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January 8, 2009

Prince of Darkness


1987, Dir. by John Carpenter.

When it comes to making midnight movies, I'm pretty sure no one will ever be more of an idol to me than John Carpenter. I could probably feature at least a dozen of his films here, but the one I most recently decided to revisit is one of his most underappreciated films, Prince of Darkness.

Released in 1987, and following up his big budget failure (the excellent) Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness is probably the least recognized film Carpenter made in the 1980s. The film opens with a Priest (Halloween's Donald Pleasence) receiving a key from a recently deceased member of an ancient sect of the church. When he opens the corresponding door in a now abandoned LA church, he finds an ancient secret that may rewrite millions of years of religious history. And what happens next? You guessed it - a team of college students and a couple of their professors are called in for the weekend to investigate.

The Good
OK, I know you just read that last bit and cocked your head to the side, or said WTF?, or something like that. But hear me out. Carpenter's vision is not the vision of most 80's horror filmmakers. A bunch of young peeps in one place with an evil force does not always equal senseless killing, lots of fornication, and consumption of legal and illegal substances. Really. In fact, Carpenter's film takes a philosophical approach to the ludicrous situation at hand. There's a heavy focus on the religious, psychological, and scientific implications of the find. Each character seems interested in their job as part of the crew - with the usual naysayers - and the film becomes a story about how people of science would react to a demonic revelation if the facts were stacked against them. While the cast is nothing spectacular (though Dennis Dun, who co-starred in BTiLC previously, stands out as a skeptical member of the crew), there's a more realistic feeling of humanity in the film than most horrors of this era.

Most importantly, it's scary. Filmed utilizing Carpenter's patented blue and orange tones that were prevalent in Halloween and The Thing, the movie has a creepy, gritty quality that provides terrific atmosphere. This combines nicely with Carpenter's musical score, which is haunting and tense and is probably his best work after Halloween in that regard. There are some excellent jump scares in the film (although a couple are forced) and the religious discussion will add to the fear of anyone who has a spiritual background - though I don't think that's necessary to the film's power.

The Bad
Prince of Darkness is a well-crafted horror film in almost every regard, but you've probably noticed by now that it's a little far-fetched and possibly silly. Parts of the film discuss how matter and anti-matter would possibly apply to a creator and an anti-creator, parts of the film feature an army of homeless folks (lead by rock legend Alice Cooper!) who blindly follow the unseen force, and there are even connections to bugs and sunspots thrown in. The script (written by Carpenter under a pseudonym) could definitely have used a few tweaks that would make the plot more palpable to serious filmgoers. In fact, there's not a lot that separates this film from other religious horrors like The Exorcist and The Omen...except those films came across more serious than this one in the execution of their plots.

There's also a slight lull in the middle of the film, and a few silly choices by characters, but nothing that takes enough power away from the interesting idea and the dynamite final act.

Random Moments

  • OK, I should tell you everything. In the interest of full disclosure....the "discovery" is a vat of liquid Satan!
  • Though I think it's only said once in the film, Pleasence's priest is named Father Loomis - the same surname he carried in the Halloween series.
  • If you're a fan of Cooper, you'll possibly know that the first kill he enacts is a reenactment of a part of some of his live concerts. He even brought his own prop weapon to the set for the scene!
  • The highlight of the film, from a tension standpoint, is a recurring dream sequence (pictured at the top of the review) that is one of the more haunting things I've ever seen.
  • As with most of his films, Carpenter leaves the ending wide open for interpretation. It's one heckuva cliffhanger.
The Verdict
It's hard to defend Prince of Darkness as one of Carpenter's better films, especially considering everything he did between 1976 and 1988. However, Prince of Darkness is something I've seen dozens of times, and it still packs a wallop. If you're looking for an 80s horror that mixes the thought provoking stuff of the previous two decades and the feel of the era Carpenter is known for, you can't do much better than Prince of Darkness. It's one of my all-time favorite midnight movies.

The Mike's Rating: Legends Series!

1 comment:

Braden said...

I LOVE this movie! Love Love Love!

It's one of my favorite Carpenters, for sure.

Great review. Glad you mentioned the dream sequence. One of the scariest images ever.