IN SELECTED CINEMAS: 26th October
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: 29th October [Steelbook], 26th November [standard edition], from STUDIOCANAL
RUNNING TIME: 102 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A priest dies and leaves a diary and a casket containing a key. Father Loomis reads the diary and after visiting a deserted church in Los Angeles discovers a large glass tube containing some kind of green swirling liquid locked away. He invites quantum physics Professor Howard Birack and his students to join him in investigating this strange thing. They decipher text found next to the cylinder which describes the liquid as the corporeal embodiment of Satan. Members of the group exposed to the liquid become possessed by it and attack the others, while leaving the church is also a problem because of the growing mass of enthralled schizophrenic homeless people who surround the building.…
Unlike The Fog, this is one John Carpenter film that I hadn’t watched for some time. The middle film in Carpenter’s loosely connected [though they all deal with the fear of infection, an interesting notion as the AIDS scare was happening around the same time] Apocalypse Trilogy, it clearly suffers from being sandwiched there between two of the man’s best ever works, The Thing and the still under-appreciated In The Mouth Of Sadness [I guess that those two films and Halloween form the Carpenter Holy Trinity, though I have such a great love for Dark Star too], its distinct inferiority to those great films being very apparent. Taken on its own, it’s a very thematically interesting picture that, considering that Carpenter calls himself Martin Quatermass in the screenplay credit, is essentially Carpenter’s tribute to the writer of the Quatermass serials and other fine TV works like The Stone Tape, mingling certain elements from Kneale material [especially Quatermass And The Pit with its discovery of ancient evil and the rebirth of the Devil] with a bit of rehashing from Carpenter’s own work especially Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing. It really doesn’t hang together at all, and one could say that the lofty ideas and initially sober approach are cheapened by the conventional horror stuff which is sometimes very well done but almost seems to come from a different film. But there’s still a lot to fascinate and chill.
The genesis of the project came from Carpenter’s some time producer and co-writer Debra Hill dreaming that she saw a vague dark figure exiting a church which filled her with dread, and Carpenter’s researching of theoretical physics and atomic theory, It saw Carpenter go back to independent filmmaking after the box office failure of Big Trouble In Little China and frustration with working with the studios. The first of a two-picture [the other being They Live] deal with Alive Pictures, where he was allocated $3 million for each film and complete creative control, Prince Of Darkness was shot in Los Angeles, California in just thirty days with wide-angle lenses, which when combined with the anamorphic format created some distortion in the image. Executive producer Shep Gordon was also manager to Alice Cooper who hung around the set and ended up being in the film, writing a song for it, and allowing a pretend impaling device from his stage show to be used for a murder scene. Carpenter himself provided the disembodied voice that narrates each dream. Prince of Darkness was poorly received critically upon release and a commercial failure, but like the majority of Carpenter’s work soon became a cult favourite. A US TV re-edit suggested that everything in the film is just a dream, while the second UK video release cut 41 seconds to get a ‘15’ rating.
The opening credits of this movie go on for ages, groups of them interrupted for periods of great length by material introducing the revelation of the green liquid and some of the characters, notably Professor Birack who’s seen talking to his class about quantum physics some of which I’m sorry to say went over my head, and students Brian and the considerably younger Catherine who unsurprisingly [I bet Tom Atkins was disappointed at not getting the part of Brian] end up in bed almost immediately even though Brian seems oddly creepy at first. Unfortunately we have to put with some very below-par dialogue not limited to but especially involving these two [example:”Why do I want a Ph.D. in this?” “Particle beam weapons, research grants”, “A millionaire when I’m forty! Now I remember!”. With stuff like this, one almost feels like fast forwarding to the good bits, but fortunately that Carpenter suspense does soon begin in earnest, aided immensely by his scoring which is present throughout most of the movie, the hugely ominous synthesiser riff being virtually another character in it. Carpenter’s music may be extremely simple, but rarely has it ever been so effective,sometimes powering up, sometimes just lingering, and even helping to bind together some of the more random cutting from scene to scene where John doesn’t quite appear to be working at the peak of his powers.
