Prince of Darkness (1987)
Before man walked the earth... it slept for centuries. It is evil. It is real. It is awakening.
Year of Release: 1987
Running Time: 102 minutes (1:42)
Director: John Carpenter
Donald Pleasence ... Priest
Jameson Parker ... Brian Marsh
Victor Wong ... Prof. Howard Birack
Lisa Blount ... Catherine Danforth
Dennis Dun ... Walter
Susan Blanchard ... Kelly
Anne Marie Howard ... Susan Cabot
Ann Yen ... Lisa
Ken Wright ... Lomax
Dirk Blocker ... Mullins
Jessie Lawrence Ferguson ... Calder
Peter Jason ... Dr. Paul Leahy
Robert Grasmere ... Frank Wyndham
Alice Cooper ... Street Schizo
This is the seventh in a series of flicks I'm reviewin' in tribute to the ten guys that I feel made the biggest, and in some cases, most important contributions to the Horror genre, and this time we're gonna take a moment to appreciate the guy who invented the modern slasher flick, proved remakes can surpass the works upon which they're based, and managed to finagle a good acting performance out of a pro wrestler in the years preceding Dwayne Johnson. 'Course we're talkin' about an obscure, rising talent who goes by the name of John Carpenter. Maybe you've heard of 'im.
When a group of graduate students and scientists discover an ancient canister containing an evil-looking liquid in an abandoned church, all hell breaks loose. Shortly after the discovery, the liquid seems to come alive, generating an evil energy that systematically turns members of the group into zombies. But even worse, it releases Satan, thus paving the way for the return of his father - the all-powerful Anti-God.
Prince of Darkness, remindin' us that trappin' your son in a jar for seven million years as part of an elaborate dead man's switch is probably not gonna earn you a "World's Best Dad" mug.
And speakin' of worm canisters best left unopened, I usually don't give a rip about politics unless we're in an election year and there's a reality TV star on the ballot, but the city council's gone too far this time.
If I could be serious here for a minute, I just wanna say that I've always tried to be a good citizen - anytime I get a summons for jury duty I stop to think about all the old farts whose calendars're wide open up to their 60th high school reunions and I ALWAYS find a way to excuse myself in order to give them an outlet for their chronic loneliness. When the church folks come into the Videodome lookin' for the latest Kirk Cameron releases I'm the first guy there to provide helpful directions to the location of the nearest Walmart discount bin. And if ever there's a 6/10 or higher lady too sauced to drive herself home from The Gutter Bowl on league night I selflessly offer taxi service in the name of public safety.
I only bring these things up 'cause I want ya to understand that under normal circumstances I'm not the kinda guy who fires up a crowd with the intent to instill fear in the hearts of public servants, and that the less than tactful language I used at last night's gathering was spoken in the heat of the moment when it'd become apparent that we were starin' down the possibility of accepting minor change. I don't want anyone dyin' of prolonged exposure to bureaucracy so I'll just focus on the highlights, but basically, it happened like this.
"We will now take public comment regarding the removal of the monkey bars from the playground of Chickawalka Elementary," Clem Glignit droned.
I would also like to point out that I respectfully raised my hand and waited to be recognized in accordance with the rules of decorum passed down by the Chickawalkian framers who honorably and politely instructed the tribe for whom our county is named to "beat cheeks" before anything unpleasant occurred.
"Esteemed councilors, would you mind explaining your conflicting positions on the subject of gender-affirming care and playground safety?" I asked.
"Come again?" Abel Pankins replied, pretendin' to dig somethin' out of his ear in an obvious attempt to play dumb.
"Excuse me, I'll try speakin' more plainly for the benefit of anyone who may've left the public education system before they could become acquainted with the very playground equipment they seek to uproot. I just wanna know why you're spearheadin' an effort to cut the nuts offa every boy in school when your previous voting record shows such a disdain for gender reassignment surgery," I clarified.
