CULT CORNER: Prince of Darkness (1987)

Rod revisits one of John Carpenter’s most undervalued efforts. It’s going to be biblical. 

Who made it?: John Carpenter (Director/Writer), Larry J. Franco (Producer), Alive Films.

Who’s in it?: Donald Pleasance, Jameson Parker, Victor Wong, Lisa Blount, Dennis Dun, Alice Cooper.

Tagline: “Where are you…? Christ?”

IMDb rating: 6.7/10.

John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness always manages to pull me in and maintain my attention each and every time. I don’t remember how many times I’ve seen it over the years. It’s strange to think that one of the reasons this film came to be is due to the undeserved box office failure of Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986), something the director is no stranger to considering a similar thing happened earlier in his career with The Thing (1982), and he went on to direct a smaller-budgeted film in the form of Stephen King adaptation Christine (1983).

Carpenter is surely one of my filmmaking inspirations. Whenever you see a single frame from one of his films, you know exactly who the director is, and that’s how strong his style is, and how he can present and execute that style effectively. John is a director who likes to work with a lot of the same people on multiple projects. A few of these regulars are involved in this project, like Donald Pleasence, who worked with him on Halloween (1978) and Escape from New York (1981), as well as Victor Wong and Dennis Dun, who were both previously in Big Trouble in Little China. It’s the first Carpenter film that Peter Jason worked on, too, an actor who would later be in They Live (1988), In the Mouth of Madness (1994), Escape from L.A. (1996), and Ghosts of Mars (2001).

Prince of Darkness is about a strange green liquid contained in a massive cylindrical container that has been kept a secret by the Brotherhood of Sleep, a religious sect of Catholicism, in the basement of an abandoned church. Until recently, it was the responsibility of an elderly priest who dies at the beginning of the film. Another priest played by Pleasence carries on this burden and he asks his friend, Professor Birack (Wong), to help him study the mysterious liquid and decipher a book that explains everything about it. The Professor is a scientist, philosopher and teacher who brings his physics graduate students to help with the investigation. These students include Brian (Jameson Parker), who is our blonde-haired and moustached main protagonist, and Catherine (Lisa Blount), a redhead and Brian’s love interest. There’s also Walter (Dun), who dreams of becoming a millionaire by the age of forty, Dr. Paul Leahy (Jason), Kelly (Susan Blanchard), Susan (Anne Marie Howard), the latter being a very-married radiologist with glasses, and Lisa, who Walter has an interest in and who also interprets the text of the book from the basement. Not to mention Lomax, Mullins, Calder, Frank Wyndham, and Etchinson. Everyone begins to have the same dream about some kind of visual and audio message being sent from the then-future year of 1999, warning us about an apocalypse to come, and it shows them a dark figure emerging from the same church they’re actually inside.

Strange phenomena has been going on in the form of homeless people residing near the church beginning to act oddly, becoming emotionless vessels that seem as if they’re under the influence of someone (or something) else. The main homeless character is played by musician Alice Cooper, who actually allowed for the use of his stage show impaling device, and in this film, it was in the form of the noted bicycle kill. Not only are these homeless people being affected, but it’s also apparent that things are getting weird, which is all leading to something big, and the green liquid is at the very heart of everything. So, what is the green liquid? It’s actually the anti-christ, whose father – Satan – was imprisoned. It needs to convert itself into physical form, and this is where those who get possessed come into the picture. The chosen one ends up being Kelly after she bumps her elbow whilst in the presence of the green stuff, causing a weird symbol to form as a bruise. She fully absorbs the liquid which eventually turns her into the physical embodiment of the anti-christ. It seeks to free Satan through a large mirror, which is very much inline with the theme of things having their polar-opposite.

Professor Birack says in the film, “Suppose what your faith has said is essentially correct. Suppose there is a universal mind controlling everything, a god willing the behavior of every subatomic particle. Well, every particle has an anti-particle, its mirror image, its negative side. Maybe this universal mind resides in the mirror image instead of in our universe as we wanted to believe. Maybe he’s anti-god, bringing darkness instead of light.” Essentially, everything in the world around us has its opposite, such as hot versus cold, up versus down, good versus evil, hope versus despair, and it’s the same with humanity itself, which has creative versus destructive personalities and actions. The universal mind Professor Birack mentions could be considered an entity that has immense power and influence, with its opposite also possessing immense power and influence, too, except with the intention to create negative outcomes upon those it enacts its will.

