Thursday, October 4, 2018

Prince of Darkness

(1987) Directed by John Carpenter; Written by Martin Quatermass (aka: John Carpenter); Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount,Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Alice Cooper, Susan Blanchard and Peter Jason; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ***½

“Rarely does a horror film try out new ideas, new ways of saying things. None so much as the problems today in horror movies, where a lot of derivative stuff is very popular, but boy have I seen that stuff. So, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do a movie that just caused you a lot of unease and dread.” – John Carpenter (from the featurette “Sympathy for the Devil – An Interview with John Carpenter”)

In the prolific period of the mid-70s through the ‘80s, John Carpenter created several films that are widely regarded as genre classics. While some titles were embraced by audiences and critics, other took a longer road to gaining acceptance. The Thing (1982) and The Fog (1979) didn’t fare well during their initial release, but are now considered fan favorites. In a similar vein, Prince of Darkness (1987) received a chilly reception from critics, and was largely ignored by audiences, but has enjoyed a second life on home video. Admittedly, my first impression of the film wasn’t positive, but I felt there was enough to warrant a second look, years later, which eventually prompted yet another viewing for this review.

In his entertaining and informative DVD commentary, Carpenter stated he enjoys employing elements from German expressionism, slowing things down a bit, and allowing the scene to play out. Compared to the quick-cut scares prevalent in many other modern horror flicks, his approach is antithetical. Carpenter also noted that he makes two kinds of films: the “journey” film (such as Escape from New York) and the “siege” film (Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog). Prince of Darkness falls squarely into the latter category, with most of the action occurring inside a cathedral plagued by malevolent forces. He cited several sources of inspiration for his meditation on evil, including the Hammer vampire movies, the Quatermass films and BBC TV programs from the ‘50s and ‘60s (Carpenter adopted the pseudonym “Martin Quatermass” for the screenplay), and the novel Timescape by Gregory Benford. Shot for the modest sum of $3 million, and within a 30-day shooting schedule, Carpenter filmed on the campus of USC (his alma mater), an abandoned church in Los Angeles, and a crumbling old resort in nearby Long Beach.

Carpenter goes out on a shaky limb for the basic premise of Prince of Darkness. An ancient evil (the remains of the son of an anti-God), locked inside a giant glass cannister containing a swirling green vortex of evil primordial goop,* has been housed in the cellar of an urban cathedral for ages. The Brotherhood of Sleep, an elite sect of priests, who are sworn to secrecy, have watched over it for centuries. Donald Pleasence portrays the latest keyholder, known only as “Priest,” who’s entrusted with the unholy relic locked away in the church basement. When his faith fails to provide all the answers, he seeks help from a team of physicists, led by Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong), to uncover the mystery of the strange phenomena occurring around the cylindrical vessel. Carpenter toys with the concept of quantum mechanics as it relates to evil as a measurable property, existing on the subatomic level.

* This would be an easy opportunity to make a cheap shot about green fitness drinks being the work of the devil, or some such rot, but I’ll leave it to you to insert your own joke here.

As would befit a story about evil unleashed, Prince of Darkness is filled with disturbing imagery and music. Several characters experience a recurring, invasive vision* during their sleep, transmitted from an apocalyptic near-future. The hazy, dream-image suggests more than it shows – the key to great horror. When one of Prof. Birack’s grad students, Kelly (Susan Blanchard), becomes infected by the green liquid, she undergoes a terrifying physical and spiritual transformation, becoming a conduit between worlds. ** In one of the most disturbing moments from any Carpenter film, one character’s insect-riddled corpse becomes the mouthpiece for evil (the single scene that prompted me to re-evaluate the film). Carpenter’s effective minimalist score (which he describes as “underscoring,”) maintains an atmosphere of dread throughout, without telegraphing every action and emotion.  

* Fun Fact #1: To create the surreal, otherworldly look of the message from the future, Carpenter first shot the sequence on video, then filmed it from a TV set. The end result looks appropriately dreamlike (or nightmarish), by appearing several generations away from the original image.

** Fun Fact #2: In a scene depicting Kelly’s arm crossing through a mirror (into Hell?), Carpenter and crew used mercury drained from the base of a crane.

