Prince of Darkness
John Carpenter’s wounded retreat from the traumas of big studio moviemaking saw its first fruit in this cult curio. Not as legendary as his subsequent They Live! but also very influential in its own scrappy way, as well as being very influenced in its own right (most particularly, and self-confessedly on Carpenter’s part, by Nigel Kneale). Prince of Darkness is also less satisfying than They Live! although its ancient astronauts take still produces several highly memorable moments. Mostly, the movie’s shortcomings are down to the execution, but that’s not because it’s cheap per se. Rather, Carpenter failed to surround himself with the level of talented key players that made his low-budget outings in the previous decade so enduring.
Chief offender is DP Gary B Kibbe, who would become a fixture for the remainder of the director’s career, two features aside. However much you can still point to signature, trademark Carpenter motifs – the building score, the intercut action threads (it takes a whole ten minutes to get to the director’s title), the roving Steadicam – the key element of those classic Dean Cundey lensed pictures has gone: atmosphere. Kibbe’s lighting is flat and lifeless, and this is reinforced by a largely weak cast unable make much of frequently abysmal dialogue. The result is that, as intermittently effective as it is, Prince of Darkness also often seems plain amateurish.
On the plus side, there’s old pro Donald Pleasance (his last collaboration with the director) and Victor Wong (who had recently scored as Egg Shen in Big Trouble in Little China). But you also have Jameson Parker boasting a ’70s porn tache as wooden lead Brian, attempting to woo Lisa Bount’s Catherine. There’s Dennis Dun (also returning from Big Trouble) playing a wise-ass jerk, and failures-to-register such as Susan Blanchard, Anne Howard and Ann Yen. Jesse Lawrence Ferguson provides some suitably disconcerting possessed laughter, though. And Peter Jason is good, giving an impression of what this might have been, had it been populated with the same calibre of talent as, say The Thing.
Not helping the performances any is that nothing about these PhD students is remotely believable. Dun’s Walter even asks at one point “Why do I want a PhD in this?” They appear to require basic physics theory explained, be it tachyons or Schrodinger’s Cat. It’s as if Carpenter has no idea what a PhD is. The hallmark of the best of these haunted-house investigator templates is that the characters give the impression of being skilled (The Stone Tape). And if they aren’t skilled, they’re at least interesting (The Haunting, The Legend of Hell House). Instead, it often feels as if Carpenter purposely and perversely wants Prince of Darkness to seem as much like a cheapo, churned-out slasher flick as possible.
Indeed, I remember Alan Jones in Starburst eviscerating the picture with a 1/10. I also recall reading that Kneale was none-too impressed by Carpenter’s homage (the director previously called on Kneale to pen Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which was then rewritten by director Tommy Lee Wallace, with the gore and violence upped; Kneale took his name off it). Prince of Darkness is written by “Martin Quatermass” (Carpenter), and the students attend Kneale University. The ancient astronauts concept itself is a riff on the puck alien/demons in Quatermass and the Pit (although, this is also a device in Childhood’s End, from the same decade).
Carpenter concocts a heady blend of science, religion, extra-terrestrials, quantum mechanics and anti-matter, in which the anti-god – “bringing darkness instead of light” – buried a cylinder containing his son Satan in the Middle East millions of years ago. Jesus was an extra-terrestrial, and the Church kept the cylinder secret until science was sufficiently advanced that Satan could be combatted. These are really the briefest of footnotes, as Carpenter isn’t interested in fleshing things out. Probably for the best.
But the concept is really less Kneale than it is Pyramids of Mars, the 1975 Doctor Who story; an imprisoned extra-terrestrial god of evil is given to possessing his minions in a base under siege setting. Just with Alice Cooper impaling scientists on a bicycle rather than robot mummies crushing poachers. And, inevitably, a liberal dose of Lovecraft. For all that I’m never very impressed by the performances or some of the general thematic content – the homeless possessed thing is weak-sauce commentary, as is the AIDS-transmission metaphor – Prince of Darkness still boasts some truly iconic elements that ensure it can’t just be dismissed out of hand.
The messages on the computer screen, from “I Live” to the sarcastic warning That “You will not be saved by the god Plutonium. In fact, YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED!” are both amusing and unnerving (almost Sam Raimi-esque; how much better would Prince of Darkness have been with Bruce Campbell sporting that porn tache?) The mirror concept is marvellously envisaged on a budget, first as Kelly tries to make contact with dad through a compact (she can prise only two fingers through) and then a full length one. The satanic visual recalls Ridley Scott’s considerably more expensive (except in script) Legend, and the “What’s on the other side?” idea would later feature in Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil.
Best of all, though, is the transmission from 1999 that punctuates the picture, visualised as a crappy home video recording but comprising the dream image portent of what may happen “for the purpose of causality violation” (a dream anyone in the vicinity of the church experiences, hence the moniker the Brotherhood of Sleep). Catherine, thrown into the beyond, is, we discover, alive in 1999, but possessed. So the attempts in 1987 didn’t work (the figure in the church has changed, so it may be there’s a different possessed). DJ Shadow memorably sampled the message on Changeling/Transmission 1 on his debut Entroducing…..
Such elements may be small potatoes, but they represent the kind of material that makes for a resonant movie. You can take or leave the invasive bugs, the decapitations, the pregnant slime woman and the De Palma jump-scare ending. And the fact that there are occasions in Prince of Darkness when you wonder if you might not be watching a Zucker Brothers version of the same movie isn’t the greatest endorsement. This is a very average movie blessed with a really strong core concept, and one that leaves you with the strong feeling that any hope is hopeless, making it a small comfort in current times. As the middle instalment of Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, it’s decidedly the weakest of them, but Prince of Darkness is still head and shoulders above most of his work during the next decade.