It took ten minutes to reestablish order in the council chamber and they prolly woulda tossed me out on my contrarian can right then and there if I hadn't been flanked by Billy Hilliard and Duke Tankersley, and even then Duke hadda confiscate a folding chair from Talon Higgle and instill a little respect for the legislative process directly into his forehead.
"Order! Order! Shut the heck up, the lot of ya! Billy Hilliard, I see you! Don't you even think about it! You put him down this instant!" Chuck Maxwell demanded just before Billy could put Zeke Ewert through the refreshment table.
"He bih me," Billy grumbled, dumpin' Zeke on his disability-collectin' hinder.
"Zeke, you will keep your dentures to yourself or I will have you removed from this meeting," Velma Voss threatened.
Zeke folded his arms across his chest and spat out a chunka Billy's Monsters of Rock '88 tour t-shirt.
"Explain yourself young man, but make it quick," Clem instructed, plainly P.O.'d but not yet prepared to flush democracy down the dumper.
"It's like this - everything I know, I learned at the drive-in and the playground; includin' how to be a man," I began, puttin' on my best Perry Manson expression. Or lack of expression, now that I think about it.
"Lemme guess, you're tryna stop the kids from chicken fightin', right?" I asked, bringing the real issue into the open.
"That's right. It's dangerous," Nan Barnabus confirmed, clearly pleased at the prospect of destroying something I held dear.
"Wouldja get a load of this chick? Wants to cancel the playground equipment," I scoffed, generating multiple approving grunts from the beer belly section.
"If you have a point..." Chuck spat.
"Hey, Val, you 'member that time we went at it back in '79?" I hollered at Val Winthrop, who by this point looked like he was workin' out the specifics of how to disappear every member of the council without drawin' suspicion.
"Yep. Dropped you like 3rd period Algebra as I recall," Val grinned.
"I still feel that woodchip in my hinder every time I sit on a bleacher. But you helped toughen me up, and I thank you for it," I nodded.
Val nodded back and returned to his plotting.
"What about you, Willie? You were the biggest joke in Mrs. Gow's 4th Grade class till you got fed up and challenged Cy Skogerboe at lunch and squeezed his guts till his ribs cracked like an engine block in a snowcone factory. Nobody screwed with ya after that though, did they?" I queried.
"Sure didn't. That's how I caught this young lady's eye, too, if memory serves," Willie Forsythe chuckled, grabbin' Marsha's knee and takin' a playful swat in retaliation.
"They say it's dangerous. Well, I say it builds character," I challenged, the male portion of the audience now clearly behind me roaring their approval.
"Heck, you all remember that time Buck McGurk had ahold of Scooter Schatz and ended up landin' on his head after losin' his grip - didn't hurt 'im a bit. Remember that, Buck?" I asked.
"...no. What'n heck're you talk--" he puzzled momentarily before I was forced to make a minor course correction.
"What a kidder! He holds the record on the Q*Bert machine at The Gutter Bowl, ya know. Very together individual," I recovered.
"THEY think your kids're cream puffs. Poor little guys're already on their heels battlin' the scourge of preteen iPhone zombosis - do we really wanna take away these boys' best means of fightin' off wimpdom?" I appealed.
"Hell no!" Duke barked.
"Let 'em be kids for cripes sake!" Asa Morton agreed.
"I fell on my head?!" Buck shrieked, becoming increasingly alarmed.
"Come on, they can't take 'em if we get there first! 'Sides, I got a score to settle with you, Forsythe. I ain't that 10-year-old with a two-pack-a-day habit anymore," Cy snarled.
"Bring it on, skank bait," Willie chuckled.
So off we went to protect the monkey bars of our ancestral playground. I have no idea what we thought we were gonna do when we got there beins even the shortest of us were now a foot and a half too tall to chicken fight anymore, but all thoughts of relivin' past glories evaporated the moment we reached our destination and saw it - or rather, didn't see it.
Those scumbags on the council had already snuck in there like thieves in the night and stole our monkey bars like they were no better'n a confederate monument, and BEFORE they'd even taken a vote. I haven't seen that many grown men cry since Chastity Dollarhide announced she was cuttin' 'er schedule back to part-time at Walleye's Topless Dancin' & Bait Shop. I'm tellin' ya, it was a pretty sorry sight to behold.
