Prince of Darkness
Dir. John Carpenter (1987)
A group of graduate students and a priest accidentally unleash a liquid containing the essence of Satan.
Continuing in our attempt to close out spooky season with the Horror Master, we take up the middle film in John Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy" with Prince of Darkness, a film many believe to be his greatest work (that's not true, no one believes that). While this may be the second film of the trilogy, it is the last that I have watched, so... I'm placing it directly after its followup, In the Mouth of Madness. Ostensibly about a group of graduate students who join a priest in an attempt to vanquish a vial of liquid Satan, Prince of Darkness is a film that encompasses physics, philosophy, science fiction, and religious horror into a hodgepodge of entertaining nonsense that is at once largely watchable and entirely perplexing.
Carpenter fans will rejoice at seeing Donald Pleasance in one of his films again, this time as the priest who has gathered the team of scientists to help him determine what is in the giant glowing vial in the basement of the abandoned church and what exactly to do about it. Victor Wong also makes an appearance, who fans of the directors' filmography will remember as Egg Shen from Big Trouble in Little China. And there's also Alice Cooper for some reason. By and large, however, the cast is filled with unknowns, almost all of whom received their biggest credit acting in this film. They do fine, I suppose, but nobody really stands out besides Pleasance, who gives his characteristic hammy yet authoritatively commanding performance, and Wong, who adds a bit of levity and science, as nonsense as it may be in reality, to this otherwise religious horror.
Everything in Prince of Darkness screams John Carpenter, from the haunting, sometimes choral score to the shots of the street that feel like they're lifted straight from the cutting room floor of They Live. The scenes of violence are shot like a slasher film, stalking and enclosing victims in a claustrophobic tomb of shot framing. The insistence on the insertion of a dreamworld storyline doesn't feel like it belongs to the same movie, but it does give the film a bizarre and ethereal feeling that works pretty well for what it is.
For a film about the rise of Satan after thousands of years in captivity, the script is perhaps too serious at times, expositing in such an overly sincere manner that it becomes cartoonish at times. Carpenter, who also wrote the film under the pseudonym Martin Quartermass, struggles to maintain a consistent theme or a steady direction with the plot. The film also moves surprisingly slowly, attempting to build dread but often resulting more in bewilderment. The score, usually Carpenter's strong suit, is mixed poorly, a deep bassline running through nearly every scene that often distracts from dialogue and makes every frame feel like you're sitting inside a thrumming bass drum. Not to mention, it's just a bizarre film overall, a weird genre mishmash that doesn't completely fulfill any of them.
Regardless, there are streaks of brilliance mixed in as well. There's a creep factor that runs throughout, the mark of a competent filmmaker regardless of the subject matter. Prince of Darkness almost feels like an Argento film, overcoming a nonsensical plot by being expertly crafted and claustrophobic, sucking the air from the audience's lungs while encircling them with a maelstrom of poorly understood science and an even more layman interpretation of science. While this would normally be a detriment to making a good film, Carpenter still somehow makes it work, much like his Italian predecessor. By utilizing his incredible ability to make pretty much anything ominous, Prince of Darkness becomes more than the sum of its varied parts... but only slightly.
Who this movie is for: Carpenter fans, Multi-genre horror lovers, Super soaker salesmen
Bottom line: Prince of Darkness is weird as hell, with elements of Italian exorcism films, philosophical sci-fi, and stalkery slasher film in equal measure. Carpenter's score is good but overpowering, the plot is often nonsensical at best, and the film drags itself along at a leisurely (and at times lethargic) pace. Nonetheless, it is a John Carpenter film and must be treated as such, worth exploring regardless of where you end up. It's the second in his Apocalypse Trilogy and by far the worst, but you can't just skip the middle film in a trilogy, can you?