Thursday, October 7, 2010

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Being Film #3 in Hail Horror 5, and also one of two contributions I'll be making to Radiator Heaven's John Carpenter Blogathon.  Thanks to J.D. for inviting me to participate.

"What is it?
"A secret that can no longer be kept."

Like many people, I was slightly disappointed the first time I watched John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS when it was first released to VHS (man, am I old).  This was not a horror film for a 14 year old kid who grew up on larger than life monsters both on the screen and in his own head.  Watching now over 20 years later I'd love to smack that 14 year old in the head, but although PRINCE OF DARKNESS hits a sweet spot for me now, I can kind of understand why I was disappointed that first time - it's a really slow build: the terror, like SESSION 9, comes from a growing sense of unease and random unexplained instances rather than ferocious, dripping monsters with tentacles and acid blood (in 1986 I was forever changed when at 13 I saw my first rated R film in the theater - ALIENS) and when you do get to the climax, instead of the titular Prince of Darkness in all his glory you get part of his hand - and even that lasts a fraction of a second.

So sorry, 14 year old were probably never going to like PRINCE OF DARKNESS.  37 year old me, though?  Loves it and (finally) recognizes it for what it is - one of Carpenter's boldest, far reaching ideas that manages to connect on a number of different levels, and does it on a fraction of the budget his previous film (the awesome for completely different reasons BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) had.

In the 10 minutes the credits run, you get the entire setup: an old priest dies, his hand falling away from an ornate box laying on his chest.  Later, another priest (Carpenter stalwart Donald Pleasence) finds out this was the last of the Brotherhood of Sleep, an ancient clerical order whose job it was to guard an unspeakable secret in the basement of an abandoned old church, an unspeakable something that's starting to wake up.  The priest turns to Howard Birack (Victor Wong), a professor of theoretical physics, asking for his help with the object.  Professor Birack assembles a team comprised of his students and fellow scientists to come to the church and study the phenomenon.

PRINCE OF DARKNESS deals heavily with the nature of God and the conflict between science and religion, pretty heady stuff for a mainstream horror film. As the team begins their investigation, images and motiffs play out across the screen: insects frenzy, a growing number of homeless people shamble like some psychotic congregation outside the church, and crosses loom everywhere: inside the church, leaning against a wall with a pigeon nailed to it, and my favorite shot - a class Carpenter framing as the priest views the run-down church for the first time, the camera slowly rising to capture the cross between the bars of a fence, perhaps symbolizing the forces imprisoned within:

Genre can make it easy to forget a filmmaker's stylistic influences, but it's hard not to note the classical nature of Carpenter's storytelling, and the strong influence of Howard Hawks and John Ford, especially in the camaraderie of the group and the running jokes ("the one with the glasses", Dennis Dun's constant quipping with the other Asian scientist), in the long takes and subtle editing, and the close-ups of significant objects.  But another, more contemporary influence that shouldn't be discounted is Dario Argento, and his imprint can also be found in PRINCE OF DARKNESS, especially in the brutal death of one of the scientists, stabbed to death by a bag lady wielding one deadly half of a pruning shear.  Carpenter films a perfect Argento moment: the shear perfectly lit against the backdrop of a brick wall, gliding in the hand of the woman as if she was being pulled along on a dolly (which I suspect she was):

At this point it's obvious the homeless people are there to keep the scientists from leaving, so that whatever it is inside that swirling mass of green liquid will have what it needs to do...

To do what?  Slowly Carpenter gives us the complete story: the swirling mass of green liquid is a form of anti-matter, a sentient life form capable of manipulating its environment.  Birack explains to the priest that maybe his faith is correct: there is a higher entity, governing over all the matter in the universe.  But since each particle has its opposite, there is an equal power governing the anti-matter: the Anti-God.  The team finds more to dread: an old Bible dating back hundreds of years has been written over again and again, and hides differential equations.  One woman bumps her arm, and begins developing a bizarre mark.  Everyone begins having the same dream, one that gets longer each time they have it: a distorted television video of the front of the church, an enshrouded figure appearing in its doorway as a voice intones over static that this is a message from the future, that they must stop what is happening before it's too late: a paving of the way to bring the Anti-God to our world.

Although PRINCE OF DARKNESS has its fair share of gore - the aforementioned murder by pruning shear, one poor guy impaled on a bicycle by Alice Cooper of all people - most of the horror from PRINCE OF DARKNESS comes from the small pieces of insanity and dread, all accompanied once again by a killer Carpenter score.  The possessed scientists infect each other by essentially vomiting the green liquid into their mouths.  Most of these possessed are there to kill the others and make sure that the "chosen one" is left to evolve into the one who will bring the Anti-God into our world, but one man, seemingly fighting the change, stands there in front of the group, sweating and smiling and singing "Amazing Grace" as he runs a broken piece of  wood against his throat.  It's that moment that PRINCE OF DARKNESS really becomes bat-shit insane, and it's one of the creepiest scenes I've seen in a horror film in a long time.

If you can get past some of the admittedly dated dialog are okay with a film that takes its time to tell an intriguing story that's more than your average run of the mill slasher or monster flick, PRINCE OF DARKNESS holds up incredibly well.  Great effects, a solid and unique premise, and a sense of dread and apocalypse that's hard to laugh away, upon revisiting it's turned into one of my favorites from the man.  If you haven't seen it in a while, or have but was disappointed, I urge you to give it a second look - this one has the legs to go the distance.

Random Notes

  • Something I was mad at a a kid I love now - the lack of appearance (other than the hand, above) of the Devil.  Watching now, I can't help but think how much is implied by how little you actually see - very reminiscent of Tim Curry's Satan from LEGEND.
  • Dennis Dun, who nearly stole the show (nearly) from Kurt Russell in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is hilarious here.  Hi-la-ri-ous.
  • Too bad PRINCE OF DARKNESS isn't out in Blu-ray.  But, there is a great John Carpenter deal out there at Best Buy: a 4-pack of his movies for $14.99.  You get THE THING (which if you're a fan you should already have on Blu-ray), PRINCE OF DARKNESS, THEY LIVE, and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.  All in widescreen, too.  Awesome deal.


  1. Excellent post! Like yourself, when I first saw this film I was not a fan. I was annoyed that there was no iconic protagonist a la Snake Plissken but over the years as I've come back to the film, I enjoy it more and more to the point where it has now become one of my fave Carpenter films.

    There's the slow burn build-up, the creeping dread that begins to infect the film as all these weird things start to happen. Still, the creepiest image in the entire film is when we see poor Lisa Blount's (I believe) character trapped on the "other side" helplessly trying to get back but then the portal closes and we realize just how much she's sacrificed in order to save the world. Chilling and heartbreaking at the same time.

    Thanks again for contributing to my JC Week. This was a helluva post!

  2. Great review, Chris. You've covered and given voice to why I love this film. And why it's so underrated. I'm married to a USC alumna, so I recognized the campus locations (something that Carpenter himself was a product of, btw) when I first saw it. You might also be interested to know that the old church in L.A. still exists (and is now a center for the arts):

    I also have the Region 2 disc of the film which has a John Carpenter and Peter Jason commentary track. That now iconic scene with Lisa Blout (and J.D. nailed it by saying it is, "Chilling and heartbreaking at the same time.") was a hell of a thing to film (and especially harrowing for Lisa). I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks very much for this.

  3. Thanks both of you for the kind words! I actually wish I had taken more time now to go into more details about the film - I took a screen grab of the Lisa Blount scene you both mentioned; it was almost my closing image. Definitely a heartbreaking sequence in and excellent film!

  4. Great post - I love this film more every time I see it.