Evil returned again in 1987 with Prince of Darkness, another excellent film by horror maestro John Carpenter. Instead of one man on one night, Prince of Darkness focuses on an entire demonic being intent on taking over the world. J Murphy of Basement Screams unearthed Prince of Darkness for his review.
J Murphy’s Take
John Carpenter’s Prince Of Darkness came hot on the heels of Big Trouble In Little China, and the two films couldn’t possibly be any more different. Disenfranchised with the big studio system, Carpenter returned to his indie roots to make one of the most complex films in his filmography up to this point. With Prince Of Darkness he turns the devil movie genre on its head, injecting a dose of dark sci-fi, taking it places that other films dealing with the subject of God and Satan hadn’t at that point. The film opens with an almost ridiculously long credits sequence where we witness the death of a priest who we later find out was a member of the Brotherhood of Sleep, a secret sect within the Catholic church who is in charge of guarding a centuries old secret. Donald Pleasence plays a priest who is left in charge of guarding this secret, only to find that it is a secret that can no longer be kept. Pleasence is wonderful in this, breaking into Loomis mode more than once.
Hidden in the basement of a long closed church, Pleasence finds what the sect has been keeping all these years. A large, sealed vat of mysterious green liquid that just happens to be the devil himself. Pleasence calls upon an old acquaintance, physics professor Howard Birack (played to perfection by Big Trouble’s Victor Wong). Birack enlists a team of his students to spend a weekend at the church to investigate the priest’s claims that this Satan ooze has somehow woken up and is making it’s way back into the world after thousands of years imprisoned.
Strange things begin to happen both in and outside of the church. All of the homeless people in the area are drawn to the church and appear to be hypnotized as they stand and stare at the building, only moving to stop anyone from leaving the church. The apparent leader of these zombified bums is shock rocker Alice Cooper who, with no dialogue, steals every scene he appears in. He is absolutely the creepiest character in the film.
Inside the church things get more and more out of hand as characters that come in contact with Satan’s green ooze are put into the same trance-like state as the homeless outside and turn on their colleagues. Some of the researchers begin to have a dream that, according to Pleasence, anyone around the vat will have. An image of a shadowy figure in the entrance to the church appears while an alien-like voice announces the dream is being “transmitted from the year one nine nine nine…” Pleasence explains how the dream is linked to the vat and also how what we think we know about the origins of both God and Satan are false. We find out that the Christians have been covering up the fact that both God and Satan were actually aliens and that Satan had been held captive in this vat for thousands of years, waiting to escape and bring his father, the Anti-God, back into this world. The theme of fact versus faith, science versus religion, is obviously present throughout the film.
Carpenter is at his best here, not only as a director and writer, but his score for Prince Of Darkness is pure dark synth gold. In the scene we first encounter the devil ooze the score has an angelic, hymn-like quality that makes the scene absolutely creepy. The score, Carpenter’s placement of characters and a perfect performance by Donald Pleasence add up to a must-see flick for anyone looking for a horror film that is equally challenging and entertaining.
The Moon is a Dead World’s Take
Despite being a master of the genre, John Carpenter has had his share of misses when it comes to horror films. Thankfully, Prince of Darkness isn’t one of them, and it comes during a time of greatness from the director. I had never seen this film before, but after an initial viewing I would rank it up there with some of his best films, perhaps not the standard that is Halloween or even The Thing, but maybe just below those. It’s not the story that really makes this film, nor the presence of Donald Pleasance reprising a role that’s weaker than Dr. Loomis but still compelling; it’s the whole package, partly due to Carpenter’s great directing and also due to his wonderful score, creating an atmosphere that dominates the film.
Prince of Darkness finds Carpenter exploring religious themes, although the film doesn’t expressly state that what the characters are dealing with is the Devil himself. Instead, it works around the religious aspect; of course it’s there, and Pleasance and other characters make it known that the secret of the green slime being kept in a church basement has been around for two centuries, passed down by priests and the sacred order of the Brotherhood of Sleep. Still, Carpenter is sure to include another group of individuals driven by the search for scientific evidence, including Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) and his love interest Catherine (Lisa Blount). Victor Wong shows up as Prof. Birack, giving Prince of Darkness an excellent, and large, cast to work with.
Sometimes the overwhelming amount of characters in a film can become tiresome, but Prince of Darkness finds room for all of them in some way. At first, the way
they’re treated by the demon’s accomplices seems out of place, as though they’re blowing through characters without giving them a chance in the film. By the all come back; much like The Thing, Carpenter uses people who used to be friends as an enemy, making it all the more scary when they come back shooting strange drool out of their mouths.
The film has a very intriguing story, too, and it’s a creative way to look at the relationship between God and the power that must clash with Him. In Prince of Darkness‘ case, Carpenter envisions the idea of an Anti-God, and with that something like an Anti-Jesus, a disciple sent to Earth from a mirror dimension to try to pull in the Devil from that other world. It’s complicated, dark, and it almost creates a different mythology of the underworld.
What helps Prince of Darkness a lot is Carpenter’s synth work, which sets such an eerie vibe for the rest of the film. Whereas some synth comes off as cheesy, Carpenter’s minimal, droning tones are perfect for the soundtrack, and they make scenes much creepier just because of their stings. I don’t think Prince of Darkness would be as successful a film without the score.
Still, the movie works on almost all levels. Parker is likable as Brian, the love interest is there yet not forced in such a way that it feels like the romance was an afterthought, and there’s not really a part of the cast that is easy to write off as unnecessary. Unfortunately, Donald Pleasance’s character is one of the weaker ones; it would have been nice to see him with a larger part, but that role goes to Wong instead, who also handles it well.
The best part is that there’s something for everyone. Prince of Darkness has creepy scenes full of tension; it’s also got some nice gore. There are moments of bodysnatching, but you’ll also see intensely spooky scenes resembling paranormal activity. Carpenter even throws in some trademark comedy thanks to Dennis Dun. If you can’t find something to like within Prince of Darkness, perhaps you’re watching the wrong type of movie.
Carpenter struck gold again in 1987 with Prince of Darkness; it doesn’t have the nuanced feeling of Halloween, nor the same sense of paranoia that The Thing brought about, but it does capture both in lesser focus plus a whole lot more. If those movies attempted to center on one focal point, Prince of Darkness spreads the subject matter out; sure, there’s evil in those other movies, but it’s nothing compared to the sheer vastness that Prince of Darkness conjures forth from the black empty hole the Devil resides in.