Mutant Popcorn #11

Nick Lowe

Prince of Darkness

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

Interzone Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be serving up each and every insightful portion for your enjoyment.

The serving below – The Believers, Beetlejuice, Prince of Darkness – appeared first in Interzone #25 (September/October 1988).

To digress for a moment, it’s strange how the white boys are still scared of rhythm. With the recent curious renascence of the voodoo movie, we’ve been hearing rather a lot this season of the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes. There’d be nothing to mind if these came together in the form of a DeDe Saint-Prix 12’ dance mix, but movieland’s image of Creole country is sadly still rooted in a kind of queasy xenophobia that trips to a very different beat. There’s a remarkable scene, for instance, in Schlesinger’s spring dud The Believers where the black-as-sin Haitian villain takes time off from ritual child-murder to hog the dancefloor at a New York society fundraiser. Drums pound, eyeballs roll white, and watching matrons turn moist as this extraordinary beautiful male goes into a sinuous boogie that would put our Gracie to shame. What makes this set-piece remarkable, and actually deeply unpleasant, is that it’s presented to its audience as a terrifying manifestation of ultimate evil. The problem, of course, with voodoo pictures, and the reason why the present revival is not an encouraging trend, is that their address to the emotions is irreducibly based on crudely racial fears – even when (as, I may say, conspicuously fails to happen in The Believers) this theme is intellectually controverted in the film’s surface text. Even the popular music of the French Caribbean, which by any standards has to be the most ebullient and danceable currently produced on this planet, finds itself distorted by film composers into a wretched travesty full of jungle drums and sinister tribal whoopings. It’ll be interesting to see what’s happened to Wade Davis’s original book The Serpent and the Rainbow in Wes Craven’s ‘inspired-by’ flick version: in particular, whether anything remains of the book’s careful argument that the real roots of the zombi cult lie not in the molecular chemistry of blowfish toxins but in the racial politics of post-colonial Haitian history. But given the project’s genre market and credentials, I doubt we’ll be jiving to the vini soukoue white-hot horns of Tabou Combo on the soundtrack.


These idlings were touched off by the big production number in our late-summer blockbuster Beetlejuice, in which the spirits attempt to scare bejasus out of a clutch of New York sophisticates by turning their dinner party into a high-footin’ eye-rollin’ mime rendition of ‘Day-O’. In fairness to the movie, the Belafonte classics that bring a touch of distinction to the soundtrack are hardly there to be scary, but simply to add one more elaborate style gag to an already rather style-heavy film. But the calypso number does showcase well the essential qualities of this profoundly eccentric movie: it’s brilliantly mounted, makes no sense whatever, performs disorienting flips between horror and farce without being either terribly frightening or terribly funny, and leaves you in a state of complete bemusement that at times can be legitimately mistaken for pleasure.

For Beetlejuice is an light-hearted comedy about American death: in particular, about the genuinely nightmarish possibility that life after death might be just as shallow and stupid as life before. Its plot follows the wacky misadventures of the endearingly dull Mr and Mrs Maitland following their zany car crash and rib-tickling death by drowning. On entry to the film’s resolutely non-denominational afterlife, they find themselves trapped for a statutory 125 years in their idyllic timber home in Winter River, Connecticut, where their posthumous troubles are only beginning. First, their rustic haunt is bought up by a speculator from the Apple, who moves in his gruesome sculptress wife and Goreyesque teenage daughter. (Dad, cheerily: ‘When we’re settled in we can build Lydia a darkroom in the basement.’ Lydia, morbidly, through black veils: ‘My life is a dark room…’) The new owners’ taste in redecoration and lifestyle is so horrendous that the late occupants resolve to evict them. But, the incomers are too gross-o to respond to traditional haunting techniques; the harassed otherwordly social security system offers little help; and the Maitlands reluctantly engage the services of cowboy ‘bio-exorcist’ Betelgeuse (insistently kooky playing by Michael Keaton) to rid their home of the lingering presence of the quick. Unfortunately, while Dad is still fixated on his mercenary vision of converting the whole town to a supernatural theme park, the Maitlands are getting on rather well with the comparatively reasonable Lydia; and too late they discover that in unleashing the repulsive Betelgeuse they’ve only made their existing problems worse…

No summary can quite capture the flavour of this uniquely strange picture, which surprisingly wiped floor with the US boxoffice this spring (until the advent of Colors, and a different kind of movie history). Beetlejuice comes more or less out of nowhere, careers around the place with giddy scorn for bourgeois conceptions of plot, and leaves you staring baffled at a roll of credits and wondering whether somebody spiked your Kia-Ora with a powerful mind-altering chemical. Too loose to cohere as an effective satire on American attitudes to death, art, and exploitable cash opportunities, too marshmallow for black comedy and too mild to be conventionally surreal, it seems to have been assembled by a team of brains not quite native to this universe, like a Bizarro remake of Randall and Hopkirk. The experience of watching such a film is hard to convey, but the ‘Day-O’ sequence is a key moment, because it marks the point where you suddenly realise that everything you’ve been expecting to end up making sense isn’t going to do anything of the kind. What you get instead, as the second half of the film unwinds, is a gradual induction into a new mode of cinema logic, culminating in a resolution of all tangled ends that seems quite natural in this film’s own strange language, but defies any familiar laws of cause and sequence to explain.

