For one of John Carpenter’s most financially successful films of his mythic 80s run of films, Prince of Darkness sure feels like a lost film. Sandwiched unfavorably in between the release of Carpenter favorites Big Trouble in Little China and They Live and picked apart by critics upon its initial release, Prince of Darkness rarely gets discussed with the same frequency that even Carpenter’s second-stringers are (such as fellow “Apocalypse Trilogy” film In the Mouth of Madness). While it’s decidedly not at the same quality level of the first entry in the Apocalypse Trilogy The Thing and lacks the following of most of Carpenter’s other work from the era, Prince of Darkness does possess some master-class frights, a chilling atmosphere, and an intriguing mythos it sometimes doesn’t know how to handle.
The plot: When an ancient chamber below a dilapidated California church is discovered by a priest (Donald Pleasence),a graduate research team under the tutelage of Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) is dispatched to investigate the site, and the strange glowing green canister within. The team soon learns that the canister holds the incorporeal form of the devil himself, and that he’s something far stranger than they ever imagined. Taking possession of members of the research crew one by one, the Prince of Darkness sets about releasing something far more sinister back onto Earth, unless the ever-dwindling number of grad students and priests can stop him.
Right off the bat, the factors that contribute to Prince of Darkness‘s tepid reputation present themselves. The plot unfolds slowly, and is done so by characters that are largely unlikeable. Donald Pleasence and Victor Wong (one of two actors making a return from Big Trouble in Little China) are obvious bright-spots as Carpenter regulars bringing life to stock characters, but the team of grad student researchers don’t leave much of an impression. It doesn’t help matters that Jameson Parker’s de facto leading man Brian Marsh is both unlikeable and uninteresting. Aside from creepily (and, alas, successfully) hitting on Lisa Blount’s slightly more interesting co-lead Catherine, there’s not a whole lot of interior life to this guy. Dennis Dun, the movie’s second Big Trouble alum, makes for a more obvious lead, possessing an actual sense of humor and an iota more backstory (he was supposed to have a hot date instead of accidentally helping revive Satan), but instead serves as solid comic relief. This lack of charisma leads to faceless conversations filled with science-jargon inadequately anchoring the creepy imagery and uneasy atmosphere Carpenter otherwise builds. Here, it’s fair to compare Prince of Darkness to The Thing, which anchored a similarly deliberate, jargon-packed beginning with some of Carpenter’s best and most memorable characters. Luckily, Carpenter gets the ball rolling with frights early and doesn’t let up.
Prince of Darkness combines elements of the zombie movie, possession movie, haunted house story, and most unexpectedly, a lot of Lovecraftian sci-fi. Carpenter peppers the film with unsettling perversions of religious iconography and the looming threat of a legion of the possessed homeless (led by Alice Cooper in a cameo, no less) before the devil lets loose and his victims start rotting into piles of insects. Carpenter crafts some great scares in Prince of Darkness, and as the ratio of unpossessed to possessed tips in the wrong direction, the film gets ever more claustrophobic and tense; the walls of the church pressing ever more upon the characters and their psyches. This atmosphere is aided and abetted by one of the director’s signature electronic scores which measure among his best. Prince of Darkness is unique in its Lovecraft style in that the cosmic, perspective-shifting realization is reached at about the halfway point as opposed to towards the end, and the characters are tasked with trying to stem the tide (or at least delay the tide) of the coming apocalypse. The problem is that the short timeframe Prince of Darkness has to explain its complex mythology is that it does so inelegantly, making it hard to follow. Spoiler The devil (and Jesus) are a great deal older and from a great deal further away than we realized, says Prince of Darkness, and just as Jesus is the son of a benevolent god, the devil is the son of his powerful opposite number. End spoiler Carpenter undoubtedly came up with one of his coolest ideas in Prince of Darkness, but didn’t have the right vehicle to fully realize it.
While perhaps it’s a grossly overindulged statement at this point, Prince of Darkness feels like it would work much better as a miniseries. The somewhat sprawling ensemble cast of scientists, scholars, and clergymen and the dense world-reshaping mythos Carpenter presents would be better suited by a format that gives characters and plot a little more room to breath. We don’t have that miniseries, but we do have a too-often overlooked film. Prince of Darkness is Carpenter stretching out into more narratively complex work, and the result is fascinating and frequently scary. Fans of Carpenter would be doing themselves a favor to check out this flawed but compelling entry in the director’s canon.