For those who might be concerned that the religious aspects of Prince of Darkness are preachy, or an attempt in some way to convert people, it’s definitely not a propaganda piece. One of the themes of the film includes truth and lies, since what religion has preached over the years turns out to be a lie that was then sold to those who wanted to hear it. The actual truth has been a secret that can be denied to the world no longer. Jesus is mentioned but is revealed to have been from a human-like race, and not actually human as the bible preaches. The book that Lisa is translating explains all of this, and it makes for a very intriguing element of the film. My favourite moment of her translation is when she has become possessed and types on the computer screen: “You will not be saved by the holy ghost. You will not be saved by the god Plutonium. In fact, YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED!”

A great quote by Carpenter, which ties into what this film is about, and is an excellent way of describing evil in many horror films, is from the 2002 documentary Masters of Horror:

“If you imagine we’re all sitting around a campfire in the old days, and the medicine man is standing there, and we’re a tribe, and he says ‘Let me tell you where the evil is. It’s out there beyond the darkness, it’s the others, it’s the other tribe, it’s the beast in the woods.’ That’s the evil…that’s one story, the evil from outside. Same situation we’re in a circle around a campfire, the medicine man, the holy man, stands up and says ‘I’ll tell you where evil is it’s right in here, it’s in our human hearts, it’s in us.’ That’s evil on the inside.”

Halloween was partly an exploration of that evil within our hearts, personified by Michael Myers. Films like Night of the Living Dead (1968) are about a force of evil in the form of the undead, monsters on the outside wanting to get in, and films like The Evil Dead (1981) are about a malevolent presence that want to get inside the characters themselves, therefore being about possession. Prince of Darkness is like a combination of these films because you have the evil influence of the green liquid manipulating the homeless as if they’re possessed, and the main characters are inside a location they become trapped in because of those outside. They also have to deal with their own who become possessed as the film unfolds.

Once again, Carpenter delivers a very moody, atmospheric, chilling, and also very catchy synth score for this film. I would rate it highly amongst other great compositions of his, both alone and in collaboration with Alan Howarth. I can hear some familiar sounds during parts of the score for this film, reminding me of Big Trouble in Little China, which was made the year before. At the beginning, the music is used beautifully with the way the opening was edited, as it switches between shots of a scene being shown and the opening titles, really drawing you into the mood of the picture. Ultimately, Carpenter’s score is a vital element of the film and adds to the bleak tone and aesthetics extremely well, a staple of many of his films.

In order to sum up what kind of horror film Prince of Darkness is, I would classify it is as a scientific, religious and supernatural tale, with possession and slasher elements all rolled into one. Wow. You have the scientists trying to figure out an explanation, the priest trying to make sense of the truth in the face of what he has come to believe, the whole situation with the green stuff being supernatural in nature, and there’s killings like you’d see in slasher flicks such as the director’s own Halloween. At the end of the day, Prince of Darkness delivers a classic John Carpenter-style film, and I never got bored or felt that there’s anything dull in it, which is a testament to how talented Carpenter is at telling stories that captivate. With time, it just might become one of your favourite Carpenter films, too.

Best Scene

Classic Carpenter.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • This is the second film in what John Carpenter calls his Apocalypse Trilogy. The others are The Thing  and In the Mouth of Madness.
  • The recurring dream was shot on video and filmed off of a television screen.
  • The audio of the “broadcasts” that Brian receives in his dreams was sampled by Marilyn Manson in the song “Down in the Park” originally performed by Gary Numan. It is also sampled on DJ Shadow’s album Endtroducing…
  • Carpenter is credited for writing as “Martin Quatermass.” The pseudonym is a homage to Professor Bernard Quatermass, the lead character of The Quatermass Experiment (1953) and several subsequent TV series and film versions. In the original press notes, he was described as “the brother of Professor Bernard Quatermass, head of the British rocket programme.” In a further nod to Carpenter’s influences, the character Wyndham is named after science fiction author John Wyndham and Anne Howard’s  is named after the star of The Wasp Woman (1959), Susan Cabot.

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Rod Petrie

Gamer since 1988 at the age of five. First system was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Favourite retro systems - NES, SNES, N64, MegaDrive, PS1, and PS2.

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