Prince of Darkness (1987)
Prince of Darkness is certainly one of John Carpenter’s stranger and more underappreciated films. It’s the second installment in what Carpenter calls his “apocalypse trilogy” (which includes 1982’s The Thing and 1995’s In The Mouth of Madness). Simply put, this film is about the coming of the apocalypse, and the arrival of the Prince of Darkness – Satan himself. This is one seriously eerie and creepy film, but it has the slowest pace of any Carpenter film I have seen. I believe this film comes as an acquired taste. It can take multiple viewings to really enjoy it fully, as it did for me.
A group of scientists, students, and priests – led by Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) – have come to study a mysterious canister which has been sealed away in the basement of a Los Angeles church. The eerie green liquid inside this canister proves to be supernatural as it defies gravity, leaking upwards to the ceiling, and soon, it’s discovered that it is self-organizing as part of a living intelligence. This has made way for changes to occur in nature that herald the coming of something evil. And those who come into contact with this liquid are transformed into mindless undead slaves of Satan himself. Outside the church, the homeless and derelicts of Los Angeles become powerless against the influence of hell. The few human beings inside the church are trapped – barricading themselves inside with threats all around them. Theories are abound as to what is happening and philosophies about heaven, hell, and all of creation. But whatever forces are at work, these few people must not only survive these servants of hell, but also prevent the coming of the Prince of Darkness from the other side.
If you choose to watch this film, I suggest you get things as dark and as quite as possible, put in the DVD, get that surround sound just right, and get ready to experience one of the most haunting, frightening films ever. This is possibly the most taut and suspenseful Carpenter film of all-time. The master of terror gives us a film that nobody should easily be able to forget. The score from John Carpenter & Alan Howarth is absolutely mesmerizing and powerful. Right from the beginning, it sucks you into a creepy and absolutely ominous world, and doesn’t let go until the end credits have finished. It’s an absorbing, killer work of musicianship that compliments the film marvelously.
The effects here are great. There’s nothing here as complex as in The Thing (which Rob Bottin really delivered something groundbreaking), but there’s plenty of scary makeup work and visuals to unsettle any audience. There’s such apocalyptic biblical imagery here – including swarms of creepy crawly critters – that it will have you squirming and jumping from your seat. John Carpenter wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym “Martin Quartermass,” and man, he does just such an amazing job eliciting such haunting emotions. The film has such a suspenseful power that it could ONLY come from John Carpenter.
That pseudonym is only one of several that Carpenter has employed in his career. He uses them because he feels uncomfortable with his name plastered all over the credits as if it’s an egotistical thing to take so much credit. Me, I believe in everyone getting the credit they deserve for the hard work they do. The fact of the matter is that I know who Martin Quartermass, John T. Chance, and Frank Armitage are, and it is still John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.
The cast is full of Carpenter regulars such as Donald Pleaseance (Halloween, Escape From New York), Victor Wong & Dennis Dun (Big Trouble in Little China), and Peter Jason (They Live, In The Mouth of Madness). Also, Jameson Parker from TV’s Simon & Simon is in a lead role as well. It’s very much a Carpenter style cast in that he doesn’t cast big stars, but a lot of strong character actors that give the film a textured diversity. I really enjoy all their talents, and they all put in fantastic efforts. John Carpenter has always been great in the casting department (probably best displayed in The Thing). We even get a cameo from shock-rocker Alice Cooper, and he contributes the title song from the album of the same name. The song only appears in a small scene, and via a guy’s walkman radio. In any case, it’s always nice to see Alice appear in a horror film via an acting role or as a musician. He has no lines, but appears creepy enough as one of the derelict servants outside the church. Overall, this cast gives a lot of life and character to this slow-paced film.
In a way, this is different from most Carpenter movies, mainly in pace. He’s always made very smart pictures, and his horror has never been something you can entirely shut your brain off for. And while Prince of Darkness is full of atmosphere that drives every horror element forward, it is much more an idea and philosophy driven screenplay. There are very few action set pieces as the danger and horror are played through tense atmosphere and chilling visuals. It’s a film that crawls in under your skin slowly, and requires you to stay mentally aware of what’s happening for it to have the proper effect.
There’s a good deal of discussion in the film about philosophies regarding dreams, death, hell, religion, and so forth. This adds to the psychological aspect of the film since it revolves around such supernatural or paranormal phenomena birthed out of an ancient evil covered up by the church. With the film having such a wide ensemble cast, they have plenty of room for differing opinions and beliefs, but don’t let this make you think the film gets bogged down by it. Not at all. As they uncover more truths, it enhances the fearful and foreboding atmosphere of the film. There is a haunting evil taking form in their presence, and it is slowly consuming them either physically or psychologically.
In everyone’s dreams, they see a transmission from the future of a dark figure exiting the front of the church they are all holed up in. They get only bits and pieces, but they all share it getting a little more each time they fall asleep. It is another piece of the foreboding doom that lies ahead of them, and it is immensely effective.
Prince of Darkness definitely has similarities to an old style zombie film where a group of mismatched people have to fend for their lives against an undead army. However, Carpenter just pushes it further with so much more substance and unsettling visuals. This really is a nightmare come to life. A constant theme in Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy is some sort of force consuming humanity and deteriorating it into something entirely inhuman. In The Thing, it’s an actual alien life form that perfectly duplicates any organism it infects which could eventually wipe out the human race. With In The Mouth of Madness, reality is twisted and distorted to where people become psychotic and homicidal in the wake of ancient evil reclaiming our world. In Prince of Darkness, it’s sort of a bridge between the concepts. As an ancient evil slowly claws its way back into our world, it also consumes nature and humanity until they become entirely mindless, inhuman servants. Coming from three different screenwriters on three different films, that is an entirely fascinating conceptual arc.
This film is undoubtedly one of John Carpenter’s finest works. Some don’t take a good liking to it because of its slow, slow pace, and its focus more on suspense than physical intensity. Whatever the case, I find it to be a masterwork worthy of inclusion to anyone’s DVD collection. The cast is very good, fun at times, but solid always. The score is pure gold, a powerful accomplishment for Carpenter and Alan Howarth. As in any Carpenter film, the cinematography is stellar, and the direction is absolutely phenomenal! If you genuinely want to get creeped out to the max one dark, lonely night – this is the one film to watch! I won’t say that Prince of Darkness is a perfect film as the pace can be a detractor to its potential. Part of good tension and suspense is momentum, and it’s not entirely consistent here. However, it is a great flick, and I will give it a great 9 out of 10. If nothing else, the ending will grab you like only a John Carpenter film can!