Double Bill: Quatermass and the Pit (1967 – Roy Ward Baker) + Prince of Darkness (1987 – John Carpenter)

There’s a powerful idea of personal mythology that runs through my appetite for pop culture.  There are some movies and television shows that are engrained into my mind.  Cut me open, and I will bleed them.  Our vicarious thrill of horror movies – the desire to experience the terror of experiences that would traumatise us in the real world within the ‘safe’ setting of the cinema – seems burned into us from an early age.  It becomes an addiction; a thrill we hunger for again and again.

Nigel Kneale seems to have been the fix John Carpenter craved.  There was a constant thread of creeping dread that ran through his work that is reminiscent of Kneale’s own occupations.  Prince of Darkness seems to be the fulfilment of this obsession, such is its thematic bonds it shares with the adventures of Kneale’s most successful creation – Professor Bernard Quatermass.  Carpenter underlined this by naming one of his characters after that eponymous hero.  For whatever reason – and it’s quite likely that Kneale was still sulking after the Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982 – Tommy Lee Wallace) fiasco (Kneale was always a petulant artist) – it was a tribute rejected by the British writer.  But the horrible repercussions for humanity for meddling with an outside force (perhaps ‘demonic’) that has interfered in human evolution, and an exploration of the intertwined spheres of science and superstition, seem integral to both auteurs.

(Kneale himself had blended scientific enquiry with phantasmagoria in his acclaimed television play The Stone Tape (1972 – Peter Sasdy).  Whilst it is a masterpiece within its own form and builds to an eerily unpleasant ending, it never quite manages to escape the boundaries of seventies British television, all three-walled sets, multi camera set-ups and primitive video special effects.  It’s haunting in its own right, and powerfully evocative of the creepy British horror of M. R. James and old Doctor Who, but inherently anti-cinematic.  Which is not an implicit criticism – I preferred television when it was a distinct art-form in itself, rather than the indifferently filmed medium we endure nowadays.)

Despite the two films attempting to reconcile the separate spheres of faith and reason, they both admit the absolute existence of evil.  Now, whilst a rational explanation for its existence is presented (even if it is a hobgoblin from Mars), little consideration of the consequences of its existence are dealt with.  Modern aggressive rationalism (often as blind as faith can be) denies a reality of evil in the world, largely because operates from a westernised, privileged perspective.  Curiously, as we move further down the path of all-encompassing individualism, we often deny our responsibility for cruelty and ignorance, choosing to attribute it to social or personal dynamics beyond our control.  The existence of a real ‘demonic’ force could be seen to be the pinnacle of that instinct – an evil beyond our control.  In the worlds presented on the screen, we would be able to neglect any culpability in a malicious act.  Does that matter?  Emotionally, would a rational explanation for an evil act affect how we would respond to such cruelty?  Or would we feel the same?  It’s tempting to suggest that both universes would see an eventual dominance of faith-based belief systems, given the confidence with which they assert that good has ultimate dominion over bad.

(Despite my best efforts at rationality I remain convinced that ‘evil’ remains a useful word to use when discussing the world.  Too many children have been exposed to a darkness that causes them to lose a little of themselves.  Equally, our wilful neglect of animals – creatures, just like us that experience distress and agony – in order to satisfy our greed and ceaseless appetites, seems a distinctly evil act.)

There’s a generational shift between the two films.  Quatermass and the Pit is very much based on a wartime experience, whereas Prince of Darkness populates its cast with members of the successive generation.  These are the children who rejected the sacrifices of their parents in order to indulge in a more material world.  John Carpenter was firmly in this generation, though he (and amongst his contemporaries only George Romero shared in his convictions) was a genuine progressive.  His consistent approach to colourblind casting set him apart from, well let’s be honest, most of the filmmaking community till the present day.  Whilst Kneale was less able to present a varied range of experiences on screen, his consistently showed women to be the most industrious and imaginative members of his cast; women who often achieved this, despite the difficulties they faced in the workplace.  There is an empathy to both men’s writing that sets them apart from their contemporaries.

Watching Quatermass and the Pit is a more unnerving experience that watching the television serial upon which it is based.  Ultimately, the most chilling aspect of the cinema is the walk home at the end of the night.  In the shadows alongside the pavement, our minds cast fantasies that expand and enhance the myths we just saw on the screen.  It is the ability to scare ourselves through our own imaginations that demonstrates the utter effectiveness of storytelling.  Whilst John Carpenter wrote his script as a thematic exploration of Kneale’s concerns, it has always occurred to me that Prince of Darkness is in many ways a retread of his earlier work, The Fog (1980).  Both feature a large cast being threatened by a malevolent force that has been awakened in a traditional sanctuary.  However, Prince of Darkness has always been a more effective film in that it placed its plot in a single confined location, rather than the sprawling townscape of the earlier film (and it is to Carpenter’s great credit that he manages to balance narrative strands and define each member of his extensive cast within their placement in the building.)

For both films end with an act of hopelessness.  Like all discoveries, from the atom bomb to the death of god, the reality of the malicious force is something we can’t unlearn.  Its ultimate dominance of mankind is inevitable.  They speak to humankind’s enormous appetite for destruction.  Whilst Quatermass and the Pit seems initially to dwell within a more hopeful sixties, such was its vision of a successful space faring species, it seems to anticipate a more achievable reality.  That we, as species, are ultimately destined to destroy ourselves.  Either through our waste of the Earth’s natural resources, or the creation of our own redundancy through building a superior artificial intelligence, the reality appears to be that we as a species will never escape the confines of this planet.  Both films end with a defeat of the immediate threat, but accept that it is only a temporary respite.  Similarly, our destruction seems mutually assured.  Our complacency in the face of such certainty, speaks to our capacity for evil.

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