Prince of Darkness (1987) was made after John Carpenter went public with how dissatisfied he was with the studio interference he encountered while working on studio films like Big Trouble in Little China (1986). He decided to return to his independent filmmaking roots by signing a multi-picture deal with Alive Films. He would get a $3 million budget per film and complete creative freedom. The first result was a creepy horror film and the second installment of an informal “Apocalypse Trilogy” which began with The Thing (1982) and concluded with In the Mouth of Madness (1995). Aside from being heavily influenced by legendary horror author H.P. Lovecraft, all three films feature a higher, malevolent supernatural force that manipulates human beings against one another in order to bring about the end of the world.
A group of ambitious math and sciences graduate students team up with their teacher Birack (Victor Wong) and an intense priest (Donald Pleasence in one of his last roles) to investigate the presence of a biological evil, which maybe the Devil, in a decaying old church. The first ten minutes introduces most of the film’s major characters with almost no dialogue as Carpenter cuts from one person to another, letting their actions inform who they are. There’s Brian (Jameson Parker), the serious one, Walter (Dennis Dun), the self-professed ladies man who is also a bit of a jerk, and Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), a smart, good looking woman who becomes romantically involved with Brian.
Pretty soon, some of the students get infected with liquid from the large cylinder that resides in the basement of the church, and a large group of homeless people also surround the building. Carpenter revisits the siege mentality from Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and the dysfunctional group mentality from The Thing. He cleverly pits skeptical scientists against the devoutly religious and then throws them into a crisis where they have to work together in order to survive. As Brian says at one point, “Faith is a hard thing to come by these days.”
Carpenter had been reading a lot about theoretical physics and atomic theory at the time. He thought it would be interesting to create some kind of ultimate evil and combine it with the notion of matter and anti-matter. From there, he decided to have an anti-God that would act as a mirror opposite of God. Carpenter started with that premise and proceeded to add on various other ideas. The director admitted that he was in a very introspective mood at the time of making Prince of Darkness and was interested in making a horror film where the threat was primarily in the mind.
One of the film’s backers was the agent for veteran rock ‘n’ roller Alice Cooper and suggested that he record a song for the film, which they used only briefly. Carpenter got along with Cooper and suggested that the musician play a small but memorable part of a homeless zombie. Incidentally, the impaling device he uses in the film is from his actual stage show. Pre-production lasted only seven weeks and principal photography was relatively short in an effort to avoid a potential Directors Guild of America strike. Carpenter and his cast and crew spent two-and-a-half weeks on
Early on there is a great shot of the priest standing outside the rundown church and the way Carpenter frames it – in a long shot with the large building dwarfing the man – is very effective. The filmmaker expertly eases us into the horror with unsettling images like an anthill covered with swarming insects, a bag lady with bugs covering her, and several establishing shots of creepy, zombie-like homeless people just standing outside the church. The first 30 minutes is a slow burn as Carpenter gradually builds the dread, culminating in the first death and it’s an impressive one as a homeless zombie impales one of the students with part of a bicycle frame. These seemingly unrelated images begin to reveal a bigger picture and a greater evil. Throughout, Carpenter’s simple yet effective electronic score establishes a menacing tone that builds along with the emerging evil in the film.
As always, Carpenter sneaks in his social and political message. In many ways, it predicts the corruption of power that is explored in Vampires (1998). Absolute power corrupts and those in such lofty positions hide the truth from society to keep the rest of us ignorant. Carpenter takes a couple of amusing jabs at organized religion with the priest shown riding up to various locations in an expensive limousine. For someone who is supposed to be all about devoting his life to God, he lives pretty well.
Early on in the film, the priest reads a recently deceased clergyman’s journal with an entry entitled, “The Brotherhood of Sleep.” One particular passage is shown with the words, “The sleeper awakens,” which is very Lovecraftian. Much of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos fiction was concerned with the awakening of an ancient evil. We learn that the Brotherhood of Sleep is a powerful, top secret religious sect. Birack is Carpenter’s mouthpiece as he compares the evil in the basement of the church to anti-matter. Like matter is the polar opposite of anti-matter so to is the relationship between God and his opposite, what Birack classifies as Anti-God or Satan.
The critical reception to Prince of Darkness at the time was not kind to say the least. In his review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington wrote, “At one point Pleasence vows that ‘it's a secret that can no longer be kept.’ Here's another: ‘The Prince of Darkness stinks. It too deserves to be shut up in a canister for 7 million years.’” Liam Lacey, in his review for the Globe and Mail, wrote, “There is no character really worth caring about, no sympathy to any of these characters. The principal romantic couple, Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, are unpleasant enough to create an unfortunate ambivalence about their eternal destinies.” In his review for the New York Times, Vincent Canby called the film a “surprisingly cheesy horror film to come from Mr. Carpenter, a director whose work is usually far more efficient and inventive.” At any rate, you get idea. Mainstream critics did not dig it.
When I first saw Prince of Darkness many years ago, I had a problem with its lack of the traditional two-fisted Carpenter anti-hero. All of the characters seemed to stand around and pontificate about what was happening instead of doing something like Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (1981) or Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China or Nada in They Live (1988) – men of action. For me, no one character stood out from the rest and they were all equally bland and uninteresting – except for Pleasence’s priest and Wong’s professor, but their characters are given no chance to develop.
Over the years, I have watched Prince of Darkness many times and realized that I was wrong, that there was much more going on in the film than I initially realized. The film was made independently and with a lack of movie stars, Pleasence excepted, but he was hardly a household name at the time. I’m sure that this did not help its chances at the box office but it works for the film because you don’t know who is going to live or die – all bets are off. And so, like in The Thing, the group of students get picked off one-by-one with a core group of survivors fighting against insurmountable odds. What makes Prince of Darkness a refreshing change from most of Carpenter’s other films is that it features his most commonplace protagonists – college students – hardly the stuff that heroes are made of and yet when the time comes, they step up to the challenge because they are forced to in an exciting climax that ends in typical Carpenter fashion with society being saved but at the expense of a few unlucky souls. Or is it? Like the other two films in “Apocalypse Trilogy,” there is a lingering ambiguity suggested by the final image which hints that all may not be well. Prince of Darkness is one of those rare horror films that are as thought-provoking as it is scary.
There is a really nice review of the film over at Voyages of the HMS Swiftsure and another one over at Lessons From the School of Inattention. Finally, most of the images for this article are courtesy of this fantastic site.