There’s a lot of pseudo-science to get through but also some enticing concepts that I wanted to hear more about. I love big crazy ideas that play around with religious beliefs, and here’s a doozy revealed in the old text that our boffins translate: Jesus was an extra-terrestrial while Evil aka The Devil was subdued and buried in a hidden place to become the biggest secret of the Catholic Church which opted to pretend that Evil was just a concept rather than a corporeal being. And there’s also Evil’s father, the Anti-God, whom Evil may just want to try to bring into this world. Unfortunately, the film chooses to cut away from the scene that starts to tell us all this and then re-visits it when we just hear the last few words. Still, we get other fine notions like everyone having the same dream, a hazy broadcast from the future which serves as a warning if they don’t act quickly. Carpenter created these sequences by first shooting them with a video camera then re-photographed them on a TV set which gave the image a weird feeling that also appeared as if it was being filmed live. And a real feeling of a forthcoming apocalypse is somehow conjured up even if the only evidence we see for some time are the lead-up to an eclipse, a few eerie happenings like bugs suddenly appearing, and possessed homeless people who are quite unnerving the way they often just stand there, though if the film were made today you’ll probably get loads of moaning minnies saying how it cruelly exploits folk who have nowhere to live as figures of fear.
Eventually the liquid finds its way into someone’s mouth and is then passed from person to person, turning them into robot-like killers. There’s a lot of grizzly and tense fun here, such as the sequence when one of the possessed females disappears from a corridor to re-appear out of focus behind somebody’s back, or when another one loses an arm and is then beheaded. The arm grows back and as for the head – well, she just picks it up and puts it back on. My favourite bit of grizzly business is one that’s just seen at a distance through a window as bugs quickly devour something. Some of the best effective moments in Carpenter’s films seem to be ones that are seen from far away, the fact that the camera doesn’t zoom in or cut closer somehow making them more disturbing, as if we ourselves are watching for real and can’t do a damn thing about it. This film also has an unsettling variant on The Shining‘s classic typewriter scene, but unfortunately you do also get a few goofy moments like an early kill by Alice Cooper which is just funny the way it’s done, Cooper making an odd expression on his face and the victim then suddenly falling down with a bleeding face. And it’s a little disappointing that, instead of a battle between science and the supernatural, or the rational world and the subatomic world, we just get good being possessed by evil yet again. While this film is never a bad one and was definitely underrated at the time, I can’t help but think that its first part brings up expectations that aren’t really fulfilled, as if Carpenter suddenly realised half way through writing his script that what he was coming up wouldn’t be done justice by the budget he was probably going to get so he decided to simplify matters. On the other hand, I was quite moved by a climactic self sacrifice which shows that the story was still working for me at that point.
In fact, aside from some of the stuff that some people have to say, the human side of things is rather good. Donald Pleasance is mostly restricted to being very worried, but of course he does it with great conviction and his interaction with the equally good Victor Wong is terrific. Dennis Dun is the rare case of comedy relief that actually works because he is genuinely funny, likable, and doesn’t ruin the dark mood. Prince Of Darkness was the first of the films in which Gary B. Kibbe was Carpenter’s cinematographer of choice. His work here doesn’t quite match Cundey’s, but there are some fine compositions and use of colour, particularly green which at one point bathes two characters as if they were in an early Mario Bava film. There are also some beautiful shots of the tube of liquid on an altar with lots of candles and even some scientific equipment laid out before it. Though somewhat off-balance and unsatisfying on a conceptual level, there’s still a lot of good stuff in Prince Of Darkness and Carpenter does manage to pack in a decent number of interesting ideas, while the Carpenter style is well in evidence. And the final scare may not just be a cheap thrill and might be cleverer than it at first seems. Remember that we never see all of the message from the future, but perhaps we now do, and maybe it could never have been prevented.
The 4k restoration of Prince Of Darkness is showing in selected UK cinemas on October 26th this Friday and you find out where here: johncarpenter4k.co.uk
And then on October 29th, it’s released on Blu-ray as a 2-disc Steelbook, and then as a 2-disc standard edition on November 26th.
*Malevolent: Unearthing John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness: A brand retrospective documentary produced by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures and featuring interviews with Cinematographer Gary Kibbe, actor Peter Jason, actor Alice Cooper, composer Alan Howarth, script supervisor Sandy King, visual effects supervisor Robert Grasmere, stunt coordinator Jeff Imada, Carpenter biographer John Muir, film historian C. Courtney Joyner, music historian Daniel Schweiger and Producer Larry Carpenters.
*Intro by John Carpenter – an interview with director John Carpenter originally recorded for a French DVD release in 2003
*Scene Analysis by John Carpenter – Director John Carpenter analyses key scenes from Prince of Darkness, in an interview from 2003
*Audio commentary with John Carpenter and Peter Jason Sympathy for the Devil: Interview with John Carpenter- from 2013
*Horror’s Halloween Hallowed Grounds with Sean Clark – a fun tour of the film’s locations hosted by Sean Clark
*Photo gallery incl. Behind the Scenes