They haven't heard the last of us though, not by a long shot. I've been in talks with Skunky Hernandez and he says that if we can uncover the location of the missing equipment he'll make room for it at the Grime Time between the horseshoe pit and the catfish pond, and I'm optimistic that we'll be able to recover that information without havin' to do anything morally questionable. I'm 99% positive there'll be no need to reenact the razorblade scene from Reservoir Dogs, and even if it did come to that we'd never do it without sterilizin' the razor first. We're not animals, after all.
We spent the next hour seein' who could jump outta the swings the farthest but it just wasn't the same. We prolly woulda quit and gone home around 10 even if we hadn't hadda stop to take Opie Boehm to the emergency room after he crotched 'imself on one of the legs of that big yellow spider tryna beat Maurice Fowler's distance record, but by the time we dropped Opie off and let his wife know what'd happened Billy, Duke, and I were all pretty well convinced that the city council was under the influence of demonic forces tryna subvert the will of the people, and so we grabbed a coupla dozen heat lamp burritos from the Jiffy Mart and went to work studyin' the modus operandi of Satan via the John Carpenter classic - Prince of Darkness.
As Carpenter flicks go this one has one of the more complicated plots, and so we hadda watch it a coupla times before we understood that Satan's daddy'd locked 'im up in a pneumatic tube cylinder so that he could bring 'im back to life seven million years in the future in the event that Jesus came down from outer space and killed 'im for makin' too many of those movies of the week where a guy sells his soul and regrets it. Once you understand that it's pretty easy to follow, though, and educational to boot, so I'ma take a second to share my notes real quick and then I promise I'll shut up and move on to the good stuff.
First, you can swap spit from across the room, but you prolly won't get a second date. Second, you don't hafta enter the X-Games to die on a bicycle. And third, if the ultimate evil has taken the form of a gooey green liquid trapped inside an ancient tupperware container, Judgment Day will almost certainly kick off inside the refrigerator of a college dormitory.
The movie begins with a priest shufflin' off the mortal coil to go to an exit interview with the boss, only after he kicks off he's found clutchin' a key that leads into an ancient temple beneath an abandoned church where a secret sect of sacrosanctimonious Spaniards've hidden a mason jar containing a swirling, demonic kale smoothie in an effort to stave off the forthcoming Vegan uprising. The key eventually comes into the possession of Donald Pleasence after all the other priests are found to have scheduling conflicts due to ongoing legal proceedings, and when Donald discovers the unholy guacamole mixer he realizes he's gonna need a bigger tortilla chip and cons Victor Wong into abusin' his tenure at the local college to round up the best and brightest minds he can find who're willin' to work for extra credit and Domino's Pizza delivery. Victor was plannin' to achieve zen and ascend to a higher plane of existence over the weekend but Donald just looks so pitiful that he puts it off and assembles the "-ology" squad - we're talkin' theologists, microbiologists, radiologists, gastroenterologists, phrenologists, and the criminally underutilized glopolaologists, and they all go to work wheelin' in enough science stuff to open a Radio Shack without takin' much notice of either Alice Cooper's army of zombie hobos massin' outside or the creepy crawlies comin' up outta the earth seeking religious enlightenment.
