The Film: John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness

The Principles: Donald Pleasence, Jameson Parker, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Lisa Blount and Peter Jason. Written (as Martin Quartermass) and Directed by John Carpenter.

The Premise: A catholic priest assembles a brilliant team of physics graduate students to help him figure out and stop a terrible ancient secret that’s been kept hidden in the basement of an abandoned Los Angeles church. They soon discover that there’s a strange vat of swirling green liquid, which contains the essence of Satan himself. As the liquid slowly comes to life, its evil power grows and begins to manipulate the homeless people in the surrounding area into doing it’s bidding, as well as a few of the students. Some become zombies, while one is chosen to be the vessel that will deliver Satan’s father (an enormously powerful Anti-God of extraterrestrial origin) upon our realm so that he may plunge the earth into eternal darkness.

Is it any good: I am a tremendously passionate fan of the works of John Carpenter and I consider this to be one of his most underrated “B-side” movies. I actually saw it during its initial theatrical run when I was a kid and there are moments that have stuck with me ever since. Despite all the negative reviews it received back then, I’ve always had a soft spot for it. It’s not one of the master’s best works by any means, but I do believe it to be one of his leanest and most atmospheric horror films.

Carpenter gives us another scenario that is familiar to his fans. You know the one where a group of people are trapped inside of some kind of a structure and must overcome a deadly outside force that’s bent on their destruction. The one he borrowed from Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead. The one he began his career with in Assault on Precinct 13. The one we’ve seen recently in Ghosts of Mars. However, Prince of Darkness is more Dario Argento than Howard Hawks. More Lucio Fulci than George Romero. It’s a slow moving, moody little piece of creepiness that gets under your skin and wraps itself tightly around your cerebral cortex.

The premise is quite unique in that it’s a fusion of supernatural horror and metaphysical science fiction. From the moment the film opens, you get the distinct feeling that something’s wrong. As if there is an ominous, palpable force that is in control and rising. Carpenter layers on the strange vibes with images of ants crawling across a zoned-out vagabond woman’s face, worms squirming up the side of a window, a weird Melancholia-esque moon and sun alignment during the daytime, and a pigeon crucified on a small wooden cross, to name a few.

For me the weirdest and most effective bit in the entire film involves a shared group dream that everyone has, which is actually a video transmission that’s being sent from the future to warn them all that if they don’t succeed, the world is going to end. The look of the video, the voice that is speaking to them, and the image that we see of a dark figure emerging from the church’s front door is so effective, it never fails to give me goose bumps. I’m getting them right now while I’m writing this and thinking about it!

A very strong and extremely understated ensemble of actors were chosen for this film. First you have another awesome collaboration with Donald Pleasence as the priest, who once again plays a character burdened with the responsibility of stopping an evil force bent on mayhem. That’s why Carpenter named the character Father “Loomis”, and when I watch the movie now I imagine that the Loomis from Halloween is his twin brother and somehow the evil in both films are connected.

Dennis Dun and Victor Wong from Carpenter’s previous Big Trouble in Little China are along for the ride as well, and both actors deliver strong performances. This time however, Dun plays the comic relief and Wong is the intensely serious one.

Also, this film marks the first time that Carpenter worked with character actor extraordinaire Peter Jason, who would go on to collaborate with the director on five more films.

Oh yeah, Alice Cooper is the leader of the possessed homeless people and he impales one of the students with a broken bicycle (!).

The score by Carpenter and Alan Howarth is one of my favorite soundtracks next to the one they did for Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and like that one it’s extremely oppressive and brooding. The tone it sets for the film is powerful and pervasive. I love it! 

Is it worth a look: HELL, YEAH!!! It’s proof positive that Carpenter owned the 70’s and 80’s when it came to unique genre-bending cinematic coolness! Even his “B-sides” have aged like a fine wine! It’s a hundred times more original and suspenseful than what’s been passing for horror these days for sure and the ending is soul-shatteringly awesome! Watch it in the dark with the sound turned up! 

Random anecdotes: Carpenter wrote this film under the pseudonym Martin Quartermass, which was taken from the lead character of The Quartermass Experiment.

Both Marilyn Manson and DJ Shadow have sampled the audio of the bizarre “broadcast” dream-transmissions in their music.

This is the second film in Carpenter’s self-titled Apocalypse Trilogy. The first was his remake of The Thing and the third was In the Mouth of Madness.

Cinematic soul mates: The Omen, Altered States, The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness.