(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.
“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.