John CarpenterDonald Pleasence
Prince of Darkness
Medium: film
Year: 1987
Director: John Carpenter
Writer: Martin Quatermass [pseudonym], John Carpenter [uncredited]
Keywords: horror, SF, Christian
Country: USA
Actor: Donald Pleasence, Jameson Parker, Victor Wong, Lisa Blount, Dennis Dun, Susan Blanchard, Anne Marie Howard, Ann Yen, Ken Wright, Dirk Blocker, Jessie Lawrence Ferguson, Peter Jason, Robert Grasmere, Thom Bray, Joanna Merlin, Alice Cooper, Betty Ramey, Jessie Ferguson
Format: 102 minutes
Website category: Horror 1970/80s
Review date: 10 November 2008
It's a John Carpenter film. That's good. However the question has to be whether we're talking Genre-Redefining Early Carpenter or Unremarkable Old Hack Carpenter. Late 1980s. Hmm. In fairness it has to be admitted that his golden period covers both the seventies and eighties, while his less-regarded movies only really kick in during the late nineties. I don't mind them, actually. Prince of Darkness is the second of his Apocalypse Trilogy with The Thing and The Mouth of Madness, so-named because the world might have ended after all of them. No plot links, I'm afraid, but I suppose by definition there wouldn't be.
So is it good? I don't know if I'd go that far, but it's interesting. I'd have called it a seven out of ten, but the apocalyptic context and huge ideas probably raise it to an eight. Carpenter wrote this film after reading up on theoretical physics and atomic theory, which he then mixed up with Biblical myth. Apparently he thought "it would be interesting to create some sort of ultimate evil and combine it with the notion of matter and anti-matter." That would be an anti-God, in other words. The second half of the film is basically a bog-standard haunted house story, but it's all plugged into something much, much bigger. The Catholic Church have had the Anti-Christ imprisoned in the form of swirling green goo for the past 2,000 years, but it takes a team of university research scientists to work out that somewhere out there is also is Mr Gloopy's daddy. Furthermore everyone's having prophetic dreams from the year 1999 about a spectral figure coming out of the church. Welcome to the Book of Revelation.
All that I admire. I boggled at learning that Jesus was an alien and that we might have been sending tachyon warnings into the past in the year 1999, but you've got to love the ambition. Most films with this kind of material are happy just to persecute a young married couple until they've either died horribly or fled into the night. The ending's good too. Carpenter's always had a knack for endings. Here he cuts at exactly the right moment. So, are we all going to die? Ahahahaha. What do you think?
Unfortunately the ideas are better than the film.
The cast is bland, wasting good actors like Donald Pleasence and giving screen time to some poor ones. This ain't no The Thing, that's for sure. Carpenter didn't write that one. The worst offender is possibly Moustache Guy, played by one Jameson Parker, who probably thought he was underacting. Yeah, right. There's a throwaway romance that is indeed thrown away, with none of the characters really being distinguishable from any of the others. One of the two points of cast-related interest is the roll-call of Carpenter regulars and regulars-to-be like Victor Wong, Peter Jason and of course Pleasence. The other would be Alice Cooper, who's one of the army of homeless non-zombies and is great because of his weird, scraggy face. He doesn't get any lines, but he does kill someone with a bicycle.
It's also pretty damn slow for quite a long time, salvaged mainly by Carpenter's music. I do like Carpenter's music.
I was reminded of certain other movies, even if the context makes you less inclined to make comparisons. Like The Exorcist, it's a Catholic horror story in which the devil vomits green soup. It also feels very 1970s, which may or may not have been deliberate. Moustache Guy's porn moustache is the most obvious visual throwback, but it must have also helped that this was a return to independent film for Carpenter after the disappointing box office for Big Trouble in Little China. The budget was under $3 million and they shot it in no time. Unfortunately this film too was poorly received, although by eventually taking $14 million it did manage to turn a profit.
Contemporary critics said it had uneven pacing (hmmm) and an over-complicated plot, which is ridiculous since in fact it has no main protagonist and an excessively straightforward story. Admittedly the ideas are wild. I watched this with my dad and we were arguing afterwards about what had happened, even though we'd obviously seen the same movie. However that's due to Carpenter's ambition, not his plotting. However apparently the film did well in Spain and more surprisingly Japan, despite the fact that you'd think a Christian background would be an advantage to a potential audience. Well, that's Japan for you.
There's something of a Quatermass influence, as is indicated by Carpenter using the pen name Martin Quatermass and inventing a Kneale University for the film. Scientific investigation of demons, the devil, poltergeists, etc. was apparently a Nigel Kneale hallmark. However far from being flattered, Kneale complained at having his name associated with the film. The two of them had history, him having taken his name off the script for Halloween III in protest at the changes made by the director. That hadn't been Carpenter himself though, but Tommy Lee Wallace.
That said, I haven't seen much Kneale so I can't really comment for myself. However it owes a far heavier debt to Carpenter's own work, borrowing from Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing and more. The voiceless army of the homeless. Shots, themes, etc. Lots of stuff. In some ways it's close to being a My Greatest Hits.
This film's impact will probably depend on how you respond to its ideas and images. These days it seems to have something of a fanbase and it's easy to see what in it appeals to them. If you thought The Matrix was deep, your brain will explode at this. However me, I found myself reacting more to the odd moment of tension or the funny bit with Collapsing Insect Man. "I've got a message for you and you're not going to like it." I admit the ambition on display here, which outstrips anything in that kind of genre which you might scrape up to compare it to, but I can't pretend I found it as haunting as others have claimed to. However I like its style and it's an experiment I'm glad I've seen even if I don't think it's entirely successful.