Before man walked the earth…it slept for centuries. It is evil. It is real. It is awakening.
After a string of action movies like Escape From New York and horror movies like The Thing and Halloween, writer/director John Carpenter took a break from what made him famous to work on a science fiction love story (Starman) and an Asian-style high-flying action comedy film (the brilliant and underappreciated Big Trouble In Little China). It may have taken a few years, but Carpenter finally returned to the horror genre with Prince of Darkness. There are a couple to things to point out about this:
1) Carpenter is at his absolute best when making apocalyptic horror movies. He's excellent and delving deep down and scaring us with end of the world psychology (In the Mouth of Madness) and choking claustrophobia (The Thing).
2) No film has ever frightened me more than Prince of Darkness. This is a bold claim, I realize, but I do not frighten easily and I have never seen an entire theater scream about a dozen times during any other film, so I know I wasn't the only person who got The Willies from this movie.
Facts of the Case
A priest carrying a mysterious key dies before he's able to meet with an Archbishop, and the key ends up in the possession of Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance—Halloween) who discovers the key goes to a door in an abandoned church that has served as a location for…something. A cylinder with a vile, green swirling liquid is in the basement along with an ancient book that has been erased and written over a number of times. Loomis then enlists the aid of Professor Birac (Victor Wong—Tremors, Big Trouble In Little China) to bring a team of scientists to the church for a weekend to study the cylinder. It turns out that the cylinder is locked from the inside (this is never a good thing) and whatever happens to be inside it seems to be gaining energy (also never a good thing). On top of that, various homeless persons, led by Alice Cooper (really not a good thing), begin gathering outside the church and violently preventing anyone from leaving. (For those of you who remember the TV show "Riptide" you will be particularly satisfied by one such scene.) Those trapped inside begin to unravel the secrets kept by the Brotherhood of Sleep: the Bible was lie a concocted by the church to placate the masses, and the thing inside the cylinder is an awakening son of Satan who, once released, will bring Anti-God into our world to "bring darkness instead of light." There's a bunch of other fun stuff in regards to zombies, flesh-eating bugs, a bizarre recurring dream sequence, and a joke about a witch doctor, but I won't spoil it here. Saying too much more spoils what Carpenter has in store for you.
To say that John Carpenter is on top of his game here is a bit of an understatement. Prince of Darkness is a rather underappreciated film, but those whom I've forced to watch it have failed to sleep that night. The story is paced methodically with set-ups to the plot interspersed with the opening credits for 15 minutes. This is an unusual practice but Carpenter deliberately uses this juxtaposition to build early tensions which slowly into the film's climax. He knows when to slow things down and let the audience get a bit more comfortable before hitting them with another big scare, of which there are several.
The story attempts to bridge the gap between physics and religious end-of-the-world dogma and, if you buy into the concept, you will have a pretty smart story to piece together at the end of the night (more on that in a bit). The interaction between Birac, representing the mind of the scientist, and Loomis, presenting the arguments of religion, and done nicely and as tastefully as possible. When Loomis exclaims, "He was our prisoner, not yours!" the frustration is felt. The themes of science replacing religion as a way of explaining the universe abound, and Carpenter has never been afraid to challenge the powers of belief and faith versus cold, hard reality, something he later explored differently in In the Mouth of Madness.
As usual, Carpenter also supplied the soundtrack. Anyone familiar with any of Carpenter's other films will recognize that his synthesized beats add greatly to the growing tension and the music is never used to cause a cheap scare.
The acting is pretty much done by a bunch of nobodies, TV actors (such as Jameson Parker from "Simon and Simon"), and some of Carpenter's favorite faces (Pleasance, Wong, Denis Dun—Big Trouble In Little China, and Peter Jason In the Mouth of Madness). The acting in this film is pretty much a mixed bag. Donald Pleasance cheerfully chews up the scenery while others are somewhat wooden and seem unfamiliar with what to do with a horror movie character. I'll give the cast the benefit of the doubt since most of them are zombified at some point in the film. It's competent acting work overall, but it's rather irrelevant as it's the story that creeps up on you.
The final scene of Prince of Darkness is one of the best money shots ever. During one viewing, this caused a friend of mine to leap across the room from a prone position. If this doesn't leave you breathless, I'm not entirely sure what will.
Unfortunately, the transfer to Prince of Darkness is relatively poor, but I'll point out that this transfer was done several years ago and was done under license to Image Entertainment. There is a great deal of graininess, which is vastly unfortunate since most of the action takes place at night or in the darker recesses of the church. The sound field is decent considering that's it's only a 2.0 stereo mix. Extras? Yeah, right.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I would like to point out that there are various elements to Prince of Darkness that are blasphemous. If you take your religion seriously and get offended at this sort of material, you may just want to give this one a miss.
Prince of Darkness is towards the top of the list when it comes to Carpenter's oeuvre; it's much more frightening and equally as clever as In the Mouth of Madness and is likewise as claustrophobic and nerve-wracking as The Thing. If you enjoy horror movies, you will love Prince of Darkness.
John Carpenter is guilty of scaring me spitless but is free to go nonetheless. Universal by way of Image Entertainment is guilty of a subpar performance in regards to the extras and transfer quality, and is hereby sentenced to creating a special edition, which Prince of Darkness greatly deserves.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
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