#12 in my ranking of John Carpenter’s films.
John Carpenter was going to a dark place. It’s not really the subject matter, though. While Prince of Darkness is a bit more apocalyptic than some of his other offerings, it’s obvious that it was the commercial failure of Big Trouble in Little China that did something to Carpenter’s view of the world. This and his next film, They Live, are dark, angry films that take some of his earlier ideas and motifs about the nature of evil and turn them up to eleven. He had done good, making successful and well regarded films in Christine and Starman after the failure of The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China was his effort to reassert his own voice in a fun adventure movie made with his pals. With another major failure in his career, he turns around and makes a movie about how neither religion nor science can explain true evil. I don’t want to armchair psychologist the guy, but I suspect there may be a connection.
A priest (Donald Pleasence) finds a mysterious box that contains a key in the hands of a recently deceased priest. The key goes to a secret chamber in the basement of a church that has stood there for hundreds of years. He brings in an old friend, Professor Birack (Victor Wong), a quantum physicist, to investigate what’s been hiding under the church. Birack organizes a large investigation with his own graduate students as well as those of some other departments. Chief among these students are Brian (Jameson Parker), Catherine (Lisa Blount), and Walter (Dennis Dun), all physicists who are friends while Brian and Catherine are nascent lovers. The largest issue with the film overall is the characters. Carpenter was far more interested in the philosophical questions around the nature of evil. His characters here aren’t even vehicles for these questions. Really there’s an uneasy combination of Carpenter’s earlier efforts to ape Howard Hawks’ later style and this question at the heart of the film.
Where the movie really shines is in its sense of impending horror. From the beginning, there’s this foreboding that permeates the film and it get highlighted early by the roving homeless that remain outside the church as the students and professors arrive for their night of study. Led by Alice Cooper in his white face makeup, their presence starts as just a simple uneasy reality that they all try to ignore.
The church itself is hiding a chamber underneath with a cylindrical container that contains an ever-swirling green liquid. Initial review shows that the container can only be opened from the inside. There’s also a book alongside it in different ancient languages that needs translation. The group begins their research and more weird things begin to go down. All while this is going on, the priest and Birack have the central conversation about how evil could be omnipresent from a quantum mechanics point of view, and it’s easy to get the impression that Carpenter built up the entire script around that one conversation.
What I like best about the film is the building sense of unease around the evil leaking out. The evil is formless and without explanation (a rather common concept of evil from Carpenter). I read Roger Ebert’s review of the film, and he actually bemoaned the physical embodiment of evil here, and I think he misread it. The green swirling liquid isn’t meant to be threatening itself. It’s supposed to be a placeholder for the ideas that the priest and Birack are talking about. The real terror is how the evil takes over everyone, and that could be stronger with a stronger base of characters to terrorize. This movie could use another rewrite pass to beef up the characters, for sure, but I think the craft that goes into the eerie sense of ever-increasing terror works remarkably well.
The movie, though, does descend into pure horror movie convention by the end, and I don’t think it really fulfills the promise of the ideas at the center of that conversation between the priest and Birack. I don’t think Carpenter really figured out how to integrate it all, and he probably rushed himself into production to take advantage of his carte-blanche offer from Alive Films.
That being said, though, the final conventional horror elements are effective enough to work on their own. There are some great visual ideas involving a mirror (that I would be surprised if the special effects team of Stargate hadn’t been influenced by) that are executed really well and often very prettily in an almost horrifying way.
It’s not one of Carpenter’s best films, but Prince of Darkness is a testament to Carpenter the director over Carpenter the writer. He took a script that honestly needed more work, and he made the absolute most of it in terms of production. While the characters tend to be thin, he manages the right kind of unease and panic and even terror from his acting troupe. The movie often simply looks great, and his wallpaper musical score helps establish the mood very effectively. I have a real soft spot for Prince of Darkness.