Prince of Darkness

Prince of Darkness (1987) Review

When his biggest movie production to date, Big Trouble In Little China (1986), flopped at the box office, the powers that be in Hollywood didn’t deem John Carpenter commercially viable anymore, and he found himself struggling to find financial backing for his next movie project. Soon enough, he put his ducks in a row, decided to close Tinseltown’s doors behind him and the execs at 20th Century Fox were all too happy to see him leave. He went his own indie way, and the good people at Alive Pictures were kind enough to sign him a multi-picture deal, securing him a US$ 3 million budget – about US$ 8 million in today’s money – per film, including free creative reign for himself.

And while his commercial heydays at the multiplex ticket booth were behind him – for good, as it would turn out, although later, home media, an avid cult following and last but not least, his Halloween I.P., would secure him a steady revenue. The next film he would go on to make is Prince Of Darkness. It’s the second entry, after The Thing (1982), in what Carpenter would later moniker his Apocalypse Trilogy with In The Mouth Of Madness (1994).

Prince Of Darkness opens with a brief setup showing the passing on of an old priest, nursed by a nun. He’s holding a small silver casket with a key close to his chest as his life is leaving him. Next, Prince Of Darkness takes its time showing the opening credits in pop-up fashion as it introduces us to the unnamed priest (Donald Pleasence; Halloween (1978), Escape From New York), whom the Catholic clergy tasked to investigate and research the secret that the deceased priest was guarding.

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Simultaneously, we’re introduced to Brian (Jameson Parker; White Dog, Curse Of The Crystal Eye), a theoretical physics’ student, who follows classes led by professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong; Tremors, 3 Ninjas franchise, Seven Year in Tibet) while casting a lewd eye on fellow student Catherine (Lisa Blount; Dead & Buried, Chrystal).

Prince of Darkness joins the religious with the scientific in the church, where in the ominous catacombs a mysterious cylinder holding a swirling green fluid is stored that seems to have awoken and become sentient over the last month. The priest calls in the assistance of Birack to help explain, manage and possibly contain whatever the cylinder is holding inside, as the deceased priest left a diary with ominous and apocalyptic scribbles about it. Birack incentivizes joining the research mission for his students, and armed to the teeth with research equipment, everybody sets up camp in the until then abandoned church while tramps and devil worshippers gather around the premises.

Moreover, everyone in the vicinity of the cylinder seems to have the same dream, with a cryptic warning that looks to be a message sent from the not-so-distant future. But when the entity in the cylinder starts possessing the research team members one by one by turning them into zombies, and the worshippers outside the church turn hostile and violently ensure nobody leaves, the situations grows into a fight for survival, and for the future of mankind such as it is.

Directed and scored by Carpenter, and written by him under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass – one of the homages to the British film writer Nigel Kneale sprinkled throughout the film – Prince Of Darkness feels like an amalgam of all the themes, ideas, and even traits, that make John Carpenter’s style so uniquely his.

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Inspired by quantum physics, a field that he had taken up a fascination for, he was looking to weave the superpositions of matter and anti-matter into the juxtaposition of good and evil and, by extension, science and religion, when he started writing the screenplay for this film. And if that all sounds convoluted, well, it is. Carpenter seems to realize this as well, though, so he plays the proceedings as straight as he can.

The dialogue during the fraternal meetings between our nameless priest and his Catholic brethren of the cloth is entirely muted, with just Carpenter’s pulsating synth score accompanying the onscreen proceedings. And Birack gives us just a few minutes of exposition, a brief quantum physics 101 for the uninitiated during one of his classes.

But when Catherine discusses Schrödinger’s Cat with one of her fellow students outside in the campus garden, Carpenter deems his viewer sufficiently up to speed to get on board with what is to follow, and quickly moves along again to the meat of his story. His tight script and focused directing keeps the film together. With the story Carpenter wanted to convey, it could easily have dissolved into incoherence in lesser hands than his.

