Saturday, October 09, 2010

Seven Ways to Go to Hell: The First Seven Shots of John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness

John Carpenter's best movies exemplify the virtues of American horror movies made during the 1970s and 80s, a time when any genre director worth thinking about knew the genre and its traditions, and took those traditions seriously (don't worry, this isn't going to turn into an extended exercise in high fuddy-duddyism). Carpenter and contemporaries like Joe Dante and Stuart Gordon knew the entire arc of horror movie history because they came of age at a time when cultural institutions like Shock Theater, Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and Aurora monster model kits turned horror movie fandom into just another American pastime, like baseball or duck & cover drills. As a result, you had a generation of very self-conscious horror filmmakers who thought deeply about their antecedents yet never succumbed to the temptations of parody or mannerism. Their films very much worked within genre traditions, and extended those traditions in deeply satisfying and exciting ways.

Carpenter's films in particular couple an admirable reverence for horror film conventions with an extraordinary knack for narrative economy. Below, I've taken the first 7 shots of his 1987 film maudit, Prince of Darkness, and tried to get at some sense of what makes each of them work. I had a particular destination in mind when I started, and I was able to navigate myself there without too much trouble, but I was largely flying blind along the way. But I like to be surprised, so I liked this little exercise. Carpenter packs a lot of information into a small space, so I left out some observations that were interesting to me and might have been interesting to you, but I think I was able to give some sense of how individual choices fabricated a more or less coherent whole.

Shot 1, Still 1

Full moons have been part of horror movie syntax going at least as far back as Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man. Carpenter happily admits to falling back on cliché, but with enough skill, clichés can work as efficient shorthand, signifying ideas and history in one image. That's my way of saying that the full moon shot works. It starts the movie off on a perfect note. Well, except it's not really where the movie starts.

The real beginning occurs seconds earlier, as his minimalist, synth driven score plays under the Universal Pictures intro. I can't be sure, but I suspect he originally planned this shot as a neat graphic match with the Universal logo, cutting straight from the image of the revolving Earth to the static shot of the moon. Instead, the production company and producer credits separate the logo and the first shot. At any rate, the music and image immediately set the mood and signal the genre and, if you're hip to Carpenter's earlier films, the director. If you accidentally wandered in looking for Three Men & a Baby, you now know you're in the wrong theater.

Shot 2, Still 1

Notice how the shot carries directly over from the first image, with the light from the moon streaming through the window, forming a half circle against the door. It would be easy to cut to a close-up, but by cutting to this long shot, Carpenter keeps the first two images linked. The low-key lighting is very effective, and establishes an appropriately eerie mood, as the music score continues to pulse through the sequence. With night scenes, especially those in horror movies, a lot of contemporary filmmakers like bathing everything in blue hues (it's like a return to the silent movie convention of using blue tints to signify nighttime), but Carpenter and his cinematographer, Gary Kibbe, keep everything neutral. Also, notice the economy of the production design, and how effectively it conveys information. Thanks to the elaborate cross on the wall, hanging directly over the old man's body, the image tells us that at the very least he's a man of intense religious convictions, and the work of semiotics being what it is, we're probably already making the correct assumption that he's be a priest or minister of some kind.

Shot 3, Still 1

The film cuts to a close-up of the old man. The pattern of light changes between shots, so that where in the long shot, bright moonlight illuminates the entire right side of his face, here the light shining on him is decidedly lower-key. The change in lighting allows Kibbe to use the light to sculpt the man's face, emphasizing the tension in his jaw line, and the intensity of his upward stare. We sense this is a man with trouble on his mind.

Shot 3, Still 2

Then, in the same shot, he dies. Old religious man with trouble on his mind laying in bed wide awake in the middle of night, we hardly knew ye. Or maybe we knew a hell of a lot about you considering how little time you were on screen.

Shot 4, Still 1

Cut to shot 4, a close-up of the man's hands holding onto something. The cut conveys the idea that whatever's in his hands probably has something to do with whatever thoughts once occupied his no-longer-worried mind. Slowly but surely, his hands a fall away and reveal...

Shot 4, Still 2

... a box? Yes, a box. Or, as Roland Barthes would call it, a piece of the hermeneutic code. The contract provided by commercial narratives typically stipulate that hermeneutic riddles will resolve themselves in due time. This shot promises to tell us what's in the box if we stick around long enough. Think of this shot as a kind of promissory note offered to the spectator. It guarantees to reward our curiosity, and in return we promise not to abandon the film even if the characters grate, the style proves to be tacky, or we remember that we came to see Three Men & a Baby, not a John Carpenter movie with a down on his luck Alice Cooper. Of course, Three Men & a Baby isn't even going to explain the deal with the creepy ghost kid who suddenly pops up in the background during one scene, let alone the mystery of what's in the box in a completely different film. We're less than a minute into the movie, and the narrative ball is rolling onward.

Title Card

The title card. The only thing interesting about it (and I'm not counting this as a shot, or else I'd feel obliged to include the production company and producer credits) is that there's nothing interesting about it. Compare to the title card of Halloween or The Thing or They Live. Simple white on black design, arguably signifying starkness, possibly signifying a rush to just get the damn thing done on time and on budget.

