Following Big Trouble in Little China’s disappointing box office returns, director John Carpenter returned to low budget filmmaking. For Alive Films–and distributed through Universal, back in the Carpenter business following the failures of The Thing and Halloween III–Carpenter wrote and directed Prince of Darkness and They Live. His last two films of the eighties, the Alive Duet turn out the lights on the first half of Carpenter’s career while foreshadowing the second half.
Prince of Darkness is particularly notable as it brings back Donald Pleasance, who last worked with Carpenter on Halloween II (which Carpenter wrote and produced, but did not direct) six years before. Pleasance’s presence gives the film a very familiar feeling–he even has the same name as his Halloween character. So Prince of Darkness is visibly Carpenter, not studio Carpenter and not seventies Carpenter, but a somewhat pulpy one. Gary B. Kibbe’s photography on Prince of Darkness is muted, mundane. There’s no glamour to Prince of Darkness, so Carpenter’s able to get away with that lower budget. He’s still thinking about how to best connect with the viewer. What’s too much–and Prince of Darkness gets wackier than any other Carpenter script–and what’s acceptable. The film also returns Carpenter to his closed locations and limited cast members–they’re being held hostage by Satan slime. Dennis Dun and Victor Wong are the only other returning Carpenter players–they’re back from Big Trouble–but Peter Jason does start his run for most often cast in a John Carpenter film award. He’s got five, all theatrical, unlike Charles Cyphers who has four theatrical and two television movies.
Oddly enough, Prince of Darkness would have been one of my first John Carpenter movies growing up. It was on cable a lot; on one of the movie channels. We didn’t have cable yet, but I did see it around. I’ve got a lot more respect for it today than I ever did as a kid. The pan and scan wouldn’t have helped, but you also need a certain intellectual detachment with Prince of Darkness and I wouldn’t have had it as a kid.
Prince of Darkness got a relatively early DVD release–2000–back when Image was releasing Universal’s catalog. And people finally got to see it widescreen. Universal had pan and scanned the LaserDisc in 1988. The film’s ridden a tide of casual affection–there’s a nice blu-ray special edition and everything. It’s actually rather surprisingly because I distinctly remember it being bandied about as an example of the new depths of Donald Pleasance’s career at the time. Of course I was a kid, but I feel like I paid attention to it enough. People didn’t like back to low budgets Carpenter, not on Prince of Darkness. Maybe because Jesus is a space alien too; just saying.
So while Prince of Darkness didn’t inspire a new generation of Carpenter fan, the next one did. People loved They Live, kids, adults, whatever. Guys. Let’s be clear. Always guys, but the strangest and widest variety of them. Something about Rowdy Roddy Piper in what otherwise would’ve been a Kurt Russell role, finding out the world’s being taken over by space aliens, running out of bubble gum. It’s a lot. And Meg Foster’s in it. Meg Foster was in a certain type of movie in the eighties–genre crap, basically; at the time, They Live fit into an existing genre, something Carpenter was never comfortable doing before. The more he tried, the more he failed. Except with They Live, because he didn’t take it seriously.
He brings back Peter Jason from Prince of Darkness, Keith David from The Thing, and George ‘Buck’ Flower from–wait, George ‘Buck’ Flower is in five theatricals. Sorry Peter Jason, you lose. Anyway, some of They Live feels like it’d pair well with another Carpenter movie or pretty much anything else. It’s accessible and iconic, but it’s also occasionally lazy and not imaginatively done enough from Carpenter. His direction is perfunctory, maybe because he doesn’t have an actor to connect with. Piper’s not good enough, Foster (in the Laurie Zimmer part) is underwritten and underperformed; maybe Keith David? But the writing isn’t there.
They Live also didn’t get a letterbox release until DVD. It too was an Image Entertainment release when they had the Universal license; it came out the same day as Prince of Darkness actually. Since then it’s had rereleases and special features and a blu-ray or two. It’s become a film people have seen, which wasn’t always the case. It’s easily Carpenter’s most referenced film in pop culture; I mean, the video game Duke Nukem just ripped off all Piper’s lines but no one really realized it for a few years because the Internet was smaller back then.
After They Live in 1988, it’d be another four years before Carpenter made another film and another thirteen before he’d make one better than They Live. They’re the last of many things in Carpenter’s filmography. The last Alan Howarth collaboration, the last time Larry J. Franco is producing; they’d both been around since Escape from New York. It was the end of the archetypes Carpenter had been working with since he started–no more Laurie Zimmers, no more Snake Plisskens (not even when Snake Plissken would come back). It’d be a heck of a lot less depressing if They Live didn’t have a weak final third, because in context, the Alive Duet feel more like defeat than anything else. Carpenter tried, it didn’t work. And when he returned after four years, there’d never be any real expectation again when you saw the preview for John Carpenter’s Memoirs in the Mouth of Damned Mars Vampires.