Because this is primarily an ensemble film, Carpenter populates his film with a host of quirky characters. Pleasence plays his role with conviction, as a tortured soul coming to grips with a terrible secret (compare to Hal Holbrook’s priest in The Fog). Victor Wong and Dennis Dun (both from the previous year’s Big Trouble in Little China) are excellent as Birack and his wise-cracking student Walter, respectively. The weakest characters are Walter’s fellow students Brian and Cathy, played by Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, who hook up, but appear to have no chemistry together (Brian describes himself as “sexist,” which somehow doesn’t become an instant turnoff for Cathy). A mute Alice Cooper, credited in the film as “Street Schizo,* leads a band of possessed homeless people. They’re obviously a tool for evil, but to what purpose? And when the proverbial poop hits the fan, where is everyone else on the streets? As the situation outside intensifies, and the people essentially become prisoners within the church due to the homicidal derelicts, why doesn’t anyone call the police?

* Fun Fact #3: Cooper brought along a stunt prop from his concerts, which simulated a bloody impalement, one of the more jarring sequences in the movie.

John Carpenter’s films have a habit of creeping under your skin, and Prince of Darkness is no exception. For some, the ability to enjoy the film may depend on a healthy suspension of disbelief and a boundless capacity for ambiguity. Carpenter raises many questions, but provides few answers, and for all its genuinely creepy moments, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. At times, it seems like a rough sketch, rather than a fleshed-out movie, but what Prince of Darkness does right, it does very well. Carpenter sustains a pervasive sense of dread and unease throughout, daring to go where few films have gone. It may be far from a perfect film, but it excels as an apocalyptic mood piece, light on logic but heavy on atmosphere. Just don’t strain yourself thinking about the whys or hows.


  1. It is creepy. And odd. And it has taken me a long time to appreciate it. Seems to grow on me more each viewing.

    1. I agree. I wasn't wild about it at first, but it's gotten better with each successive viewing.

  2. The transmission from the future is one of a very small handful of horror images that disturbed me greatly upon first viewing and continues to unnerve me decades later. As with most horror movie bits that have bothered me for such a long time, I have a hard time subjectively putting a finger on why it elicits such a strong response. If absolutely nothing else about the movie worked for me, it would still be a classic based upon that one snippet of video. For the record, though, a lot of other elements work for me as well. I love the exposition dump interspersed with the opening credits that seems to take about twenty minutes of the movie's run time to resolve. Just when you think the credits are finally over...there's another one! And I love, love, love Victor Wong. Over the years, Prince of Darkness has slowly, steadily worked its way up to being my third or fourth favorite Carpenter movie. Within such a strong filmography, I consider that high praise. Incidentally, I don't know what version of the movie you watched, but Scream Factory's release is absolutely gorgeous.

  3. I'd like to add - after reading a comment on another site suggesting that the dream transmission isn't as scary since 1999 has already passed - that I actually find it more disturbing now than ever. The fact that 1999 has already passed is only cinematic proof positive from the prophet John Carpenter that the end times are actually under way. That reading makes it even more chilling than when I was young. "You will not be saved by the god Plutonium!" I think both Carpenter and Cronenberg were plugged into something back in the eighties that everyone else was missing. Or maybe they were (are) both just phenomenal filmmakers...

    1. Hey Brandon, long time no see!

      I agree that the transmission from the "future" of 1999 is especially chilling. The imperfections just add to the creep factor. Although Prince of Darkness hasn't quite entered my top 5 pantheon of Carpenter films, I have a lot of respect for it. With each viewing, I've found more to like.

      P.S., I did, indeed, watch the excellent Shout Factory version, with an excellent transfer and a plethora of goodies.

      P.P.S., Any chance you might enter the blogging game again at some point? Your reviews were always fun and insightful.

    2. I'm not sure how fun and insightful they are, but there are in fact a couple of new posts on the Dog Farm. I've been easing back into more regular viewing owing to a couple of younger co-workers who (God bless 'em) haven't seen anything. Experiencing movies vicariously through the eyes of first time viewers is a joy. These guys have pretty good critical faculties, too, so we've been having some fairly animated post movie discussions. Now if I could just persuade them to read the new posts...

  4. I must confess I have yet to watch it.

    1. It may not be Carpenter's best, but it's worth checking out. I keep coming back to it.