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.

The ASIDESTEPS CANON – no Jaws sequels – vol. VII

Sequels, prequels and remakes.  One of the greatest pleasures of movie obsession is seeing the films you love reimagined, seeing how different directors bring their own peccadillos to the proceedings.  Remaking movies is as old as cinema itself, so quite why the concept is so frowned upon nowadays, I have no idea.  Anyways.  These are my personal favourites (though it bears underlining that in nearly every case the original movie is superior.)  No Jaws (1975 – Steven Spielberg) sequels though because they’re all terrible.

61. Scars of Dracula (1970 – Roy Ward Baker)


Sixth film in the Hammer Dracula series

Nominally, much of the appeal of the Hammer Dracula series depends upon the erudite interplay between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, but they appeared apart in the series as much as they appeared together.  The films have a provincial charm, and speak to a very British tradition of ghost stories and theatrical tradition.  With three walled, almost stagey sets, the film seems as much a product of a long-forgotten method of filming, that of British television in the sixties and seventies, long before it became just crap movies.  This film is a memory of wet Sunday afternoons, with nothing to worry about except the adventure unfolding in front of us.  A later entry in the series, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974 – Roy Ward Baker & Chang Cheh), loses Lee, but regains Cushing, and becomes a wonderful blend of the vividly-colourful Hammer tradition and delightful charm of seventies kung-fu movies.

62. Dawn of the Dead (1978 – George A. Romero)


Semi-sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968 – George A. Romero)


Moving away from the claustrophobic, racially charged initial film, Romero widens his eye to a larger canvas.  Here, his target is commercialism, which he confronts in a fairly blunt way.  Subtlety is not something you can afford when using zombies.  By setting his movie in a shopping centre, he preys upon the idle fantasies we indulge whilst spending money we’re worked far too long for; that a mall, with its plethora of distractions and sugary treats, could be just a little more dangerous and a little more real.

63. Day of the Dead (1985 – George A. Romero)


Third in Romero’s zombie film series

Difficulties meant that the third film in the series couldn’t make the canvas broader, but instead reduce the series back to a base-under-siege type story.  But the film benefits from it significantly, and Romero ensure that the reality of sexual violence is as pronounced as any zombie threat.  Romero stands apart from the mindless use of zombies by most creators in his insistence of treating the walking dead as a new kind of lifeform, with burgeoning intelligence and infantile attempts at culture.  It ensures a more textured reality than the ones presented in the majority of films.

64. Diary of the Dead (2007 – George A. Romero)


Fifth in Romero’s zombie film series


But zombies remained popular, and by the turn of the millennium, money was readily available for him to extend his trilogy by making another zombie picture.  Land of the Dead (2005) is a too glossy, too star-filled entry to be valuable to his ongoing series, but the following film – nominally the first entry in what was a forsaken second trilogy – is thoroughly enjoyable.  Using the ‘found-footage’ schema that prevails in modern horror films, Romero created a whole world, one where safety was never possible.  Every moment of respite, every potential new ally, led to further death.  The zombies are lumbering and plainly stupid, but they are relentless, and there is no hope of escape, only the possibility of delaying it.

The following film, Survival of the Dead (2009) continued some of the ideas in this film by exploring how an isolated society would cope amongst the zombie pandemic, but it lacks the escalating tension that drives this film.  It remains to be seen whether a further entry will ever be made.


65. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981 – George Miller)


Sequel to Mad Max (1979 – George Romero)


There’s only so much exploitation I can handle in my life, and Ozploitation can’t quite reach the upper echelons of my interest.  I think it’s something to do with the insincerity of the accent.  But this sequel becomes something radiant; a sweaty, almost impossible car chase that is littered with leaking petroleum and mangled carburettors.  It presents the utter hopelessness of dystopia; where the last remaining semblances of dignity and compassion have been abandoned, and only the survival instinct remains.


66. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015 – George Miller)


Fourth in the Mad Max film series

Thirty(!) years after the third entry in the series (the faintly preposterous Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985 – George Miller & George Ogilvie)) Miller returned to his malfeasant film series.  It was a sequel that had existed in rumours and mutterings, and I didn’t quite believe it when it finally came out.  Using the template of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, it played as an extended, thoroughly brutal chase sequence.  But the vivid intensity of the colours, and the clattering of the soundtrack elevated this film into something quite spectacular.  A black and white version is available.

67. Before Sunset (2004 – Richard Linklater)


Sequel to Before Sunrise (1995 – Richard Linklater)


The appeal of Before Sunrise depends largely on your openness to romanticism and your tolerance of self-indulgent twenty-somethings.  But the sequel sweetly recognises the missed opportunities of youth and the desperation with which some people will strive to in order to capture a potential glimmer of hope and escape from their lives.  We all live with our abandoned relationships and regret and the words not said.  This film’s brilliance lies in the openness of its ending, where we never are quite sure whether they will throw everything away in the chance to build something on a neglected potentiality.  Will he get on the plane?

68. Before Midnight (2013 – Richard Linklater)


Sequel to Before Sunset (2004 – Richard Linklater)


Well, it turned out he didn’t get on the plane, and this subsequent sequel deals with the fall out when you casually destroy a life you once built.  The film delays the simmering mutual hostility of its central couple, before exploding in a near forty minute argument.  Here, the self-indugence starts to creep back in the series, but never quite dominates due to the texture and depth of the frame of their argument.  The success of the film is evident in the potential sequels you begin to dream of in your mind.  I’ll see you, Ethan, Julie and Richard, in 2022.


69. Staying Alive (1983 – Sylvester Stallone)


Sequel to Saturday Night Fever (1977 – John Badham)

Sylvester Stallone continued his exploration of the immigrant experience in Staying Alive, the only film he directed that he didn’t star in.  Transposing the rhythm of his boxing movies onto the equally physical movement of dance, Stallone applied montage, light and quick editing to create a movie dependent on the tension of achieving a perfectly executed jump.  Whilst the male form is fetishized and fantasised, this film offers a glimpse into the unapologetic sexism of Tony Manero, who shares the needy, goofy humour of Rocky Balboa, but stands in opposition to him through his inability to view women as anything other than objects.


70. Army of Darkness (1992 – Sam Raimi)

Sequel to Evil Dead II (1987 – Sam Raimi)

The third entry in the series plays down the horror elements of the series, but replaces it with an action-adventure ethos that is utterly engrossing.  Working on a wider canvas than the previous films, it is an essential entry in the populist, humorous, action-adventure stunt-heavy cinema that began with the Roger Moore Bond films and really only exists nowadays in the work of Edgar Wright.