DIRECTED BY: John Carpenter
FEATURING: Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong
PLOT: A priest discovers the essence of evil buried in a vault underneath a Los Angeles church, and a team of professors and grad students set out to study it.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you laid out all the world’s horror movies on a spectrum from utterly surreal to mundane, Prince of Darkness would just barely lie on the strange side of the weird meridian.
COMMENTS: Like a lot of John Carpenter’s later horror movies, Prince of Darkness frequently weaves back and forth across the thin line that separates intriguing from goofy. On the one hand, the idea that quantum physics might take the place of nuclear power as the horror movies’ go-to source of scientific anxiety is exciting. (Other than the rare ambitious item like Crowley/Chemical Wedding, horror hasn’t followed Carpenter’s lead here, preferring genetics as more populist technological boogeyman). At the subatomic level, argues Prince of Darkness‘ sage, Professor Birack, rationality breaks down and the everyday rules of logic don’t apply. Playing off people’s discomfort with physicists’ unnerving message that the foundations of matter and reality are wispy and indeterminate, the script argues that Satan might be hiding out at the subatomic level.
That’s a clever inspiration for a horror film, so it’s a little disappointing to see such notions translate into Lucifer as a glob of glowing green goo trapped in a centrifuge in the Church basement. Recasting the Book of Revelation in science-fictiony terms, Jesus becomes a good alien speaking to the prophets in code to help us ward off future attacks by bad aliens—or something like that. At one point, the computer monitor warns one of the investigating grad students, “You will not be saved by the god Plutonium.”
Actually, if Prince of Darkness had contained more of that type of oracular craziness, it might have passed muster as a campy classic. Instead, the movie mostly abandons the religio-scientific mumbo-jumbo for its second half and ventures into a standard people-trapped-in-a-building-fighting-zombies scenario. The Evil Presence, whatever it is, doesn’t play by constant rules. Sometimes, it possesses people at a distance to do its bidding, as with the homeless people it enslaves and uses to encircle the church. At other times it has to infect hosts by spitting a stream of fluid directly into their mouths, and at yet other moments it kills someone first, then reanimates him to do its bidding. The choice of which method it uses all comes down to whatever most conveniently leads into the next big kill or grossout scene (although the Evil seems to prefer killing males and possessing females via fluid transfer, it’s not a stickler about it). The second half of the movie becomes a bit of a formula exercise in winnowing down the cast, as grad students are gradually sacrificed to the growing evil. Still, a few oddball moments poke through the familiar fabric (i.e. Victor Wong fighting grad-student zombies with a shaken-up Sprite and a chopstick, and a “this is not a dream” dream sequence that’s one of the movie’s better ideas), making Prince a confounding glimpse at a great weird movie that could have been.
Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray “Collectors Edition” of Prince of Darkness makes Universal’s old bare bones DVD edition obsolete (unless you don’t own a Blu player, as Shout! hasn’t released this version on the older format). It includes a commentary by Carpenter, an alternate opening shot for television, and several interviews (including one with rocker Alice Cooper, whose role in the film is little more than that of an extra with lots of screen time).
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: