Prince Of Darkness

Religious discussion, theoretical physics, and Alice Cooper as a homeless bum. Not your average horror movie, then?

Released in 1987, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 02 Feb 2003 by Craig Eastman
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Catholicism. Quantum physics. Two subjects that have very little to do with each other, and even less to do with horror movies. In Prince Of Darkness John Carpenter pulls off a blinder by combining all three in one of the most unusual and rewarding cinematic horror enterprises of the eighties. If it sounds like an odd premise it's because that's what it is, but it's also an intriguing exploration of the nature of evil through a scientific standpoint rather than the more traditional fantasy view. Don't worry, though. There's still plenty of gore.

The film begins with the passing of a priest who was the keeper of a dark secret at the heart of the Catholic Church. This secret is entrusted in turn to another priest, Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence), who brings a warning of the impending return of the Son of the Antichrist to professor of theoretical physics Howard Birack (Victor Wong) and his students. It seems the physical manifestation of the titular nasty bloke is imminent, and Loomis knows the only way he can convince the outside world is to have his knowledge proven scientifically.

As Loomis explains later in the film, the invention of the Catholic faith centred around the banishing of the Antichrist to another realm. Before this happened, he sealed the essence of his Son in a container in the form of a fluid, and this container was entombed by the early priests to keep their secret safe. Afraid of mankind ever realising that evil had indeed a real and tangible form, the religion was formed to surround it in myth, effectively allowing us to sleep at night and give us something to scare our kids with. Outrageously, Martin Quartermass' script even suggests Catholics murdered Christ when his popularity and knowledge of Satan's true existence threatened their subterfuge. Outstanding stuff...

Loomis convinces Birack and his students to spend the weekend studying the canister in the deserted inner-city church where it now resides, and it's not long before the weird shit starts kicking off. Shambling vagrants in a trance-like state surround the church on all sides, at first seemingly malignant but we soon learn otherwise. The peril of the group is highlighted when the first member of the team bitches out and leaves the church on the first night. He is greeted by a group of said vagrants and attempts to flee, only to be kindly skewered on the broken end of a bicycle frame by none other than Alice Cooper in a bizarre cameo role. Looks like a siege then, and it seems we might be back on familiar Carpenter territory. Perhaps it's going to be a kind of horror spin on Assault On Precinct 13?

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Anyone looking for cheap slasher fun will be disappointed, however. Where Prince Of Darkness departs from the usual narrative flow of the genre is in it's exploration of the events through scientific philosophy. There are a number of discourses into the nature of evil and the theory behind the anti-particles in which the film would have us believe the Antichrist exists. It's easy to imagine this kind of thing putting off the casual Joe who just wants to see people's heads coming off at the end of a variety of sharp implements, but for anyone with an imagination and vague interest in such things it actually enhances the experience no end. It's a tricky manoeuvre, but in pulling it off so well Carpenter has made the scenario more threatening to anyone intelligent enough to appreciate the arguments being made. In discarding the fantastical elements of most horror movies and grounding it instead in scientific possibility, the existence (albeit theoretically) of an Antichrist in physical form becomes exponentially more terrifying. This isn't a monster spirited up from some old curse that's going to pop out from under the bed; it's evil incarnate from the mirror side of our universe, and there's probably an equation for it. Yikes! Just to make us feel better, Carpenter throws some more gore at us. Phew.

Yes, he hasn't forgotten that people also like to see a little claret, and surprisingly given the (relatively) thoughtful nature of the piece, there's a fair bit of it going about. People get stabbed by scissor-wielding maniacs, eaten by beetles before collapsing in on themselves, and take it upon themselves to cut their own throats after a spot of demonic possession. There's some brutal stuff going on here, which is a shame because the people who enjoy this kind of thing most will probably have given up by now.

Being a Carpenter movie there's a lot of startling imagery on show other than violent deaths. For reasons best left unexplained the group share a dream which seems to be a shaky handheld video transmission from the future that shows a robed figure bathed in blue light emerging from the front of the church. It's a recurring image that works immensely well, and it certainly gave this reviewer the creeps. There's also some brilliant realisation centred around the theme of reflection, the best of which occurs at the climax of the action when the Devil's son summons him forth from a floor-to-ceiling mirror. This and the last shot of the action which immediately follows, showing someone passing through in the opposite direction, left a huge impression on yours truly and put something of a shiver up my spine. The film's final image also follows this theme and is effective in it's own way, but we wouldn't want to ruin anything now, would we?

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Prince Of Darkness' production values might not be the highest in horror movie history, but the cast and crew make the most of their material. The four main leads (it's really an ensemble piece) all carry their weight superbly. Donald Pleasence is as intense as ever and Victor Wong as Birack plays wonderfully well out of type. Lisa Blount and Jameson Parker as the in-love couple somehow manage to be in no way annoying, and Parker in particular shows a depth to his character that frankly doesn't exist on paper. Also on top form is the ever-reliable Dennis Dun as Walter, providing superb comic relief in a precisely measured fashion that is neither condescending nor detrimental to the scary nature of the material.

As is standard on a Carpenter vehicle from this period, Prince Of Darkness comes with it's own in-built, home-grown musical score that is typically minimalistic and massively influential to the mood. Although nothing technically sinister happens in the first fifteen minutes, the score immediately suggests uneasiness and foreboding and leaves the viewer in no doubt that something unnerving is gradually coming to fruition.

Shot largely indoors in the one location, there is an understandable lack of flashy photography going on, but what little there is has been dealt with competently. One thing that is missing is the sense of claustrophobia that such a set should have granted, but which somehow Carpenter fails to capture. It's a minor quibble, but it could have upped the atmosphere immensely had it been capitalised on.

Another minor area where the budgetary constraints threaten the viewer's immersion is make-up. Now we don't expect miracles on a production of this scale, but whether it's the make-up itself or just the way the actors wear it there's something just too corny about the set-piece events that dampens the involvement a little. The biggest culprit is Susan Blanchard, who, charged with the understandably difficult task of pretending to be inhabited by the son of Satan, decides to convey her new persona by jerking about like something out of The Evil Dead whilst grinning and gargling away like a baby on speed. Coupled with the ropy all-over makeover she sports it kind of takes the edge off the denouement a little. Oh well. Overall I can forgive these little misgivings because there's so much being done that is right, like the sublime pacing that builds gradually and evenly to the shocking climax.

Prince Of Darkness is one of those films I want to babble on about all day, yet don't want to give too much away. It represents a brave step for Carpenter in his career, and he deserves huge kudos for pulling it off so well. Oddly, it's not regarded by many as one of his better films, yet I personally find it bears up to repeated viewing superbly well, more so than most of his repertoire in fact. Ultimately it just lacks the polish it needed to be a five star effort, but anyone with an open, imaginative mind who wants something more fundamentally scary than some teenagers being stalked by a dick in a mask would be nuts not to check it out. Just don't go looking too closely into any mirrors afterwards...

Craig Disko peeked out from under the covers long enough to award this movie four out of a possible five Arbitrary Disko Units.

John Carpenter
Cast list:
Donald Pleasence (Father Loomis)
Victor Wong (Professor Birack)
Lisa Blount (Catherine)
Jameson Parker (Brian Marsh)