There’s a man driving a car on the freeway behind a truck carrying long metal pipes. His girlfriend is sitting next to him; she has short blonde hair and a pink dress. The catch on the truck bed in front of them lets violently loose. A long, slender pipe crashes through their windshield. The driver turns to look at his girlfriend. She is smiling back at him as the pipe slides gracefully through the side of her head.
That’s what I remember every time I think of the period when I was reading HellBlazer. I never bought an issue for myself. My roommate was a Sequential Art major with a job and a rabid comic reading habit. She was caught up in the late 90s comic era that idolized Neil Gaiman; witches, demons and angels were enjoying a period of popularity they hadn’t seen since illuminated Bibles. Hellboy, Books of Magic, and of course, Sandman and all its incarnations were always littered all over the house. Her own work featured magic, witches and demons when she wasn’t drawing pit bulls (she intended to raise a pit bull farm when she finished art school). Those days have some good memories attached, and I got to relive a few of them while watching Constantine at the Cinerama.
I knew the movie wasn’t going to have much in common with the comic. The real John Constantine is a blonde Sting-lookalike who wears a trenchcoat and is unmistakably British. The movie does retain a few basic elements of his character; he’s still an occultist, he’s still wandering in and out of hell, and he’s still surly. This is one of Keanu Reeves least offensive performances. He’s not John the way we know him, but he occasionally shows the appropriate emotion, and delivers some of Constantine’s trademark dry wit with sincerity. But it’s how Constantine works as a horror film that engrossed me. The atmosphere is sinister and the tension is real. A slow build-up delivers later with plenty of action in the war between heaven and hell, and includes an exorcism sequence at the beginning to break things up.
Suicide is a consistent theme in Constantine, and there is a sequence where the psychic (Rachel Weisz) is drowning in a bathtub that is particularly intense. There are also a series of parallels with The Prophecy; heavy Catholic references, androgynous angels and an very interesting interpretation of Satan. Lucifer has had a lot of incarnations in film, but this is his first appearance as a lecherous Paul Lynde. That would be the one element of the picture that, on second thought, seems absolutely ingenious. A scene where Constantine argues with a psychic over wearing an amulet to protect herself reminded me of a similar argument I had recently. There is comfort, ritual and certainty in the old Catholic ways that can seem very appealing. The same probably goes for crabby, self-destructive men.
It’s not the comic, but I enjoyed it anyway. It was certainly better than White Noise. I can’t say the same for the friends I went with, however; although they weren’t familiar with the comic book, they were uncomfortable with the violence and the psychological tension. Supernatural horror films are not for everyone, but I like to think that somewhere out there my old roommate is saying, “The demons were great, but how could they have John Constantine even consider giving up smoking?”