‘Prince Of Darkness’: An Underrated Entry In Filmmaker’s Canon


The Plot:

Science can be scary but religion is scarier. When a group theorist, a scientist, a professor and a preacher are drawn to a desolate church that holds the unholy key to the dark side, the misguided members must band together to stop the one they call the “Prince of Darkness” or the world they take for granted might be taken from them. But the dark one is building an army of his own, and he’s holding a job fair from hell. The closer the Prince gets to crossing over from his world to ours, the farther our league of unlikely heroes gets to absolving the evil for good. Talking about theories of good and evil and right and wrong is one thing, facing what you fear most is something else entirely. Welcome to Prince of Darkness.

The Review:

When I was growing up, Halloween was my life. John Carpenter’s immortal film changed my life in profound ways when I first saw it around at the age of eight or nine. I had been watching movies my whole life, even being that young, but I never knew a film could do what Carpenter’s 1978 classic does to the viewer’s sense. How a film could use pictures, sounds, and the art of editing to make you feel something to the core of your being. From then on, I was hooked on all things Halloween and devoured any horror film I could find like a vulture picking dead prey from a black-top road on a hot summer day. I bought all of Carpenters films as well; I was obsessed with his filmmaking abilities. I eventually made my way to his 1987 film Prince of Darkness on DVD. I recall enjoying the picture, but not being in love with the film. It certainly wasn’t one of my favorites from Carpenter’s oeuvre. But someone must have thrown the movie a ladder because it’s been rising up the list with every viewing. So let’s all put our hand on the good book, tirelessly look for the radiologist with glasses, and have strangely-cryptic dreams as I review the 1987 John Carpenter tale, Prince of Darkness.

Anyone ever tell you you could pass for Asian? -Walter

The Direction:

John Carpenter directs Prince of Darkness with the confidence only a master of their craft can achieve. Carpenter, who displayed his god-like talents in masterworks such as 1976’s vastly underrated buddy cop/criminal thriller Assault on Precinct 13, 1982’s amazingly bleak paranoia-driven The Thing, and 1978’s atmospheric masterpiece Halloween, is playing with the same kind of fire that he did on his most beloved classic. It was a tasty visual treat to see the filmmaker, who had a rough time in the studio system after he made jump from the indies to the “big” time, return to his independent roots and utilize that freedom to the fullest effect. While Carpenter did a solid job writing the religious-driven piece, he also knocked the directorial aspects out of the cinematic ballpark.

As the film opens, it’s entirely obvious that the film is well directed. In fact, the first act of the film is the most accomplished in terms of camera work and overall direction. This is due to the filmmaker wanting to achieve what he does best: build palpable atmosphere with smooth gliding shots while one of his impressive scores helps mold the mood. Unlike many of his most revered films, with credits first and the score performing the same storytelling action, Prince of Darkness has shots spliced with the opening credit sequence. Carpenter knew he had a meaty, uncharacteristically fast, third act to hammer out. While third acts should mostly be fast paced, Prince of Darkness’s has a briskly fun third act.

Great camera work in the film include a handful of sweeping shots, which more often than not were really present in the opening, and a lot of tracking shots that would start on one principle image and glide to another. The camera work is impressive and it’s always so exhilarating to be in the hands of a true visionary filmmaker.

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One shot in particular in the film, which had me leaping for the remote to take the film back in time like Marty Mcfly, is a slow master push-in. Most filmmakers, ones not thinking inside the camera, will use a master as they were taught to. You do the master, and then you get the coverage. Not for a true master, ironically. With Prince of Darkness, Carpenter sets up a beautiful master, and then pushes in the moment star Donald Pleasence begins to deliver pertinent dialogue. The camera lingers for a second before the simultaneous push/dialogue delivery, and when it happens, it’s breathtaking.

The Script:

John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness script is unlike anything the master filmmaker has made before or since. Written under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass (using aliases is something Carpenter is often known to do) the script works on many successful levels.

Much like his 1988 film They Live, which he adapted from a Ray Nelson short story under the name Frank Armitage, Prince of Darkness is bursting at the seams with rich complex ideas. Whereas They Live was about the threat of consumerism and becoming a mindless media zealot, Prince of Darkness is mainly about the existence of God and his hairy scary counterpart: the super devil. Carpenter asks his audience to reflect on the spiritual battles between the forces of good and evil, and what it is to be a morally aware human being. How do we know we are even alive and what possesses us to feel so confidence in our own existence. More than that, how do we judge the possibilities of powerful forces based off our own beliefs of our being sentient humans beings?

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Then there is the narrative itself. The script is stuffed with a lot of exposition, such as the concepts discussed above. And while this would usually kill all pacing and story momentum, Carpenter splices scenes of weighty-theory exposition with scenes that begin to feverishly move the plot. While some characters are mulling over the possibility of the existence of true, other characters are simultaneously meeting their fate and helping to move the prince closer on this church-based chessboard. The result is something only a grand storyteller could achieve.

There are a few moments in the film that come off a little hammy, but it’s not entirely unsuccessful. My problems were with the shared dream stuff and its accompanying audio. I don’t want to go into it too much, I hate reviews that spoil the film for viewers, but I’ll say some aspects of these story points could have been ironed out a little more by Carpenter. Some parts of the sequence are unneeded and others were a little silly.

The Acting:

The acting in Prince of Darkness is a little uneven, but not overly distracting. Donald Pleasence is great as the aging priest at the end of his religious rope. Pleasence adds a lot of class to the picture and fans of his turn in Halloween will really enjoy his performance as it’s very Dr. Loomis inspired: almost as if Carpenter told him to “just do what you did in 78 again.” As a man of a different medicine this time, I relished in the veteran’s acting. His best moment in the film was the push-in master that I mentioned above. It was brilliantly chilling.

Then there is protagonist Brian Marsh, played by Jameson Parker. What I found most effective about the performance is how understated it is. Marsh isn’t a man of big faith, unless you’re a hot little red head, and he takes much convincing of the realistic parallels of God and the prince’s presence fully realized. Actor Parker doesn’t overplay the emotions, constantly holding back when the holy water hits the fan.

Lastly, there is crackerjack kid Dennis Dun. Marking the second collaboration with the filmmaker, the first being Big Trouble in Little China staring opposite Carpenter favorite Kurt Russell, Dun is explosive in the film. What makes Dun’s turn as Walter so interesting is his use of comedy to defuse the terror. While not a staple of Carpenter’s work, there are a lot of comedic moments in the film due to Walter’s outlook on the situation. It doesn’t really affect the tone of the picture, the comedy never veers into disrespectful territory to the main narrative, and this is due to it being a character trait. Walter is a true smart ass and I enjoyed Dun’s performance immensely.

The Verdict:

Prince of Darkness is a magnificently directed picture, one that is vastly underrated in the filmmaker’s canon. While the script isn’t unfocused in the least, it does veer into the cheesy at times. All in all, it’s still one great, highly atmospheric film made by a true visionary. I highly recommend the film to any Carpenter buffs or anyone looking for an original, idea driven, spook pic. Deadites, you’ve been informed.

The Grade: B-

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