Things go pretty well until one of the dorks tries to leave and Alice hasta ram a seatless Schwinn through his chest for lookin' like the kinda guy who'd vote to gut the mental healthcare industry. Nobody notices though 'cause the gal translatin' the Necronomiconquistadorian grimoire (Lisa) calls a meetin' to tell everyone that the book says Satan's papa stuffed 'im into the jar like a pickled beet and buried 'im in the Middle East hopin' he'd eventually be released by Arabs diggin' an oil well. 'Course Super Satan didn't count on Jesus comin' down to Earth in a green energy powered flyin' saucer and diggin' it up to warn everyone which led to things gettin' a little dicey until a buncha geocentric buttholes got P.O.'d and hung Jesus out to dry for bein' a know-it-all foreigner tryna tell 'em what to do. Fortunately Jesus' disciples got ahold of the sin can when it was all over and spent the next 2000 years drawin' straws to see who hasta stand guard over the slime capsule in hopes that someday science'll figure out how to handle the situation. It's like those weirdos who pay to keep their heads in the freezer next to the Eskimo Pies until science discovers a cure for hopeless optimism. Meanwhile, a radiologist (Susan) is workin' on carbon datin' the Beelzetub and next thing ya know the juice gets loose and she takes a blast of supernatural Surge to the face and gets turned into a zombie. This isn't as conspicuous as it sounds 'cause the team consists primarily of sleep-deprived college students functioning entirely on Jolt Cola and hash brownies, and so Susan's able to swivel the head of this pork golem (Mullins) all the way around for gettin' too close to the swirlin' vial of pea soup without drawin' much attention.
Then another stupid Atheist (Frank) decides to take the incomplete and ends up gettin' a pair of scissors jammed into his neck 17 times by a demon-possessed bag lady while he's distracted by a colony of stink beetles tryna climb into his Fruit of the Looms to improve the air quality index. Donald, meanwhile, is just a little P.O.'d that nobody bothered to tell 'im Jesus was a space alien and that he really didn't give a rip about whether or not his followers were gettin' nookie on the side, but he keeps his cool and tells Victor not to worry about the shot-on-video dream sequences that keep bombardin' his brain when he nods off 'cause that apparently happens to everyone who naps on the premises before clarifyin' that God sometimes works in mysterious ways that occasionally involve guerilla filmmaking practices. Then Susan climbs on toppa Lisa and backwashes some ghoul drool onto 'er face so she can go make like Jack Torrance and doomscribe repeating cryptic warnings on 'er Amiga 1000 before crammin' 'er tongue down the throat of the microbiologist (Calder) to pass on a few new specimens. Next thing, Susan and Lisa wheel the keg of swine brine around like airline stewardesses with a cocktail cart until they find this gal asleep on a cot (Kelly) and pump 'er fulla Hell-o Yello till she's retainin' more water than the Hoover Dam. Suddenly nobody's all that interested in the scientific method anymore, and the remaining researchers bolt for the exits only to find Alice and the entranced transients have barricaded the doors with shoppin' carts and other hobo essentials.
The survivors scatter like teenagers at a bonfire bust, but now the Ghoul-Aid chuggers seem content to stand vigil over Kelly while 'er life essence gets flushed out with demonic Drano and 'er complexion begins takin' on a Smuckers-like quality until finally she sits up and starts psychokinesersizin' 'er new parietal powers and launchin' furniture around the room until she notices this dweeb in the closet (Walter) spyin' on 'er and sends 'er shower-headed succubi to hose 'im down. Fortunately, Victor and what remains of his ill-fated field trippers have been tunnelin' through the wall and help Walter break on through to the other side, only he ends up draggin' Lisa with 'im and the kids hafta back drop 'er out of a second story window before she can convert 'em with 'er sacrilegious saliva. But while that's goin' on, Kelly heads into the room where Donald's been hidin' out regrettin' applyin' to the seminary and uses a mirror to open a doorway to the bottom of Lake Michigan where demon daddy's been waitin' seven million years for his ungrateful kid to toss 'im a line. I don't wanna ruin the ending(s) so I'll just shut my yap right here, but it probably goes without saying that Donald wants no part of a performance review that focuses on his allowin' the forces of darkness to retake the Earth, so don't count him out just yet.
