Prince of Darkness (1987)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2008-03-31 14:37

Written and Directed by: John Carpenter

Reviewed by: Brett G.

"We are transmitting from the year One-Nine-Nine-Nine..."

John Carpenter is a veritable legend of filmmaking. His run from 1976 to 1988 is unrivaled by any other modern filmmaker as far as Iím concerned. Furthermore, a look at Carpenterís horror films during this time period is even more awe-inspiring. In a span of twelve years, Carpenter was responsible for four of the genres most loved films: Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, Christine. Coming at the tail end of this period, however, is the little-heralded Prince of Darkness. I suppose itís inevitable that certain films are bound to be overlooked in a body of work as impressive as Carpenterís, but itís a true shame that Prince of Darkness doesnít get the recognition it deserves. All of Carpenterís staples are intact here, as the film is intensely moody, atmospheric, and genuinely unnerving at times.

The film owes much of its effectiveness to its subject matter, so Iíll start with the plot. The story involves an abandoned church that houses a mysterious canister of swirling green liquid. Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance) has been charged with the task of guarding this secret; however, he invites Professor Birack (Victor Wong) and a group of graduate students to the church to study the mysterious canister. As the weekend progresses, it becomes all too clear that the canister houses a malevolent entity, and to make matters worse, itís apparently gaining energy. Furthermore, this liquid is responsible for possessing one of the students into the living dead when she ingests it. In turn, she begins to spread the condition among and around the church.

Upon studying the phenomenon, the team of grad students soon discovers the terrifying truth behind the canisterís contents: the green liquid is actually the son of Satan, and heís about to wake up and wreak havoc by bringing his father back into the world. Father Loomis also explains that the Catholic Church essentially forged the Bible to placate the masses, as the truth he has revealed is far more terrifying. The inhabitants of the church must now find a way to contain this malevolent entity before he unleashes darkness upon the world. Their cause isnít helped by the fact that a group of derelicts (headed by Alice Cooper, no less) outside of the church has also been possessed. Satan also appears to have a horde of flesh-eating bugs on call if he needs them as well. In short, containing the Prince of Darkness is not going to be easy. I wonít reveal any more of the plot, as the film slowly builds towards a twist that still unnerves me to this day.

Carpenter seems to be at the top of his game when heís dealing with the apocalypse, and Prince of Darkness is no exception. Carpenter effectively preys upon our fears of the end of the world by slowly developing a mysterious threat whose origins are older than mankind itself. I donít fashion myself as an especially religious person, and religion-themed horror films rarely affect me, but Prince of Darkness has managed to freak me out for years. This is probably due to the fact that Carpenter doesnít have Satan take a tangible form like The Exorcist does. Instead, Satan and the ďAnti-GodĒ are mysterious, unstoppable form that can strike at any moment. Also, it doesnít hurt that Carpenter has Pleasance around to sell us on their destructive capacity. Iím convinced that the man could make a stick of gum sound apocalyptic. There is also an intriguing sub-plot involving a dream that is being experienced by all the characters in the church; I canít say more, but these sequences are among the creepiest scenes ever committed to film.

As I said earlier, all of Carpenterís signatures are intact here: a wide anamorphic frame that is put to full use by moody establishing shots, a slow, tension-building plot, and a synth score (co-composed with Alan Howarth) that is among Carpenterís best. As with any Carpenter film, the music itself almost becomes a character in the film, as its moody tones overshadow the entire film. As is normally the case, Carpenter gathers an impressive cast. Along with the aforementioned Carpenter favorites (Wong and Pleasance), Dennis Dun (of Big Trouble in Little China fame) provides an excellent job in a supporting role as Walter, one of Birackís graduate students. The filmís build is also a key to its effectiveness. Some might consider it slow, but Carpenter infuses the narrative with just enough mystery to keep us interested; furthermore, once Carpenter makes his big reveal regarding the canisterís contents, youíre invested enough to still care about the proceedings from there on out. As is usually the case with Carpenter, there isnít a ton of in-your-face gore, as that is rarely Carpenterís style. Instead, he employs a tension-building atmosphere that aims to be unnerving rather than revolting.

For whatever reason, Prince of Darkness is rarely cited as being among Carpenterís best films. In my opinion, itís the second to last great film he ever did, with the last being In the Mouth of Madness, another apocalyptic thriller. In fact, itís interesting to note that Carpenter considers Prince of Darkness to be the middle chapter in his apocalypse trilogy, with the first entry being The Thing. In terms of the four horror films cited above, I think Prince of Darkness has surely earned its place with that pantheon. Itís got a memorable story, an outstanding score, a highly effective twist, and one of the most ambiguous endings in horror history. This will frustrate many, but as a fan of ambiguity and interpretation, Iím delighted each time I watch the film.

Unfortunately, Universal has been less than kind to the film when it comes to its DVD releases. While the transfer is competent enough, I canít help but think a new one would improve the image quality tremendously, as the one used here is a decade old. The 2.0 stereo mix is also competent, and effectively highlights the filmís score. I have no complaints there. Also, there are no extras of any sort. Last, but certainly not least, Universalís latest release does not feature the filmís original poster art. While this might not be a big deal to many, it bothers me because the original artwork is among my favorite movie posters of all time. Interestingly enough, it scared me as a kid and actually prevented me from renting it until I was older. It should be noted that the original Image release features the original art; however, itís now out of print. If anything about this DVD is to be commended, itís the low price, as it can be found for $10 in most places. With no news of a re-release on the horizon, it looks like this is the best weíll get for a while. Still, since the film is so well done, I urge any fan of horror to Buy it!

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