Beast), but audiences proved quite capable of handling that particular level of strangeness, leaving us with a small but charming film that deserves at least a little light, sitting as it does in the shadow of what-might-have-been.

Besides, if you’re looking for true off-the-wall, WTF weirdness, may I direct your attention to one of this movie’s direct-to-video sequels, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars, in which the gang journeys to the titular Red Planet to rescue a baby from the clutches of a fascist refrigerator (voiced by Alan King!) Along the way, they meet a cluster of balloons who were let go by children and now float aimlessly through space, a group of appliances purposely designed poorly to further a planned-obsolescence scheme and who now harbor visions of an anti-human jihad, and the Viking I lander (voiced by DeForest Kelley!!!), who has a codependent relationship with a Christmas tree angel. How can a mere clown firefighter even hope to compete?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a warped, weird tone and perspective that, even a quarter of a century later, doesn’t quite resemble anything else. It’s kind of like a kid’s film, except with narrative ambiguities and shading that no kid could possibly be expected to pick up; it has the usual litany of musical numbers that, in the ’80s, were the exclusive provenance of cartoons, but its songs go to some decidedly odd places in the orchestration, and utter bleakness in their staging – one number is sung by sentient cars as they’re being crushed to death.” – Nathaniel Rogers, The Film Experience (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Jess Harnell, who said, “The film features mental illness, conspiracy theories, mutilation, suicide, murder, terrifying nightmares, desecration, fatalism and the nature of mortality, all done in a children’s film about talking appliances.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

CAPSULE: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, , Victor Wong

PLOT: A priest discovers the essence of evil buried in a vault underneath a Los Angeles church, and a team of professors and grad students set out to study it.

Still from Prince of Darkness (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you laid out all the world’s horror movies on a spectrum from utterly surreal to mundane, Prince of Darkness would just barely lie on the strange side of the weird meridian.

COMMENTS: Like a lot of John Carpenter’s later horror movies, Prince of Darkness frequently weaves back and forth across the thin line that separates intriguing from goofy. On the one hand, the idea that quantum physics might take the place of nuclear power as the horror movies’ go-to source of scientific anxiety is exciting. (Other than the rare ambitious item like Crowley/Chemical Wedding, horror hasn’t followed Carpenter’s lead here, preferring genetics as more populist technological boogeyman). At the subatomic level, argues Prince of Darkness‘ sage, Professor Birack, rationality breaks down and the everyday rules of logic don’t apply. Playing off people’s discomfort with physicists’ unnerving message that the foundations of matter and reality are wispy and indeterminate, the script argues that Satan might be hiding out at the subatomic level.

That’s a clever inspiration for a horror film, so it’s a little disappointing to see such notions translate into Lucifer as a glob of glowing green goo trapped in a centrifuge in the Church basement. Recasting the Book of Revelation in science-fictiony terms, Jesus becomes a good alien speaking to the prophets in code to help us ward off future attacks by bad aliens—or something like that. At one point, the computer monitor warns one of the investigating grad students, “You will not be saved by the god Plutonium.”

Actually, if Prince of Darkness had contained more of that type of oracular craziness, it might have passed muster as a campy classic. Instead, the movie mostly abandons the religio-scientific mumbo-jumbo for its second half and ventures into a standard people-trapped-in-a-building-fighting-zombies scenario. The Evil Presence, whatever it is, doesn’t play by constant rules. Sometimes, it possesses people at a distance to do its bidding, as with the homeless people it enslaves and uses to encircle the church. At other times it has to infect hosts by spitting a stream of fluid directly into their mouths, and at yet other moments it kills someone first, then reanimates him to do its bidding. The choice of which method it uses all comes down to whatever most conveniently leads into the next big kill or grossout scene (although the Evil seems to prefer killing males and possessing females via fluid transfer, it’s not a stickler about it). The second half of the movie becomes a bit of a formula exercise in winnowing down the cast, as grad students are gradually sacrificed to the growing evil. Still, a few oddball moments poke through the familiar fabric (i.e. Victor Wong fighting grad-student zombies with a shaken-up Sprite and a chopstick, and a “this is not a dream” dream sequence that’s one of the movie’s better ideas), making Prince a confounding glimpse at a great weird movie that could have been.

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray “Collectors Edition” of Prince of Darkness makes Universal’s old bare bones DVD edition obsolete (unless you don’t own a Blu player, as Shout! hasn’t released this version on the older format). It includes a commentary by Carpenter, an alternate opening shot for television, and several interviews (including one with rocker Alice Cooper, whose role in the film is little more than that of an extra with lots of screen time).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…an endearingly odd, consistently creepy film… met on its own bonkers terms, Prince Of Darkness proves satisfying.”–Keith Phipps, The Dissolve (Blu-ray)