Alrighty, well, ya can hardly go wrong combinin' quantum mechanics, religious revisionism, and Alice Cooper rammin' a Schwinn through the gutbucket of a nerd listenin' to Prince of Darkness on a Sony Walkman, can ya? This was Carpenter's triumphant return to independent filmmaking after directing The Thing, Christine, and Big Trouble in Little China and gettin' tired of executives hangin' out on the set askin' stupid questions like "John, are you sure we need to turn that poor dog inside out?" and "John, the expense account can't handle your $93 a day cigarette habit, could you please try to cut back a little?" After a while crap like that starts takin' a toll on the creative process and next thing ya know you're makin' a PG-rated Science Fiction/Romance picture about an alien tryna get nookie and home in that order, so it prolly goes without sayin' that he got outta there just in time. 'Course by this point we were movin' into the late '80s and Carpenter felt the genre was becoming stale and that the market had become saturated with pictures that were just rehashing the same old themes, and so he decided to make Jesus an alien and trap the devil in a sacramental Tupperware container.
The fascinating thing to me about Carpenter is that, despite being the most talented of all the directors to work in the genre during its peak, just about all of his best titles underperformed at the box office. Halloween basically blew the hinges off the bank vault, but if you look at the profit margins on most of his subsequent titles, studios would have been better off making mediocre Friday the 13th clones from a purely monetary point of view. And we're talkin' beloved, classic titles that grace the top ten lists of horror geeks everywhere - The Thing, They Live, The Fog, In the Mouth of Madness, and Christine. I don't mean to imply that they *lost* money because they all turned a profit (except Big Trouble in Little China), but it's astounding that more of his titles didn't do the same kinda business that Halloween I & II did given that most of those films are on par, and in some cases, superior. Carpenter's movies, with the exception of the Halloween flicks, all seem to have earned their places in horror history and found an audience through the home video market and late-night cable airings, and it's bizarre to me that word of mouth didn't help these flicks explode in popularity during their theatrical runs. Film audiences at the time trusted him to put on a good show, but he didn't really achieve the status he deserved until a decade or so after he'd stopped making consistent classics, and while you could argue that the '80s were simply rife with amazing movies of all budgets and genres, I really would have expected him to be enshrined as the Spielberg of horror - free to pick and choose projects at his discretion, and left alone to make them as he saw fit. I guess that's why none of the studios ever call up to ask my opinion on which scripts to green light, though.
I spoze he'll just hafta be content with the unending stream of residuals from the Halloween franchise and the adulation of his millions of fans, and it's probably time that I hopped down offa my soap box and got down to the nitty anyway, so let's pop the top on this snot drum and inspect the potency of Mammon's mucus.
The plot certainly achieves Carpenter's goal of makin' something different and original, but it's the kinda flick where you don't dare get up to shake the dew off the lily or you're gonna lose track of the proceedins pretty quickly, so when it looks like they're settin' up an exposition scene you'd do well to put the crunchy Doritos down and pay attention. The revisionist Christian history is fun, and the idea of the Anti-God and anti-everything-else existing in conjunction with our physical world a la matter/anti-matter is a concept decidedly more complex and unique than what we're accustomed to getting when we sit down to watch the slime fly, and as a result, Prince of Darkness is probably one of Carpenter's more divisive movies in the sense that there's a whole lotta theoretical quantum physics gettin' in the way of the decapitation scenes. Actually, when you think about it, it's kinda like what Night of the Demons could have been if anyone had bothered to write a plot for it.
The acting is a little weaker than you'd expect from a film made by one of the masters of horror, and the reason is that there're just too many characters for a story like this. I understand the desire to make the McSlurry investigation appear organized and professional, but it comes at the expense of character development and feels like a Friday the 13th flick where the supporting cast is intentionally beefed up strictly to reach an allotted number of kills. Among the supporting cast, you could remove any three from the list of Etchison, Frank, Mullins, Calder, Lomax, and Leahy and still have enough people to do all the key scenes and produce a respectable body count, while also opening up an opportunity to expand upon the Brian and Catherine characters. The only three characters that are sufficiently fleshed out are those of Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, and Dennis Dun, who give great performances but just can't quite handle the lift needed to carry the weight of the excessive cast size, and it's also worth noting that those three actors had their roles written specifically for them. Unfortunately, the chemistry between Parker and Blount is definitely lacking, although again, I would partially attribute this to just how little time they're on screen as the second and fourth billed characters due to all the digressions the story takes in dealing with such a large cast.
