Has there ever been a director who can claim to be a massive influence on the world of cinema and also on synthesiser music? There’s only one—and of course I’m talking about John Carpenter.
Prince of Darkness is one of Carpenter’s oddest films, and has often been forgotten due to the rest of his extraordinary run from Dark Star to his anarchist masterpiece They Live. It was a return to making claustrophobic and apocalyptic horror for Carpenter, but was sandwiched between Big Trouble in Little China and They Live.
The film forms the middle of what Carpenter calls his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” which starts with The Thing and ends with In The Mouth of Madness. Fittingly, Prince of Darkness has a lot in common with both films. It’s all set in an abandoned Los Angeles church, where The Priest, played by Donald Pleasance, gets a professor and students to help him investigate a mysterious cylinder filled with green liquid. The action takes place almost exclusively inside the church, harkening back to Carpenter’s contained films, such as Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing, but also reflecting his love of Howard Hawks.
The whole gist is that the liquid is the earthly embodiment of Satan himself. It inhabits some of the students, possessing them and eventually morphing them into surreal grotesque forms that are not unlike the space alien in The Thing. Some try to escape, but the exits are guarded by possessed street people (led by shock rocker Alice Cooper in a rare non-cameo onscreen appearance.) Carpenter was researching theoretical physics at the time, which gave him the idea of some kind of matter that could be “ultimate evil.” The resulting concept is good enough for a supernatural horror film.
It’s all about the horror that you can’t see, somewhat Lovecraftian and also owing a bit to the Quartermass films (Carpenter’s screenplay is credited to “Martin Quartermass” and the University is named after Nigel Kneale, who actually worked with him on Halloween III: Season of the Witch.) The biggest problem is that there is really no clear lead at all. It’s an ensemble cast, but the characterisations are not among Carpenter’s strongest, so it doesn’t quite make up for that lack, especially as the script gets bogged down by unnecessary exposition. That said, there are some great transformation scenes, which are certainly the film’s best moments. Carpenter does the same sort of thing much better in In The Mouth of Madness, which is also a more obvious homage to Lovecraft.
Victor Wong plays Professor Birack. Wong was an artist who studied under Mark Rothko, but as an actor he also appears in Big Trouble in Little China. Dennis Dun, one of the leads in that film, also returns in Prince of Darkness playing a student, and you’ll also see a cast of familiar supporting actors from Carpenter’s ‘80s films, such as character actor Peter Jason. But without a solid actor to anchor the action—someone like Kurt Russell or Sam Neill—viewers are left with a crew of minor characters, none of whom can drive the story along on their own.
As for extras, other than the theatrical trailer, the disc has nada—just like the main character in They Live. The score is also one of Carpenter’s least memorable.