Shot 5, Still 1

Shot 5, Still 2

Shot 5, Still 3

I really like the next sequence of image. It starts with a fairly common type of cheat that can be annoying or can be neat. This one's neat. It begins with a long shot which appears to be following the man in a white shirt. He's walking along in the middle of the frame, and gets consistently closer to the camera, which appears to be carefully tracking with his movements. So the scene is clearly about him, right? Well, not so fast.

Shot 5, Still 4

Shot 5, Still 5

Shot 5, Still 6

Shot 5, Still 6

The shot really has two subjects, neither of which is really our man in the white shirt. The first subject is the girl on the bicycle and the second is our man in red. Unless you happen to be a big Simon & Simon fan, you probably don't realize it yet, but you're now laying eyes on the film's star, Jameson Parker. The reason this kind of cheat shot can be annoying is because it can easily be fancy misdirection that lets the director yell, "Look ma, I can move a movie camera." (Or more accurately, "Look ma, I can order my DP to order the camera operator to move a movie camera.") In other words, this kind of 'track that, now track this' trick is often just an empty flourish. Here, it conveys some interesting information, and even the man in the white shirt serves a purpose.

The girl on the bicycle becomes apparent in the third still I excerpted from the shot. She glides across the frame as the camera tracks rightward. We see the man in the white shirt briefly glance at the girl, and then turn away. He shows no particular interest in her. Now, compare to Mr. Parker's character, who sees the girl coming his way, and, as shown in the fifth still, makes the effort to turn his head and catch a glimpse of her going in the opposite direction. He's clearly interested. The man in the white shirt's brief glance helps intensify Parker's more ostentatious gesture. Before we even know this is the guy we're supposed to be watching, Carpenter and Parker are already communicating information about the character, and establishing a key personality trait. To put it simplistically, he's horny, and that's all we might guess about him from this shot, but as the film unfolds, we find this guy is a kind of obsessive, somebody with almost stalkerish tendencies who watches and obsesses over girls (or one girl in particular). This trait will directly affect how the film's plot unfolds. And Carpenter starts building up this characteristic from the very first moment the character appears on screen.

Shot 5, Still 7

Shot 5, Still 8

Parker moves down frame from the long shot and into a medium shot. We can make guesses about his character, about his location, but nothing definite yet, although the satchel over the shoulder of a man in a polo shirt routine strongly connotes "either an instructor or aging graduate student or both" to me. The shot ends with him looking to his right, our left, and anybody who's ever seen a movie edited using continuity principles knows we're about to get a point of view shot.

Shot 6, Still 1

And the point of view shot reveals a pretty, red headed female, played by Lisa Blount. Keep in mind, this is just seconds after he ogled the pretty blond on the bicycle. He seems to be a man on the prowl. Or perhaps just very deeply lonely. So Carpenter feeds us more information about what makes this guy tick, and by cutting to a shot that so prominently features the redhead, we basically know we've been introduced to the film's female protagonist, who we, knowing Hollywood narrative conventions, assume will be the hero's love interest. The notebooks under her arm (universal sign in movie image-speak for "Hi, I'm taking classes!") and her appearance suggest she's another aging graduate student, a detail that largely resolves questions about the location. Okay, one last shot, and we're done for now.

Shot 7, Still 1

Cut back to a close-up of Parker. The shot-reverse shot pattern establishes a subject-object relationship between the two characters, and underscores the intensity of his interest. In other words, Carpenter lets us know this isn't like the fleeting lust for the girl on the bicycle thing you saw less that ten seconds ago; he really digs this red headed girl. This relationship is going places. Scary, nightmarish, apocalyptic places, but places just the same.

So, a lot of information, delivered in less than two minutes of running time, during which Carpenter establishes two major characters, one incidental character, the tone and genre, and sets two different narrative wheels in motion. The writing lays out the structure, but the skill and economy of Carpenter''s direction permits him to get all the necessary information across very quickly and without much fuss. Now for the requisite auteurist interpretive leap. The concluding close-up above allows us to get a good look at Parker. Now, take another look at him. Then take a look at the fellow pictured in the right side of the image below.

That's the director, John Carpenter, as I'm sure anybody reading this post knows. Now, I'm not saying they're spitting images of one another by any means, but I think it's fair to say that when Carpenter and/or the film's casting director picked Parker, and had him grow a mustache, they picked a man who fit a certain type, one which we might fairly call the John Carpenter type: a sandy-haired, skinny fellow with a mustache. Carpenter's go to guy throughout most of the 80s was either Kurt Russell, or when Kurt Russell wasn't available, gregarious, sturdy guys like Tom Atkins or Roddy Piper. I think Russell and actors in that mold were for Carpenter idealized images of what a macho man's man was supposed to be. Parker, in contrast, plays a deeply imperfect hero, someone's who's passive and ineffectual.

All of which leads me to speculate if we have in Prince of Darkness that most prized of auteurist objects: 'the auteur's most personal film.' Carpenter made Prince of Darkness right after Big Trouble in Little China flopped, bringing his then ascending career to a halt. Back to the minors for Mr. Carpenter. Parker's character, and the entire film's moody, apocalyptic tone, can be read as expressions of Carpenter's own uncertainty about the direction of his career, the direction of Hollywood, and the direction of the horror genre in the late 1980s. Now if I could only find proof that Lisa Blount looked just like Sandy King circa 1987, then I think this argument could really work.