The special effects aren't up to the standards of The Thing, but there's still a satisfying amount of gooey skin meltage to satisfy the folks who tune in to find out whether all the time these poor people spent in the makeup chair was worthwhile. The first thing that comes to mind with Prince of Darkness is the swirling canister of sewer runoff, and though it doesn't look like the kinda thing that'd be difficult to make, it is literally a character in the movie, and achieving the proper appearance was absolutely critical. It's the kinda thing that would really hurt the movie if you didn't get it right, but thankfully, they nailed it. We also get some good-lookin' facial appliances on Susan Blanchard and Robert Grasmere, excellent putrefying demon arms, a nice decapitation, a dodgy dummy spurting demonic vital fluids, impressive scabby arm flesh, and the amusing, if absurd, bicycle impalement. The mirror sequences were achieved by draining the mercury out of a crane the crew had rented for the shoot and passing a prosthetic arm through it, and although you could argue that they probably shouldn't have done it and that they lost a little by having to use a fake arm to interact with it, it's pretty effective and looks great.
The shooting locations, sets, and production design are phenomenal, with a fantastic underground altar and matching decorum that might possibly be the best location Carpenter ever shot. The abandoned church was an actual disused church in Los Angeles that looks out of the way, but was actually located only a couple blocks from the Los Angeles City Hall; though the underground section of the building was filmed elsewhere at a deserted ballroom in the process of crumbling into ruin. I don't mean to sound hyperbolic, but when you're dealing with a film that has such an unusual plot, the audience's suspension of disbelief becomes increasingly tenuous to the point that something as minor as a set (albeit a very important one) could destroy a film's mystique if it comes across as silly in the face of demonic apocalypse. So, while it would be extreme to say that a set saved the movie, it could be said that the set walked a razor's edge and kept the audience believing in a premise that's way out in left field. The floor sets above ground were actually filmed in the church, while the classroom sequences were shot at Carpenter's alma mater (USC), and although the secondary locations suit their purpose adequately it's that subterranean altar that'll stick with you long after seeing the film.
The soundtrack is another high point exquisitely composed, as usual, by Carpenter himself. It bears some resemblance to the score Ennio Morricone did for Carpenter on The Thing, and has little snatches of similarity to Carpenter's own score for They Live, though that's not surprising given that all three rely primarily on synthesizers. The choral bits combined with the synthesizers make for a haunting atmosphere, and Carpenter's skill as a composer is such that it legitimately rivals his talents as a director - evidenced by his name appearing no less than seven times on my list of the Top 100 Horror Movie Soundtracks of the 1980s (with Prince of Darkness sitting at #50). Some might say that the soundtrack is a little repetitive and that's probably fair, but at the same time, it's so catchy and suits the mood of the film so well that it not only doesn't feel redundant, but its reemergence is welcomed by the viewer every time it strikes up. Of all his compositions he'll always be best known for his iconic, attention-grabbing Halloween theme, but as a composer of music that lurks beneath the surface in a support capacity, Carpenter is second to none, and this score is no exception. Also, though it appears only briefly and doesn't really add much to the picture, Alice Cooper's "Prince of Darkness" is awesome, and checks in at #30 on my Top 100 Greatest Horror Movie Rock Songs of the '80s list.
Overall, Prince of Darkness is another juggernaut on the man's resume, and it's all the more impressive when you consider a flick this good ranks as only the fourth best in his body of work. I'd rate it as being slightly beneath Halloween, but farther removed from the incomparable They Live, and his untouchable masterpiece - The Thing. Had the cast been a little smaller and allowed for more time to focus on the central characters I think it would have edged Halloween and taken the #3 spot, but ultimately I'm nitpicking at minor problems that, if adjusted, would have taken a very good flick and propelled it to greatness. Small potatoes in the grand scheme, and that one complaint should not cause even a moment's hesitation for anyone considering whether or not to see it, because you should. Right now.