Actually, though, the whole thing is pretty entertaining, considering that many of the jokes seem born with the dead and most of the performances are dreadful. (Two honorable exceptions, though. Geena Davis from The Fly is wonderfully deadpan and really very funny as the departed heroine; she certainly doesn’t deserve the come-on grin and gratuitous cleavage they’ve saddled her with on the poster. And Winona Ryder charmingly carries the adolescent Lydia’s transformation from Addams Family weirdhead to the most normal character in this increasingly freakshow household.) Tim Burton, who did Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, directs with that microscopic fascination for visual nuance and design that seems to be a trademark of animators turned to live-action; he’s weaker on actors and narrative, but in this case it scarcely figures. A Joe Dante might have brought more tightness and edge to the humour, and the calypso number would have left scorch marks on the screen if they’d junked Belafonte and used Black Stalin’s ‘Burn Dem’ instead… But that’s art, and this is Hollywood. At least it’s refreshing to see a studio picture that for all its misses looks nothing like anything that’s come before. That the weird script got made at all is surprising, let alone with a full-effects budget; that the end result has been hoovering cash from the punters’ pockets will doubtless cause anguished scratching of bald spots in high places late into the night. I must say I feel for the mogul-men in their perplexity. Like other deadbeat relics of the semiotic age, I live in dread of the moment when the future arrives and I’m too much the old cyberhippy to understand it. For all I know, I could have just witnessed the birth of the new surrealism. I hope it’s just a teratoid mutation.

Meanwhile, the year-so-far’s other completely whacko movie was stayed away from in shoals, and will no doubt have skipped town months before you ever see this. So let me explain three reasons why you were wrong to miss Prince of Darkness. One, it has a character stabbed to death with a bicycle. No, no reason at all that I could see; nobody in the rest of the film appears even to notice. Two, it brings back all the classic John Carpenter trademarks you thought he’d grown out of long since: perfunctory acting; laughable dialogue (credited to a pseudonym, and who can blame him); Donald Pleasance (better than ever); disposable characters trapped on a cheap set getting picked off one at a time; and the most atrociously-written romantic relationship in the entire Carpenter oeuvre. Okay, it’s not always that scary, and the score is beginning to sound ominously new-agey in places, but in most respects it’s a nostalgic treat for anyone with a soft place for Assault on Precinct 13. And third and most fetching, it has absolutely the most staggering imbroglio of sheer conceptual overdose since the great explanation scenes of the fifties. The only thing like it in recent sf is the late Dick of Valis and Archer; and in recent sf cinema, there’s just nothing. Nothing.

This is a movie that starts – mind you, starts with the discovery of a scientific basis for Catholicism. In the basement of a derelict church the Rev. D. Pleasance discovers a big glass tube with the son of Satan inside, and an instruction manual on how to stop him summoning the big fella from the dark side. Poo, you say, standard issue off-the-shelf occult thriller plot; but no. For Don calls in his friend the hammy Chinese physics prof., who brings along his squad of expendable graduate students to analyse the find, translate the manual (‘Wait a minute! these are differential equations!’), and get a strange dream from the future beamed into their sleeping brains (‘Tachyons! of course!’) while the evil one’s powers awake from their slumber thanks to an unexplained side-effect of supernova 1987A. Unhappily, the one bit of Christian dogma invalidated by the manual is the bit about God existing (some dizzying twaddle over ‘antiparticles’ here); while His putative Son was just some xt humanoid who came to grief trying to warn us about the thing in the tube. So it’s up to our dwindling band of scientist heroes to prevent the advent of total evil over the entire universe…

This heady stuff is let down partly by its own ambition – there’s just too much mind-boggling theology, too much quickfire pseudotechnical bluffing – and partly by its devotion to low-budget genre elements like sprays of acid, walking dead, man-eating roaches and armies of homicidal bag ladies (‘He can only control comparatively simple organisms’). But these incongruous plotfellows come well together in an ending that manages to be crudely mechanical and spiritually apt both at once, and which is only partly undercut by the obligatory second twist. What I liked an awful lot about this picture, for all its confessed absurdities, is that it represents an all-out try to bring conceptual horror back to the largely burned-out exploitation genre. It tries, in a way few late films if any have tried, to find not just images, not just narrative blows, but ideas that will make flesh crawl with that old Lovecraftian frisson; and to do this, what’s more, on the ground mapped out by the modern supernatural shocker. That’s an aim I can’t but admire, however partial the results; and a long way off from the kind of flick whose most frightening concept is a black fellow wiggling his pelvis at a bunch of memsahibs.

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

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