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Efficient lighting, playing with depth of field, filmed with wide-angle lenses in anamorphic format, a moody and instantly recognizable – and memorable – score, science and sci-fi touches, fighting for survival in a confined space, horror and dread interlaced with lighthearted moments, it’s all here, in all their full Carpenter-esque glory.

The world outside the church is grim and grey, but inside the church everything looks warm and colourful yet still ominous; leave it to John Carpenter to pull off something like that. Prince Of Darkness’s scenes at the church take up the majority of Prince of Darkness. Serving as the central location for the story, and as a prime movie set, is Saint Godard’s in downtown Los Angeles, CA (at 120 Judge John Aiso St. to be exact, for whoever wants to Google it up).

The cast is an ensemble effort with Pleasence, Wong, Parker and Blount taking centre stage. Pleasance goes into full Loomis mode as the spiritually tormented priest who sinks away into despair, facing an evil way stronger than whatever good he ever based his faith on. Wong has a Tremors-level blast, taking his character into the opposite direction, as the exact scientist with philosophical tendencies who’s forced to alter his world view in the face of that same evil.

Carpenter doesn’t pick a side in this discussion, even seems to actively avoid it, and makes it a point to not get preachy anywhere – a pitfall so easily fell into with subject matter such as this. The scenes between Pleasence and Wong are quiet, nuanced and powerful, with two thoroughbred thespians taking each other high and deep.

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Parker serves as the voice of reason amidst all the mayhem that Carpenter conjures up around him, but his love interest in Catherine lacks the chemistry needed to get invested in. Carpenter seems to be aware of this too; he doesn’t really let us spend much time with them together, and the affair ultimately serves as a mere ‘hook’ to resolve a few plot setups with. Alice Cooper, whose then-manager Shep Gordon co-produced the film, is credited as ‘street schizo’ and his appearances, while effectively chilling, are not much more than a cameo.

Preparing for this review, I gave Prince Of Darkness a rewatch not only to refresh my memory of some details – I lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it already – but also to see how it holds up in this day and age. Of course, some things look dated. How people dress, their hairdo, the equipment they use for their research in the church, the cars in the street, it’s all very firmly rooted in the 80s, and it inevitably shows, but it doesn’t work against the film thanks to how engrossing it is.

The dream sequences were relayed back to the present day in the movie, presumably 1987, from 1999 – now almost 25 years ago, and telepathic dream messages are still something in the realm of fiction, rather than that of science.

The cast is an ensemble effort with Pleasence, Wong, Parker and Blount taking center stage. Pleasance goes into full Loomis mode as the spiritually tormented priest who sinks away into despair facing an evil way stronger than whatever good he ever based his faith on. Wong has a Tremors-level blast taking his character into the opposite direction, as the exact scientist with philosophical tendencies who’s forced to alter his world view in the face of that same evil. Carpenter doesn’t pick a side in this discussion, even seems to actively avoid it and makes it a point to not get preachy anywhere - a pitfall so easily fell into with subject matter such as this. The scenes between Pleasence and Wong are quiet, nuanced and powerful, with two thoroughbred thespians taking each other high and deep.

But these nitpickings aside, the movie holds up remarkably well where it counts and how it was intended: as a horror movie. Things move along at a tight pace, clocking in at a lean 102 minutes total runtime, violence comes swiftly and brutally, and the gore, while not abundant, is of course all practical and effectively gruesome. And Carpenter’s score really needs no further elaboration; it will still gloriously stand the test of time after we’re all long gone.

Prince Of Darkness is a film by a gifted filmmaker who’s at the top of his game here. The story may be a bit of everything but the kitchen sink, but John Carpenter keeps it together. Critical response, while still totalling out on the positive end of mediocre, was mixed, and being an outright horror film it may not be for everyone. But for a genre aficionado like myself, the movie stands tall among the greatest of genre outings, and as mandatory viewing for any horror fan.

Prince of Darkness is available on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as on Digital Platforms via Universal.

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