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Too many cooks in John Carpenter films: Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Prince of Darkness (1987)

I used the pandemic bank holiday to take in Big Trouble in Little China (86), a genre-splicing, freewheeling cult favourite, and the more unloved Prince of Darkness (87), a straight horror picture penned by John Carpenter, with a Russel shaped cavity in its cast.

Big Trouble, like many cult pictures (Buckaroo Banzai, say, whose Director re-wrote this script) gets better with more views: it lost me the first time round. It was too chaotic, too poorly structured and my attention wandered. But a more patient second viewing let me better enjoy its spirit of fun, where gun fights are A-Team bloodless and martial arts are as much about flying and lightning as kicks and fists.

Kurt Russell gives one of this best performances: Jack Burton is brash, drawling, brave and clueless. He’s constantly bettered by enemies, obstacles, even his own gun, but keeps blundering his way out of tight spots and thinking he’s doing tremendously well.

He has a few excellent lines, and defies our expectations throughout. His character is the only thing holding the mess of events together, which go off like fireworks but prevent us focussing on the good actors around him, like James Hong, Victor Wong and Kim Cattrall.

Indeed, like other later John Carpenter efforts, they are just too many characters here. Each is needlessly multiplied: we don’t need both Uncle Chu and Egg Shen or both Margo and Gracie; we don’t need three henchmen groups in Thunder, Lightning and Rain, Eddie Lee, and the Monster; and having a second green-eyed bride saps the life from Miao Yin.

This overcrowding crops up again in Prince of Darkness, where the secret headquarters of the Brotherhood of Sleep is stuffed with victims we’re given no time to begin to like. (Curious this habit, from the man who brought us Precinct 13).

We just don’t need half these people

It can be hard to keep track of what the hell is going on in Big Trouble: there is a rescue, then an escape, then another, longer rescue and a final escape. There are fight scenes that go on too long, though I suppose they might be better served on the big screen.

Generally though, it’s beautiful to look at, and all the blue lightning and flying kicks calls to mind Double Dragon, and other Nintendo fare of the period. It’s very of-its-time, but freaky too, and possesses probably the warmest sense of humour of any Carpenter pic.

Prince of Darkness is equally nice to look at, but suffers dreadfully from the lack of a good, solid lead. The might of Donald Pleasance is on hand, but only flits around the background. The wonderful Victor Wong also only hovers, never truly landing.

Jameson Parker is set up as the driving force, but his character is an awful creep at the beginning, and doesn’t get the time to be much more than a memorable moustache. Lisa Blount is the real hero, but again we’ve no real impression of a character. Dennis Dun, likeable in Big Trouble, is here the worst kind of irritating wise-cracker – certainly no Napoleon Wilson.

The movie also suffers from its Carpenter soundtrack. Like his later Vampires, the beginning boasts some beautiful, intriguing shots which are badly swamped by the music, where silence (or perhaps some Exorcist baying hellhounds) would have better built intrigue in Pleasance’s unfolding discovery of the brotherhood’s mysteries.

Scares are hit and miss (window worms) though I must admit that, after watching the ending alone in the small hours, I headed to bed pleasingly spooked.

The dream transmission, the crucified pigeon, and that gruesome end, all lift what at times plays out like a tribute to Assault on Precinct 13 – with homeless characters laying silent siege, slaves to the Prince’s will – rather a shabby portrayal in comparison of the wonderful They Live. Still, Prince has moments as barmy, in their own way, as Big China – here a lost gospel preaches the truth of Christ as extra-terrestrial.

Both movies retain enough character to draw us in and hold attention and leave moments imprinted on the memory. In their own way, each demonstrates why you have to love any Carpenter flick: in nearly every one or his movies there’s something that lives on after, like an ancient (and very entertaining) black magic.

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