John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987)
Being October, I’ve increased my consumption of horror films. Sure, horror movies are fun to watch all year round, but there’s just something about watching a horror film in October that makes it all the more exciting and special. In addition to keeping up with new releases, I’ve also been re-watching some of the classic films I grew up with. John Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS was at the top of my list of one to rewatch. The last time I saw this film was around 1997-1998. I was in grad school and living alone in a creepy old house that was converted into a housing unit. It was the perfect atmosphere for this film. Now after watching PRINCE OF DARKNESS in 2015, I can whole-heartedly say that this one of Carpenter’s most criminally underrated and best films!!
Written by Carpenter, under the name Martin Quatermass, PRINCE OF DARKNESS tells the story of a secret society that has served to protect a secret older than time. When the current keeper of the secret dies unexpectedly, the secret is exposed and the church is scrambling to figure out what to do with this new knowledge. A simple key hides a secret so important and devastating that its exposure could destroy the world. Donald Pleasence, simply known here as “Priest,” is tasked with discovering out exactly what the secret is. Underneath a deserted church is a cylinder that contains a mysterious liquid which is in constant motion. The Priest enlists the help of a brilliant and world-renown physicist, Prof. Howard Birack (Victor Wong), to help him decipher what is in the mysterious cylinder. Birack assembles a team of his most brilliant and advanced graduate students in both theoretical and applied physics, as well as from other disciplines like metallurgy, microbiology, a grad student who is an expert in ancient, dead languages, etc. They all gather together to spend a weekend in the abandoned church and try to figure out exactly what it is they are dealing with.
The script is the perfect blending of old horror tropes, theoretical physics, secret societies, and speculative metaphysics. Carpenter expertly takes all these elements and creates and wholly unique and original script that will grab you from the first frame. I remember seeing this one in the theaters its opening weekend and being scared shitless. I’ve seen this film about nine times since 1987, and every time I see it, I still get creeped out. This film isn’t just about the titular Prince of Darkness but is about the Prince, who is contained in the cylinder, using his influence to summon/bring back HIS father. We learn about this from an old, thick ancient manuscript found in the church. The expert on old religions and ancient, dead languages translates the manuscript and everyone soon realizes that the religions the world has grown up on were lies and bullshit. The true nature of the world and the real reason for religion was to keep this ancient evil contained. It is a fantastic story that exposes a hidden truth that the world just wasn’t ready for–and still isn’t. Throw in a little time travel and an alien threat into the mix, and Carpenter really outdid himself here!!
The cast is fantastic, albeit very 1980s. Pleasence outdoes himself here and makes his Dr. Loomis character from the HALLOWEEN films seem reserved and laid back. Victor Wong’s physics professor is excitable and played perfectly by Wong. He brings the right amount of energy and intelligence to the role. Jameson Parker, who plays Brian, helps Prof. Birack unravel the mystery of the cylinder, and Lisa Blount’s Catherine, who is another brilliant physics student and Brian’s love interest, plays a pivotal role in the uncovering of the mystery–and its future. The liquid contained within the cylinder quite literally has a mind of its own and infects one of the researchers, who in turn spreads the “disease.” When things get bad inside the church, the remaining survivors attempt to escape but are held captive inside the church by a psychotic homeless man, played by rocker, Alice Cooper.
PRINCE OF DARKNESS has lots of scares and a great, atmospheric set, but the success of this film rests solely on the shoulders of Carpenter himself. In the hands of anyone else, PRINCE OF DARKNESS would’ve been a muddled mess. The high concepts Carpenter deals with here are never confusing and make sense within the world he created. I’m no physicist and have no idea if the principles and concepts Carpenter writes about are accurate or not, and I don’t really care. What he gives us is a really fun, thought-provoking, metaphysical horror film that is scary, intelligent, atmospheric, and SCARY. Even knowing exactly what is going to happen didn’t make this film any less scary. PRINCE OF DARKNESS is one helluva great, effective film that will have you scared of mirrors for weeks to come and is worth checking out this Halloween season!!
Director: John Carpenter (& writer, under the name Martin Quatermass)
Plot: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Gore: 6.5 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Scott Shoyer