John Carpenter is, of course, an obvious staple in the world of horror, with such classics to his credit as Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, In The Mouth Of Madness…true tent-poles of the genre, and those are just a few examples. As the progenitor of such influential films, it’s no wonder he’s earned the moniker “The Master of Horror”; however, he’s also written and directed a good many films that may not be quite as well-known to the less hardcore of we Fellow Fans.
One of my favorites of Carpenter’s films (likely my second favorite, right behind the tie of Halloween and The Thing ) is the genuinely creepy yet largely unheralded Prince of Darkness from back in 1987. Aside from having marvelous atmosphere and the always-enjoyable presence of Donald Pleasance, it was one of the first films I can recall that put such a creative and clinical spin on the supernatural.
A very elderly priest dies in his humble surroundings, divested of all worldly possessions save for a small, ornate box. Another priest is summoned, but not so much to administer the last rites as to take up the burden of the box and it’s contents. At the same time, college physics student Brian Marsh awakens from a strange, broadcast-like dream. He shakes off the odd images and heads to class, taking time to notice attractive fellow student Catherine along the way. The pair of them get chosen (along with several other students) to participate in a scientific field experiment with the renowned Dr. Howard Birack, but they don’t know what it is they will be studying; it isn’t until they arrive and begin setting up their computers and measuring equipment in the same old church we saw earlier that it’s revealed that this “experiment” was requested of Dr. Birack by the very same priest who now possesses the box (Father Loomis; nice touch, eh?).
It seems that in that locked chamber, far below the church, there’s a strange container of a sickly green liquid, along with an ancient book that appears to be written in three different languages. Father Loomis speaks of the Brotherhood of Sleep, an ancient Catholic order whose purpose was to keep the being (yes, being ) that is trapped in that container a prisoner, but after hundreds of years, things seem to be coming apart; even before the team approached the church, strange omens and portents had been making themselves known. Once they are there, both the surrounding homeless people in the decrepit neighborhood (with the nice bonus of Alice Cooper himself seemingly leading their ranks) and the very air within the old edifice itself begin to reek of something sinister…all signs of the end, the priest worries, and his words suggest that the swirling goop in the container could quite possibly be the prophetic shit getting primed to hit the proverbial fan. As the group begins their study, more and more fantastic discoveries about the container, it’s contents, and the old book are revealed, and one by one, the scientists begin to fall victim to whatever presence exists within the ever-spinning contents of the container, becoming both prey and pawns in it’s bid to force it’s way into this world…
I recall seeing this movie back when I was a student in high school, and then as well as now I was impressed with the script, particularly Carpenter’s treatment of the supernatural in scientific terms: telekinesis is explained by a focused beam of subatomic particles that one of the scientific instruments detects; the container itself is found to be broadcasting complex algorithms that overload the computers…even the explanations of the origin of the spinning goop crosses the bridge from supernatural horror to something akin to science-fiction, but it does so effortlessly and without seams, making this tale a mixture of a horrific conspiracy theory and apocalyptic prophecy that would impress Erich von Daniken. The performances are convincing and, when necessary, horrifically chilling; you have your recognizable faces (at least to us ’80s kids) in Jameson Parker, Peter Jason, Dirk Blocker and Thom Bray, but all of the actors fit well together into a solid ensemble cast that is collectively believable, and most importantly, likeable. Particularly impressive were those playing possessed characters being both imposing yet sympathetic; you can give Carpenter some credit for directing them that way, but it takes skill to bring forth such subtlety. Donald Pleasance offers a familiar anchor to the film; although his screen time is limited, he still does what he does and delivers with grace.
Directorially, Carpenter is true to his style, using the shadows and tight spaces well to convey a sense of entrapment and hopelessness, but with touches of levity; just as in real life. There’s not a ridiculous amount of gore, but Carpenter chooses his effects very wisely, conspiring with the foreboding atmosphere he cultivates to create imagery that is patently terrifying and absolutely memorable. Also, as is true of the lion’s share of his films, his synthesizer score complements the film perfectly; the resounding bass adds to the feeling of dread and makes the idea of some multi-dimensional invader hovering at the threshhold of our world all the more prescient.
This flick tackles everything; science, religion, the supernatual, time-travel, possession, prophecy, and the end of the world as we know it. It dances with experienced grace across the combined genres of horror, science-fiction, and scientific-surrealism, and blends all of these elements into a film that’s both exciting and terrifying.
It was a masterful bit of filmmaking that I feel has always been understated and underrated. When a film is written well enough to make you relate to and care about its characters in a short time, leading you by the short hairs through their turmoils and terror, all the while executed with powerful imagery and verisimilitude to create an environment that is intellectually provacative and elicits feelings of visceral dread…
…well folks, that’s a pretty damned good horror film; definitely one that I’d recommend.
Prince of Darkness is certainly that.
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