The second entry in John Carpenter‘s “Apocalypse Trilogy”- after The Thing and before In the Mouth of Madness – Prince of Darkness is a chilling film set in Los Angeles. Following the death of a priest, a nun alerts her superior, the Priest (Donald Pleasance), that the dead man was set to meet with His Eminence about something. All this dead man had in his possession was a notebook informing the living Priest about two key clues: the existence of a hidden order known as the Brotherhood of Sleep and the purpose of this sect to guard something located in an abandoned church basement. Upon discovering what it is that is hidden in the 1500s catacomb basement built under this church, the priest knows he needs help. Thus, he alerts his friend and non-believer Professor Birack (Victor Wong) about what is in the building and what the dead priest told him. Birack then recruits a group of his graduate students and a few other science departments to help the priest determine how to stop what will happen, whatever that may be.
As they quickly decipher a diary kept up by the guardian Priests, they learn that this massive container of liquid goo is more than meets the eye. A text near the tube contains both written and erased text relating to the contents of the tube. Within this mystical and otherworldly container is Satan himself, contained imprisoned by his father in the time before man had walked the Earth. Now, as the dead priest had learned, Satan is ready to return and walk the Earth again to rescue his father from another dimension. As one can easily imagine from reading this, Prince of Darkness is quite imaginative and most certainly insane. Shattering the foundation of faith, even referencing Jesus as a human-like extraterrestrial who came to Earth to warn humanity about Satan with the Roman Catholic Church knowing and hiding this fact, Prince of Darkness is a wild film. In the hands of a lesser director, it would have likely been a mess and far too cheesy. Under the stewardship of John Carpenter, however, Prince of Darkness is a horror masterpiece.
It is hard to put into words what I love so much about Prince of Darkness because it is simply too much. Carpenter hits on the right note with all of the character interactions, capturing an easy, breezy lifestyle for the students. They initiate romances, they crack jokes, and they are all exceedingly normal. This is pretty much academia summed up, as these characters just approach the issue before them without knowing where it will take them, and applying every ounce of knowledge they have towards finding some way to prevent Satan from returning to life. As their studies reveal more information about the tube and the history behind it, Carpenter easily weaves in exposition and development of Satan’s capabilities, seamlessly building up the insane strength of his being and history. By the time he shows up in the body of one of the students and slowly possesses them, the film becomes quite chilling. But, Carpenter has wisely left some of the details regarding his plan and even his capabilities unmentioned. In essence, he arms the audience with just enough to know without ever pausing to deliver an exposition dump; in fact, the information given is often quite scary and terrifying in and of itself. As the true gravity of the situation becomes clear and in this balance between what we know and what we do not know, Prince of Darkness proves incredibly terrifying.
However, what so often proves the most frightening is largely unrelated to Satan or the events going on within this old home. Instead, it is in the slow build-up to getting the characters in this church and in the details that surround them throughout. As Professor Birack steps out of class and sees both the moon and sun in the sky, it is somewhat freaky, especially with Carpenter’s creepy score looming in the background. With each repeated shot as the moon gets closer and closer to the sun in the sky, it only proves even more subtly menacing. With scenes of “street people”, including a schizophrenic played by Alice Cooper, walking about as though they were in a trance towards the church, shots of bugs or ants just building up in size, and shots of worms latching onto the church windows, the film builds up a series of odd events that superbly set the tone for the insanity within. Carpenter delivers on this build-up to great effect, with slasher-esque sequences blending with indulgences in body horror and the fantastical to become effective horror. The presence carried by the Satan character even as he simply sits, chuckling at terrified mortals, is hard to quantify, possessing a truly soul-trembling quality.
What takes Prince of Darkness from being a scary and great horror film to one of my absolute favorites comes whenever the characters sleep. It is a shared “dream”, one of a broadcast-quality vision of the front of the church. Warning the viewer that this is not a dream, but rather a recording of future events, the camera pans right alongside the front of the church before coming to gate opening. In the doorway of the church, a dark figure looms ominously before the transmission cuts. It is a harrowing image, one played throughout the film right up to the end, and one that adds another layer of meaning to the film. The scene itself is incredibly ominous, set in a post-apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles while playing with the idea of whether or not the events are truly changeable. Are these characters and this world doomed to be dumped into a pit of fire?
John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is a daringly imaginative film, one that, as he states, takes the idea of religion and blends it with concepts of matter and antimatter. Combined with chilling special effects, terrifying dream sequences, and an opportunity to stare right into the face of pure evil, Prince of Darkness proves not only thought-provoking but also a horrifying portrayal of the world that could await us. As humanity careens towards an uncertain future, Carpenter presents the possibility that all we think we know about our world is only surface-level. As with science, our logic and belief in “order” collapses once put it under a microscopic at the subatomic level. As Professor Birack says, our concept of “order” is vastly different than we ever could have imagined.